It must’ve been around 1971 or so. I was at an event of some sort — and for the life of me, I can’t remember what. Maybe it was a Southern Illinois Festival or get-together, but the thing I do remember was that a world-renowned pool player was there. Not just A player, but THE player. His name wasn’t really Minnesota Fats — it was Rudolph Wanderone. It’s been reported that he took the name from the 1961 movie The Hustler, which was disputed by the author of the original book. I don’t know what the true story is, but it doesn’t really matter. The thing I remember most is that he was a bigger-than-life character. In fact, I had never met anyone with such a magnanimous personality. He was surrounded by people gawking at him like he just walked out of a flying saucer. He was, of course, rather rotund and walked and talked constantly. I was young and therefore believed everything he said — and boy, did he say a lot. He said that he stayed up for four days and slept for four days, and had done so for years. He said he knew every celebrity in Hollywood, and beat every pool player on Earth. He said he had given away over five million dollars and owned the most expensive Cadillac in the world. He told me he knew every king and queen in Europe and had dinner with them. He also said he dated every starlet in the movies and made more money than all other pool players combined. My head was spinning with all the things he said that day. I have to admit I was a bit intimidated, but he was actually very kind and offered me an autograph. I was thrilled that he would do that and quickly looked around for some paper. This was my first contact with someone I had seen on TV so naturally I was excited. I finally got a paper and pen and handed them to this notorious fellow. He immediately handed the pen back, saying he didn’t need it. I was a little puzzled, but only for a moment. “Mr. Fats” pulled something out of his jacket pocket and stamped his name on my paper with a small rubber stamp, the kind you re-ink by placing it back in the holder. Maybe I had a funny look on my face, because he quickly stamped it again on my paper. Then he pulled off my baseball cap and stamped his moniker on the side. I was flabbergasted. I thought this guy was going to write something — something I could take to school and brag about. A real life autograph from a real life famous person. And what I got was a mechanical looking name in blue ink. It was made with letters like you’d see in a magazine or style book of fonts. I thanked him and walked away in a bit of a daze. This man spoke in a New York accent and told how famous he was, but all I got was a stamped name that looked like a paid endorsement autograph on a baseball bat.
I suppose that was the first time I got a glimpse of how the world operates. And it doesn’t seem to have changed over the years. Celebrities are celebrated for a reason — and that reason has to do with money. We’ve all heard how the big shot movie producer can make someone into a star, and it doesn’t have much to do with talent. It’s more like you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. In the case of “Mr. Fats,” I believe he was a basically nice guy who was making his way through life the best way he knew how, and I’m just glad he took the time to give a little kid an autograph — and a lesson. It’s all summed up on Mr. Wonderone’s tombstone about himself — “Beat every living creature on Earth. St. Peter, rack ‘em up.” — Fats