Minnesota Fats, pool player, hustler, and seriously big man, was born Rudolf Walter Wanderone in Washington Heights, New York City in 1913. His parents Rosa and Rudolf were immigrants from Switzerland who had three daughters and one son. Rudolf the younger (his family called him "Roodle") said that his father was a mercenary who, when he came to the United States, took odd jobs as a blacksmith and plumbing and heating repairman. Roodle left school at 13 and began to pass his time in pool halls, hustling and gambling. He was already overweight as a teenager, and as an adult supported from 250 to 300 pounds on his 5'10" frame. He was known variously as New York Fats, Chicago Fats, or just Fats. I'll call him Fats.

Fats doesn't seem to have been a great pool player, in spite of his reputation, though it's a little hard to tell, as in his prime he eschewed tournaments or refereed matches, preferring games which relied on clever manoeuvres and defensive play rather than ability to make great shots. Though he was never a top-ranked pool player, he was by all accounts a good hustler, being a compulsive talker who distracted his opponents by bragging and mouthing off. He had a canny eye for advantage, playing for money only when the odds were in his favour, and would coax players into games by offering handicaps that were not as difficult as they appeared. He apparently liked to challenge superior players when they were exhausted after marathon sessions of playing and gambling.

In 1961 the movie The Hustler came out; it featured Jackie Gleason as a pool shark called Minnesota Fats. Fats said that the movie was about him, though the flick really concerned "Fast Eddie" Felson, played by Paul Newman; Gleason's role was a supporting one. Author Walter Tevis insisted until his death that he made the character of Minnesota Fats up, and was annoyed at Fats stealing his character; in the sequel, The Color of Money, the Minnesota Fats character dies early on, and was entirely left out of the movie based on the book.

None of this stopped Fats from exploiting this golden opportunity, first at a one pocket tournament held in Illinois, near where he was living with his wife since 1941, Evaline Inez. The tournament featured underworld hustling heroes with great names like Johnny Irish, Cornbread Red, Handsome Danny, The Knoxville Bear, Boston Shorty, and Tuscaloosa Squirrely, as well as the semi-retired Fats himself. Though the veteran Hubert "Daddy Warbucks" Cokes told reporters at the time, "Don't call him Minnesota Fats. He don't even know where Minnesota is," Fats was identified as such in an article about the tournament which appeared in Sports Illustrated, and his star began to rise.

Though Fats was not the greatest pool player in the world, he was a great entertainer. His eminently quotable boasts included "I outdrew the Pope in Rome, and that ain't even good pool country;" "When I was eight years old, I was a grown man, playin' cards or shootin' pool or chasin' broads;" "I been hustlin' pool since Moby Dick was a guppy;" and "I won the Man of the Year in Industry Award even though I ain't worked a day in my life." His standard retort when asked if he knew any pool or billiard champion was, "Know him? I beat him out of every nickel he ever had." Fats parlayed himself into his own TV show "Celebrity Billiards: Minnesota Fats Hustles the Stars". He published an autobiography (with Tom Fox) in 1966, Minnesota Fats, The Bank Shot and Other Great Robberies, in which he repeated his oft-made claim that he was the best pool player ever and had never lost a game. Willie Mosconi, 15-times World Champion pocket billiards player and the one who actually shot Paul Newman's shots in the movie (Gleason, a good player, did his own), was enraged that Fats claimed he had beat him; he hounded Fats for years to actually play him, and when the two finally met on ABC's Wide World of Sports in 1978, Howard Cosell commentated while Mosconi beat Fats mercilessly.

A few more personal tidbits about Fats: he was an animal lover and kept dozens of cats and dogs at his home. He officially had no children, but the great vocalist Etta James has claimed he may be her father. Evaline divorced Fats in 1985, and in 1994 he married Theresa Bell, a woman fifty years younger than him. Fats died of congestive heart failure in 1996. His epitaph? "Beat everybody living on Earth. Now, St. Peter, rack 'em up."

Lots of this information came from American National Biography

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