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History

The journey of an old-time ‘City’ pool hustler

Written By: Ryan Miday

This story was originally published by the Call & Post in three parts beginning November 20, 2013.

 Mayor Carl Stokes, CSU Library

“One of our best pool players is here tonight,” Mayor Carl Stokes announced during a council meeting, as he nodded to “City,” who sat amongst the citizens in attendance.

Alexander “City” Bryant would occasionally drive down to Cleveland City Council meetings on Mondays. He didn’t have a 9 to 5 job. He didn’t even vote. But he had known the mayor since 1939, when they took boxing lessons, at 12-years-old, from Wilfred “Whiz Bang” Carter at the Portland-Outhwaite Recreation Center (POC).

The mayor wasn’t the only person City knew at 601 Lakeside Avenue. He knew council members Charlie Carr and James H. Bell and former council member Jean Murrell Capers. His relationship with Capers and Carr dated back to City growing up on E. 59th Street.

James Bell, Cleveland Councilman Ward 11
1968, CSU Library

Carr dated City’s aunt, and Jean Capers’ husband, who was a good pool player, worked at the Call & Post, while young City was a newsboy selling papers for five cents in the 1930s.

Years later, City would regularly play Bridge, Pinochle, and Conquian or Coon-Can, as it was called, with Carr and Bell at the smoke shop next to Skippy’s Pool Room at E. 55 St. and Central Avenue.

When Stokes and City grew up, Cleveland was experiencing the Second Great Migration, an influx of Blacks from the south. Between 1940 and 1960, Cleveland’s overall population declined but its black population more than tripled, lending to the opening of restaurants, cafes, grocery stores, and bars in Black communities.

With the bars came poolrooms.

Every neighborhood had one and every kid wanted to be inside.

It was mesmerizing for any kid, who could sneak in, to find a corner and watch the older guys get at each other. The so-called hustlers filled the room with smoke and endless talk, ordering drink after drink, while trying to hustle the next mark who walked in.

City’s pool hustling days spanned from the 1940s through the 1970s. In the poolrooms, he earned the nickname Big City or City, for his constant road travel. Cleveland was the seventh largest U.S. city in 1950, a prosperous industrial city with talented sports teams and a hot national jazz scene. The money attracted out-of-town hustlers.

But hustlers like City, who filled Cleveland’s poolrooms – P.C Owens, Skippy’s, Tiger Brown’s Billiards, Playboy Billiards – were invisible to the mainstream. They were not looking for trophies or headlines. Hustling was about making money, and, with few exceptions, there wasn’t big money in tournaments. Nor could a hustler afford to beat the best players on the front page.

There wasn’t opportunity for Blacks to play in big professional tournaments, anyway. Poolrooms were still largely segregated and Blacks were banned from participating in big national tournaments.

The Jackie Robinson of pool was Cisero Murphy, of Brooklyn. After years of dominating the New York City pool scene, he was finally invited to play in a world event. He won the Burbank World Invitational 14.1 tournament in California, becoming only one of two players ever to win a World Title on their first attempt. It was 1965

Cisero Murphy Mural in Brooklyn

That same year Danny Vegh opened the Hippodrome at 720 Euclid Ave., which eventually established itself as the go-to-destination for the next decade in Cleveland. The Hippodrome held the largest amateur tournament in the country and was widely known for its action.

Danny Vegh recalled when Mayor Stokes would stop in. “The players around the mayor’s table quit to watch him or walked away….I always had my ‘No Gambling’ sign posted.”

 

Cadillac Billiard Parlor – Closed by police
CSU Library


Vegh laughed, as he recalled the mayor being bad for business for a few hours but a priceless advertisement for the Hippodrome.

These days, City’s health is poor. He contracted Chronic Obstructionist Pulmonary Disease (COPD) three years ago. The lung disease severely limited his airflow. The oxygen tank that he is hooked up to is like a ball and chain, limiting his mobility. He gets terribly winded getting off the couch, but even at 86, City has the cagey, raw, engaging personality developed over many years from hustling pool.

City was afflicted as a child with Alopecia, leaving him bald. Kids tormented him by constantly slapping his head. As a result, he hated school and wanted to drop out as early as nine-years-old.

The mistreatment from kids led him to take up boxing lessons in 1939, at the POC, located at 2556 E. 46 Street. At POC, home to some of Cleveland’s best athletes, he trained under Whiz Bang Carter and alongside Cleveland’s most famous boxer, Jimmy Bivins, the light heavyweight champion during WWII.

Carl Stokes, who took lessons from Coach Carter, stuck with it, but City only lasted about seven months, after he felt he’d learned enough to stop them “from slapping my head.”

Carl went on to be mayor; City became a pool hustler, yet they remained friends until Carl died in 1996. “Carl was a good dude – he was one of us, a regular guy,” City said.

*In Part-2 of the series, we will see how Alexander “City” Bryant grew-up to be one of Cleveland’s greatest pool hustlers.

 

Part 2: The Journey of an old-time pool hustler

*In Part-2 of a 3-part series, we see how Alexander “City” Bryant grew-up to be one of Cleveland’s greatest pool hustlers.

Growing Up Fast

City grew up fast. His uncle, Barbershop Percy, taught him to play pool. But it was Philadelphia Red who taught him how to hustle.

Red got to know City at P.C. Owens’ Wolverine poolroom at E. 44 St. and Woodland Ave. Red saw a hustle in City and bet that the 16-year-old, bald-headed-kid could improve his chances of making money. Still too young to be drafted into the war in 1943, City went on the road with Red and never returned to school.

Working poolrooms in Pennsylvania and D.C. wasn’t like delivering papers or collecting numbers. Hustling on the road was rugged. For blacks, it was even rougher. City recalled not being able to find a bathroom designated for blacks in D.C.

Until the Army drafted him in 1946, he was on and off the road. One of the first lessons City learned was dealing with crooked, busted tables. Red told him, after City finished complaining, “Unless you gonna bring the pool table in your back pocket, you better learn how to play anywhere.”

City in Army

Charles, a pool hustler from Canton, gave Alexander Bryant his moniker, City, for the constant travel City was willing to do to earn money.

When City returned to Cleveland from the Army, he reconnected with P.C. Owens, who owned several pool halls. Owens was a sage to countless youngsters and hustlers during the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. He knew as much about pool playing as anyone did in Cleveland.

 

The Craft of the Hustle

Most of the guys, and a few women, whose ego led them to the door of the poolroom, were fly-by-nighters, waiting on 9 to 5 work. And a majority of those who did hang around couldn’t grasp the craft of pool hustling. The craftsmanship, held tightly by the experienced, is passed down to the chosen few; others are able to learn it on their own.

The elite pool hustlers can smell a mark, sniff out danger around the corner, while waiting patiently to lure the opponent in, without ego, over many hours, many games, and many drinks, to appear to just lucky enough to win and walk away with all the money.

Even with the best teacher and extreme dedication, the craft is, by and large, instinctual: the gift of gab, the coordination of an athlete, the ability to adapt.

As good as City was at playing pool, his hustle was better. There were only a few hustlers who ever beat City, and it was an elite group of old-timers from across the country.

Napoleon from D.C. bested him. New York’s Big Country caught him by surprise. Frog from Detroit “beat me like a drum,” said City. Frog, in fact, beat him playing with his left hand. The lesson wasn’t lost on City: perfect a hustle. Frog was the first to show how effective it was to hustle someone with the bait: “I’ll play you with one hand.”

City couldn’t beat Ulysses “Kid” Hogan, but he could hustle him. Hogan was the one Black Cleveland player in those days who regularly won out-of-state tournaments.

True to the hustle, City exploited Hogan’s weakness. Known to drink, if Hogan walked into a pool room half blitzed, City would give one of the pool boys money to buy a half pint of whiskey and slip it to Hogan. After a few drinks, City told him, “Come on Kid, I got ya some.” City beat him like a drum.

Along with City’s reputation for having a good game of pool, he was known for how he carried himself. City’s son, Al, recalled an encounter with an older gentleman who was a John Marshall basketball supporter, when Al was playing on the high school team. He was taken aback when he learned that Al was City’s son. “You cut from a fine cloth, boy,” he said. “I marveled at the way your father played at Playboy’s. I wanted to be like him; he was always dressed immaculately.”

He also told Al that he had even shaved off his hair to mimic City. It was an ironic form of flattery, since it was City’s Alopecia condition of being bald that led him to hate school and ultimately drop out to travel with Philadelphia Red, in 1943. Danny Vegh, who owned the Hippodrome, summed up City’s character: “Whenever City played here, he was always a gentleman.”

One of City’s hustling partners on the road was Chicago’s Leonard “Bugs” Rucker, a legendary One Pocket and bank pool player. As part of the hustle, Bugs didn’t own his own cue stick and neither did City – they both used the worn-down cues sticks from the wall rack.

Leonard “Bugs” Rucker, Circa 1982
One Pocket Haff of Fame 2004
www.josscues.com

Hustling was, at its core, about picking the right opponents, at the right time. Danny Vegh’s son, Tommy, remembered City at the Hippodrome, and paid him in the ultimate hustler’s compliment: “I never saw him make a bad game.”

Next week, in the final chapter of our three-part series about one of Cleveland’s greatest pool hustlers, we find out what became of Alexander “City” Bryant.

 

Part 3: The Journey of an old-time pool hustler

*In the final section of its 3-part series, about one of the area’s most notable pool sharks, the Call and Post examines where Alexander “City” Bryant ranks in the pantheon of Cleveland’s greatest pool hustlers.

The Lure of the Game

Over the four decades of hustling pool, City played alongside the great pool players of Cleveland: Whitey “the Gas Man” Stone, Armond “Herbie Cue” Colangelo, Bo Diddley, Raymond “Dog” Wilson, Miami, Harry Dowell, Billy Stougher, Frank Zumo, Johnny White, Chuck Morgan, and Lavalle Smith. City claimed that Larry Dobby Steele, whom he mentored, was one of Cleveland’s all-time best pool hustlers.

Self-assured and materialistic defined City in his youth. At 26-years-old, he was on top of the world. City was making good money hustling at the well-known poolrooms owned by P.C. Owens, James Riley, and Tiger Brown.

He cemented his reputation as a player’s player, when he entered the rarefied group of Blacks who owned a Cadillac. It was the summer of 1954, and he bought a ‘53 green Cadillac for $5,200. Minimum wage was 75 cents an hour and gas was 29 cents a gallon.

Central Cadillac and House of Wills
Feb 12 1955,  Call & Post

Having money coupled with his charm and intelligence led to City’s fascinating social life. He always had one foot in the poolrooms and after-hour joints, hustling up a living, and another foot in the mainstream, socializing and playing friendly games of pool and craps with people like the mayor and council members, whom he had known from the neighborhood since childhood.

Despite the rugged existence of hustling pool for all those years, the passing of his wife in 2008 was his toughest challenge.

Mayor Stokes had a good game of pool and respected the game. In his autobiography, “Promises of Power,” the mayor boasted that by the time he dropped out of school at 17-years-old, “I was one of the two or three best hustlers in the neighborhood. Pool is a wonderfully competitive game, in some ways a good analogy for political infighting.” The mayor further explained, “It takes a great deal of technical skill, a good eye and a smooth delivery. Beyond that, hustling requires a man to seize quickly upon his opponent’s weakness.”

Mayor Stokes played throughout his life, periodically stopping in poolrooms like the Hippodrome. George Dixon, the owner of Lancer’s Steakhouse, recalled the mayor stopping in at Paul Well’s Billiards to shoot a game.

While mayor, Stokes visited the Ansel Road Golden Age Center and played pool with its residents, in April 1962. The Call & Post captured his visit with the headline: “Pool Shark in His Early Years: Mayor Shows Elders How It’s Done.”

The article’s photograph of the mayor shooting a trick shot behind his back showcased his beloved image: being of and for the people. The mayor’s infectious smile, as he peered at the ball showing off his skills, also reflected his excitement for the game of pool. That same enthusiasm undoubtedly lured many people into believing that they could make a living at playing pool.

 

The Illusion of Winning

Making a decent, steady dollar hustling pool was an illusion. Despite the high of winning money, earning a living at hustling was tough. Every night eventually ends, and the hustler must find a place to lie down. There was no hall of fame for pool hustlers. Newspapers did not cover their achievements. Some became neighborhood legends. Mostly, they melted into the background, alone and broke.

City had been on and off the road hustling pool for decades. He had no sense of financial management; saving money or putting money aside wasn’t part of his repertoire.

His marriage to Gwendolyn Johnson in 1964 settled him down, extending his life beyond reasonable expectation. Their son, Al, was born in 1965. With another mouth to feed, she told him to get a real job. They had their second son in 1971 and a year later he went to work at Ford. For the first seven years, his family finally had steady income.

But life became unstable again. He got laid off in 1979, and got behind on the mortgage.

So City returned to what he knew best: hustling pool. He would leave for several days at a time. His son, Al, recalled his mother’s terrifying worry over how she was going to manage it all. Just when the walls seemed to closing in, City returned home with thousands of dollars to cover the several months in back rent. He managed to keep his family together and his house on E. 146th Street, which he still lives in.

Eventually he was called back to work at Ford, working there until his retirement in 2002, at age 75.

Despite the rugged existence of hustling pool for all those years, the passing of his wife in 2008 was his toughest challenge. What is never talked about in the tales of hustlers is the tougher times that wives had at home. Gwendolyn was married to City for 43 years and kept him and her family intact.

Few ever made a living at pool hustling as long as City did. Most of his peers are long gone. Since his wife passed in 2008, his physical condition has deteriorated, and he complains about memory loss.

He still likes to play cards and chess with his sons and friends. But get him talking about hustling pool, though, and he lightens up, as if he’s reliving those days of racking balls in the poolrooms of Cleveland’s once hotbed of neighborhood action that thrived for so many years.

- End -

 

Notes

Leonard “Bugs” Rucker was one of the greatest one pocket players of all time. The photo of him was taken from Joss Cues website, which has fantastic photos. Please visit the site: http://www.josscues.com/photo_gallery/more_greats/more_greats.html. The best interview of Bugs can be at: http://www.onepocket.org/BugsInterview.htm

 

 

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