NEW YORK — James “Cornbread” Thomas and Joseph “Strokey” Armstrong are sitting in Thomas’ living room and talking about their friend Cisero Murphy, the legendary pool player who made history in 1965 when he became the first and only African-American to win a world billiards tournament.
Thomas, a retired Medicaid specialist for New York state, is 86 and has a memory so sharp he can describe a Willie Mosconi miscue from 60 years ago. He’s a beefy teddy bear with a roaring laugh and a raspy voice that still carries traces of his boyhood in North Carolina. Armstrong, 82, is more laid-back than his buddy. He, too, is from the South, and quick with a laugh. It’s clear they miss the old days. If Murphy were still alive, he’d likely be sitting right here with them, reminiscing.
Thomas tucks his orange-striped shirt into his brown slacks, bounces his cane on the floor and sinks into his well-worn leather sofa. “I met Cisero when I moved to Brooklyn. He lived around the corner from me,” he says, his eyes flickering as though his teen years in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of the borough are playing out in front of him. “He used to stay at my house.”
Armstrong entered the picture a few years later. “I used to go to the poolroom and they were saying, ‘There’s a guy that be up on Fulton, Fulton and Nostrand, named Cisero.’ So I went up there one day and I see him hitting the balls around and somebody says, ‘This guy’s gonna be a world champion.’ And, sure enough, he was.”
We steer the conversation to 1964, one of the years that Murphy was blocked from competing for the world title. At the time, the Billiard Room Proprietors Association of America (BRPAA), which ran the tournament, claimed he didn’t qualify — despite the lack of any codified entry rules. Worse yet, the organization didn’t let him know until shortly before the event began. That’s when Murphy’s friends kicked into action. They woke up a local printer and had picket signs made. “Dirty Pool,” the placards read. “No Negroes Allowed.” “Lily White.”
Within a couple of hours, Thomas and Armstrong — along with members of Brooklyn’s chapter of Congress of Racial Equality, the Brooklyn NAACP and the 125th Street Billiard Players Association — were demonstrating in the rain outside the tournament, which was held at the Commodore Hotel in midtown Manhattan.
“He was supposed to be in [the tournament],” Armstrong says. “And then at the last minute they said you can’t get in it. So we picketed to stop people going in.”
New York newspapers and television stations covered the story, but Murphy still couldn’t play.
Thomas’ smile doesn’t mask the resentment that still lingers. “It was all made up against the black guy,” he says. “That’s all it was, made up against the black guy. He was the only black man that could possibly beat anybody.”
In 1950, Murphy dropped out of Boys High School in Brooklyn. His family was originally from North Carolina, and when his parents divorced, his father, Herbert, returned to the South. His mother, Eva, was left to raise four sons and four daughters on her own with the wages she earned working at a local doughnut factory. The 15-year-old Murphy was fourth in line. Armed with little more than a 10th-grade education, a resourceful mind and a spry, muscular body, he took a job as an auto mechanic and limited his sports activities to nights and weekends.
His son, Cisero Jr., speaks of how his father was a star on the softball field despite standing only 5 feet, 9 inches tall. But softball was merely a Saturday afternoon exercise for the teenager (one that he would continue throughout his life). To his young eyes, the path to riches lay in the boxing ring, so he joined a local gym run by the Police Athletic League. That’s where fate stepped in.
“The gym was only open from 7 to 10 at night,” Murphy told the Los Angeles Times in 1972. “It was so small you had to sign a sheet at the door to get in. You’d spend a couple of minutes on the speed bag and then you’d have to move on to something else. One night I got tired of the shuffling and stepped across the hall to the poolroom.”
As the story goes, a few local guys lured him to the table and beat him soundly. That’s when his competitive instincts took over and he resolved to master the game.
“He didn’t like the humiliation,” Cisero Jr. said over coffee in a Brooklyn cafe. “He vowed to my mother, Janie, that he’d never let it happen again.” (Janie raised Cisero Jr.; she and Murphy never married.)
Murphy ditched the boxing gloves and started studying pool obsessively. His classroom was John’s pool parlor at the corner of Fulton Street and Nostrand Avenue. There, he became such a regular that he was able to strike a deal with the manager. He’d sweep up the place after closing in exchange for free use of a table. There was only one condition: Since he wasn’t paying, the table’s overhead lamp wouldn’t be lit.
It’s impossible to say what effect shooting in the dark had on Murphy’s game, although most players agree it’s as good a reason as any to explain how he developed into an elite competitor. After all, if a player learns to shoot in the shadows, just imagine how much better he’d be when the lights came on.
By all accounts, Murphy was capable of running 200 balls, missing a shot, then running another 200. Remarkably, he would do it with one of the more unusual strokes in billiards history. Simply put, he would come to a dead stop at the back of his stroke. Picture a one- or two-second hiccup that, according to Murphy, allowed him to take a picture of the shot before committing to it. It was so uncommon that billiards fans gave it a name: the “hesitation stroke.”
“People were hearing about Cisero since he was a teenager,” Jay Helfert, a billiards tournament director who refereed some of Murphy’s matches, told The Undefeated. “He was a wunderkind. He won city championships in New York, and there were many, many good players in New York, dozens of them.”
But Murphy knew what he was up against. Many of the great black players of the previous decade — George “Rotation Slim” Hairston, Paul “Detroit Slim” Graham, Ulysses “Kid” Hogan and Alexander “City” Bryant — had won city and state competitions but were excluded from the national tournaments. Even the renowned James Evans, the proprietor of an all-night poolroom in Harlem, was blocked from the big-time tournaments. In Evans’ case, he was light-skinned enough to pass for Native American, which he occasionally did to compete.
Murphy had little choice but to follow the lead of those before him. He kept his day job as a mechanic. But he spent his nights with Thomas and, later, Armstrong, traveling from pool hall to pool hall, hustling.
Thomas lets out one of his laughs, a blustery wheeze that trails off in a high-pitched whistle. He’s talking about being on the road with Murphy and how they made good money hustling. He and Armstrong interrupt each other, explaining how it worked.
“If we couldn’t get all the money we needed out of the other guy, we would beat him [again],” Thomas says. “If we could string him along for more money, we’d do that too. We wouldn’t lose to him. We’d let him get close and think he could beat us.”
Armstrong leans forward and explains it his way: “You do anything that’s necessary to win the money. If you’re playing a guy that’s not as good as you, and you know he can’t beat you, you don’t play hard on him, you lay down for a while. [But] when you get ready to leave town, you play your best, beat everybody, win all the money and get out of there.”
“But Cisero wasn’t suckering anybody,” Thomas says. “These guys knew how to play and they wanted to beat him. Heck, they invited him! When you get a big name like Cisero’s, people want to play you.”
As Murphy’s reputation got around, he outgrew Brooklyn and Harlem and started making trips out of state. He and his pals would be gone for two weeks at a time, sometimes longer, challenging the best players within a day’s drive: Buffalo, New York; Boston; Washington, D.C.; Virginia; Chicago; even Canada.
We ask whether race was ever an issue. After all, they were black guys taking money from whites. Thomas and Armstrong shake their heads with an emphatic no. Inside the pool halls, they say, it was simply gamblers playing other gamblers. No towns were off-limits, not even the “sundown towns” in Illinois, where black people were warned to leave by sundown, where they often showed up at the invitation of the top players in the area.
Of course, they did run into trouble now and then — just like any night crawlers, black or white.
Armstrong remembers it like this: “You go in and win, win and win, and you get ready to leave. But there might be a stickup man in the pool hall watching, and when the game’s over, they take the money from you. So what we would do is, [at the slightest whiff of trouble] we’d call the police, right? And we’d tell ’em someone has a gun. And when the police get to the poolroom, we’d figure out how to get to our car and get outta there.”
When Thomas accompanied Murphy, it was his job to make sure the golden goose made it home in one piece.
“I would see to it that we could leave,” he says. “We wouldn’t hang around or nothing like that. After you beat the best player in the town, you leave. What are you waiting for? You didn’t stick around and wait for something to happen.”
Asked if they carried guns too, Thomas goes silent. But then, in a low voice, he says, “When things got mean, I was prepared.” We wait for more, and he roars, “We got out of there alive!”
How much did Murphy earn hustling? According to Thomas, he “walked away with plenty of money, sometimes five or six thousand dollars.” The stakes were limited only by what the other guy had in his pockets. And they wanted it all.
In the end, though, the money all went to the same place.
“When Cisero came back with the cash,” Thomas says, “Janie would take it all and leave him broke.”
In 1964, there had been a call for African-American athletes to sit out the Summer Olympics as a protest against the injustices suffered by blacks throughout the United States. African-American players in the American Football League boycotted the ’65 All-Star Game in New Orleans amid racial hostility in the host city.
In the world of billiards, the ’64 protest at the Commodore had garnered attention, as did Murphy’s sixth straight Eastern State title. The BRPAA had run out of excuses. Under pressure, the organization invited Murphy to the World Invitational 14.1 Tournament, a straight pool competition to be held at the American Billiard Parlor in Burbank, California, from Jan. 29 to March 6, 1965. It was a standard round-robin format: 21 players, each facing the other once. Every game went to 150 points. The player with the best record would walk away with a grand prize of $3,500.
Murphy was at his best that week. Dressed in a tuxedo, he silently worked his way around the table with no discernible expression on his face, sinking shot after shot — at one point, clearing the table of 15 balls in 45 seconds. Squaring off against some of the best shooters on the planet, he won his first 14 games in a row. According to Mike Shamos of the Billiard Archive, he lost his next three (to Harold Worst, Jack Breit and Luther Lassiter) but regained momentum by beating three-time world champion Irving Crane and staging a comeback against “Cowboy” Jimmy Moore. Going into his final match, he was 16-3. Lassiter had already finished at 16-4.
Murphy had to win his last one. It wouldn’t be easy.
His opponent was Joe “The Butcher” Balsis, a veteran who sportswriter Dave Burgin said could “stare an opponent down as if he were a side of beef.” Despite a 14-5 record in the competition, Balsis was shooting well. Four days earlier, he’d sunk a tournament-record 150 straight balls against Worst. But this was Murphy’s moment. In his final match, Murphy went on a 56-ball run, then followed it with another 67 straight to clear the table. The final score was 150-73.
The 29-year-old from Bed-Stuy had done it. On March 6, 1965, Murphy won the world billiards championship and, in so doing, became the first player of any color to win on his first attempt. Equally important, in winning, he gave the BRPAA no choice but to invite him to its New York tournament that same year. (He finished fourth.) According to billiards historian R.A. Dyer, the invitation to play in New York showed that Murphy had “effectively ended all official race-based barriers to entry in major professional pool tournaments.” Shamos agrees that racial discrimination is no longer a factor in the sport and adds that there have been several competitive African-Americans since Murphy. Still, there has yet to be another black world champion.
After taking the title, Murphy was officially in the upper echelon of players. According to Ebony magazine, he earned $8,000 in 1965 and figured to double that number the following year — and he padded his income by giving exhibitions for $150 a day.
Cisero Jr. still remembers the moment he found out his father had won the title. “I was in third grade. My father went to the same school, so the teachers were following his career. When he won, they came to my classroom, picked me up and took pictures with me. One of them said, ‘This is my black hero’s son.’ I was happy, but I didn’t know what the hell was going on. I mean, they were hugging me and taking pictures with me. My grandmother worked in the lunchroom, and they went down to see her and congratulate her too.”
When we ask Thomas and Armstrong about the tournament, they light up. These are the memories they’ve been waiting to share.
“It felt like the greatest thing in the world,” Armstrong says, remembering the moment he got word that Murphy had won. “A black man! They wouldn’t let him into the tournament, and then he beat everybody. A black man just became the world’s greatest pool player. Now he’s in the record books. Cisero Murphy is the onliest black world champion. I’ll tell you that.”
After all these years, it’s as if they just got the news.
We read them Murphy’s words, a quote he gave to the Los Angeles Times years after winning the title: “I guess that I accomplished in pool what Jackie Robinson did in baseball, Arthur Ashe in tennis and Charlie Sifford in golf. Someone had to do it. But, believe me, I wouldn’t want to go through it again.”
Armstrong is staring into space. We assume he’s thinking about that last line — the part about Murphy not wanting to go through it again. But when he speaks, we realize he has something else on his mind. He’s remembering an early spring day in Brooklyn, 1996.
“The night before, I left the gambling joint. I said to Cisero, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow at the racetrack.’ ” He shakes his head and his voice goes soft. “And the next morning I got up and went outside and a friend of mine met me in the street and he says, ‘Strokey, you heard about Cisero?’ I said, ‘No, what happened?’ He said, ‘Cisero’s dead. He had a heart attack.’ ”
Sure enough, Murphy, at 59, had gone into cardiac arrest while driving his car on Atlantic Avenue.
Thomas stabs his finger in the air. “If you’re writing about Cisero, you’ve gotta say what a nice guy he was.”
We tell him we will. And that we’ll mention how, after becoming famous, Murphy stayed in Brooklyn, married Lillie Rountree and raised a family. We promise to mention Murphy’s brainchild, a program called Billiards in the Streets. Murphy wanted to bring the game into the community, so he packed a pool table into a van and drove it around to all five boroughs, teaching kids and giving free exhibitions at senior centers and veterans hospitals. The New York City Parks Department sponsored the program for more than 20 years until Murphy’s death.
“One of the best people you’d ever want to meet,” Thomas says, shaking his head. “Nice, quiet guy. Very gentle.”
“I celebrated from the minute he won,” Armstrong says. “And I’m still celebrating.”