Luther Lassiter (November 5, 1918 – October 25, 1988), Luther Clement Lassiter, Jr. and nicknamed Wimpy, was a world-renowned American pool player fromElizabeth City, North Carolina. The winner of six world championships and numerous other titles, Lassiter is most well known for his wizardry in the game of nine-ball at which he is widely considered one of the greatest players in history, if not the greatest. He was inducted into the Billiards Congress of America’s Hall of Fame in 1983. That same year, he was also inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. He was ranked number 9 on the Billiards Digest 50 Greatest Players of the Century.
In his youth, Lassiter showed signs of uncanny hand-eye coordination, both in the areas of pool and baseball. In sandlot baseball games, Lassiter was an ace pitcher. According to his friends, who affectionately referred to him as “Bud,” he was the player everyone wanted on his team. Lassiter’s younger brother, Clarence, spoke of his brother’s ability to pitch: “Coach was always trying to sign him up. You know, Bud could pitch a ball. But by then, pool had caught him and he didn’t care about the athletic end of things. The coach pestered him and pestered him and tried to get him to play, because he had a natural talent for baseball. But he didn’t use it; he was trapped by pool.”
Queried on the subject of his pitching, Lassiter himself said, “Oh, sure, I played some baseball. In fact, it was at some little old ball game that I once ate twelve hot dogs and drank thirteen Cokes and Orange Crushes, and everybody fell to calling me Wimpy” (after the J. Wellington Wimpy character of the Popeye comic strip by the same name who loved to eat hamburgers). So instead of baseball, Lassiter focused on pool, developing his game at City Billiards in Elizabeth City. The owner of the pool room there, a man named Speedy Ives, allowed Lassiter to enter through the back door and to shoot whenever he wanted as long as Lassiter cleaned the floors and swept the pool tables.
As a young man, Lassiter became afflicted with a condition which he termed “the swolls”; it would follow him throughout his life. This was a condition in which Lassiter’s lips would puff up and become red and swollen when an attractive member of the opposite sex approached him with affection. This peculiarity first appeared in the early 1940s when Lassiter was in Norfolk, Virginia.
Minnesota Fats remembered his friend’s condition well: “[Lassiter's] lips would be all puffed up and at first I thought it was from wiping off the lipstick. But there was nothing he could do about it, so he finally gave up on tomatoes across the board by remaining a bachelor. Evelyn told Wimpy he should fall in love and get married, but Wimpy would always say, ‘Bless you, Mrs. Wanderone, but I’m already in love – I’m in love with pool.’ And he really was.”
During the early 1940s, following his discharge from the Coast Guard, Lassiter’s main running buddy was Rudolph Walter Wanderone, best known as Minnesota Fats. Their town of preference was Norfolk, Virginia, which was known at the time as the highest-rolling place for pool hustlers, card players, and gamblers in general. During these years, Lassiter became the “undisputed king” of the pool hustlers, reportedly winning over $300,000 from gambling on pool games between 1942 and 1948 (including $15,000 in a single week). He often accepted “money games” involving extraordinary sums, often around $1,000 a game. It was during this time that he developed his confidence and skill necessary to begin competing on the professional level with the greatest pocket-billiard masters of the day, including Willie Mosconi and Irving Crane.
After the sudden decline of the gambling action in Norfolk around 1948, Lassiter was forced to begin competing professionally in pool tournaments held across the country. His first major tournament was the World Straight Pool Championships in 1953 held in San Francisco’s Downtown Bowl; the player who knocked him out—and who would go on to win the tournament and then the world title—was Willie Mosconi.
It was also during this time that Lassiter formed a partnership with Don Willis, a player who—while never having won any world titles because he never competed in any of the tournaments—had beaten some of pool’s greatest players, including Jimmy Moore, Ralph Greenleaf, and Willie Mosconi, all in straight pool. In 1948, Willis beat Lassiter in nine-ballon Lassiter’s home turf, Elizabeth City; it was Lassiter’s best game. Indeed, Willis’ talent for nine-ball was the primary reason for Lassiter forming a partnership with Willis rather than a rivalry. Together they would go on the road and hustle pool rooms, sometimes winning anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 over a period of several days.
The last “challenge match”
In the nineteenth century and up through the mid 1950s, a common way for world billiards titles to change hands was by a challenge match, meaning a challenge was issued to a championship titleholder accompanied by stake money held by a third party. Lassiter’s successful defense of his title at the World Pocket Billiard Challenge in 1966 against Cisero Murphy was the last title challenge in billiards. At that match Lassiter showed his talent at sharking—that is, performing some act with the intent of distracting the opponent. Reportedly, Murphy was on a great and long run of balls. In response, Lassiter pretended to fall asleep. When Murphy noticed Lassiter sleeping he promptly missed. Lassiter, who was wide awake, jumped out of his chair and ran out the match for the win.
After his official retirement from pool in 1975, Lassiter continued to play in some low-profile tournaments, but due to years of hard living while on the road and marathon gambling sessions that would last into the early hours of the morning, he often was not able to play quite as well as he had in his younger days. Even so, many pool players during those years claim he was still one of the greatest players alive, and a force to be reckoned with on the pool table. Lassiter did come out of retirement, along with many other pool greats, to compete twice in “The Legendary Stars of Pocket Billiards Tournament,” once in January 1982 at Harrah’s Marina Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, and again in 1983, at the Claridge Hotel and Casino, also in Atlantic City. The players who competed in the 1982 tournament were Lassiter, Joe Balsis, Babe Cranfield, Jimmy Moore, U.J. Puckett, Irving Crane, Minnesota Fats, and Willie Mosconi. In 1983, the line-up was the same minus Balsis and Cranfield, and with Jimmy Caras added. These were round-robin tournaments, in which each player would be matched against the others in a single match, with each playing the same number of matches, and receiving a set number of points for each match won. Each match consisted of one seven-ball set, race to four games, one nine-ball set, race to four games, and in the event of a tie, one eight-ball set, best two out of three games. At the 1983 tournament, which was televised on the then-fledgling ESPN network, Luther Lassiter pitched a shutout. He won all six of his matches for 20 points each, amassing a perfect score of 120 points and the first place prize of $10,000. After Lassiter defeated Willie Mosconi to put the exclamation point on the tournament, current WPA World Nine-ball Champion at the time and commentator for the match, Allen Hopkins, remarked to co-commentator Chris Berman, “This is no surprise to me; Wimpy’s a great nine-ball player. I watched him play, and he looked like the young Wimpy, from years back. He played great. The way he played this tournament he could have beat anybody, including [today's players].” After defeating U.J. Puckett earlier in the same tournament, Lassiter said in response to Berman’s praise of his playing, “Well, I’m the youngest and I’m still lucky.”
Luther Lassiter spent his final days practically broke, living alone in the house of his childhood in Elizabeth City, on a pension provided by oil tycoon Walter Davis, who was a lifelong friend of Lassiter’s. When they were children during the Great Depression, Lassiter would give Davis, who came from a poor farming family, a couple of dollars whenever he needed it, which often meant the difference between eating and not eating. Davis never forgot Lassiter’s kindness, and repaid him by taking care of his necessities in his last years. To escape his loneliness, Lassiter would often ride his bicycle a couple of blocks away to his younger brother Clarence’s and his wife, Barbara’s, house, and hang out and play with their two sons.
On October 25, 1988, days before what would have been his 70th birthday, Lassiter died of natural causes in his hometown of Elizabeth City, North Carolina. He was found by his nephew next to his pool table where he had apparently been practicing. Lassiter was interred in New Hollywood Cemetery in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, Pasquotank County. and was survived by two brothers and three sisters.
Clarence’s wife, Barbara, said after his death, “I knew two or three people in my life who I thought would go to heaven – with no doubt – and [Wimpy] was one of them. He treated everybody like they was supposed to be treated.”
“I watch a man shoot pool for an hour. If he misses more than one shot I know I can beat him.”
“The undershirt is the most foolish item in a man’s wardrobe. I shall never wear one again.” – at Johnston City, Illinois, November 1963
“Man is the strangest of all the Lord’s creatures. The trouble with man is he doesn’t know how to live … I’m a pool player, so they ask me, ‘Haven’t you done anything with your life except shoot pool? Haven’t you ever worked?’ I always tell them, ‘Well, no, sir, I can’t say that I’ve ever worked.’ That always gets those rascals, ’cause they always ask, ‘But how have you managed to live?’ Oh, Lawdie, that’s so silly. I tell them, ‘Sir, I live like a tree – 3 percent from the soil and 97 percent from the air.’ You know, that’s true.” – to Tom Fox at McAnn’s Saloon in New York City, 1967, during the World 14.1 Continuous Championship, which he won after defeating Jack “Jersey Red” Breit, with a score of 150-73.
“I don’t know why so many people love to play pool. Might as well ask why a hen lays eggs or a cow stands still while a farmer burglarizes her.”
When another hall of famer, ‘Champagne’ Edwin Kelly was asked who was the toughest player he ever played against, he responded that it depended on the game but that if it was “9-ball, it would have to be Luther Lassiter…Wimpy was the best…He was the best shot-maker that I ever saw.”
Lassiter authored a number of books on the sport including:
- The Modern Guide to Pocket Billiards. Fleet Pub. Corp. (New York, 1964), ISBN 0-8303-0008-2;
- Billiards for Everyone. Grosset & Dunlap (New York, 1965). ISBN 0-448-01519-6.
1962, 1963, 1964, 1967, 1969, Johnston City Nine-ball ChampionTitles
- 1962, 1963, 1964, 1967, 1969, Johnston City World All-Around Champion
- 1962, 1963, 1964, 1970, 1971, Johnston City Straight Pool Champion
- 1969, Johnston City One-Pocket Champion
- 1963, 1964, 1966, 1967, World 14.1 Continuous Champion
- 1971, Stardust All-around Champion
- 1962, 1963, 1964, 1967, World Nine-ball Champion
- 1969, World One-pocket Champion
- 1969, BCA US Open 14.1 Continuous Champion