No dime-a-game joint, this pool hall!

Baltimore Glimpses

March 23, 1993|By Gilbert Sandler

RICHARD Rosenthal leaned over a billiard table and contemplated the relationship between force and motion. He lovingly touched his cue to the ball. Suddenly, with a quick snap that sounded like lightning cracking, he sent the ball careening two feet forward across the billiard green.

It crashed into the 15 balls hugged together in a triangle and splattered them in a convulsion of motion. The sounds of their clacking died slowly, one by one, until all of the balls came slowly to rest. Mr. Rosenthal waited for that stillness, smiled a nodding approval of his work, and then, in response to the question put to him earlier, said, "The story of billiard playing in this town begins in Klein's. For most of us, Klein's was the Eden in our Genesis. It's where it all began."

To get to Klein's you have to go back to another time and place. You take a wire cage elevator up to the second floor of an old building at Fayette and Hanover, and then you step into that darkened green and mystic world of men and billiards: low lights hanging over green tables; fans high in the ceiling; intent players bending over their tables, deftly working cues to do their bidding; spectators eating and watching glumly; along the walls, long racks of cues, each with a name.

Some of the names are legendary. The most revered of all was Willie Mosconi. Mosconi was, by general consensus, the greatest "pocket" (in billiards, you have to name your game) player who ever lived, and his visit to Klein's on a day in the late 1950s was anticipated by the 250 people who waited an hour to see him.

In due time, in he strode, the legend himself, 15 times world champion, the only man on record to have "run" 526 balls (526 shots without missing the sinking each time). Everyone in the place looked at Mosconi in awe -- especially Mr. Rosenthal, who was there to play him.

"To watch him play was to see total mastery of the billiard player's art," Mr. Rosenthal said. "My game with him? He crushed me like a grape. I was no match for him. But it gave me something to talk about the rest of my life."

When Klein's Billiard Academy closed in 1963, it was said that hundreds of men were suddenly homeless. "Those fellows would start drifting in around 10:30 in the morning," owner-operator Casper Klein once told me. "By noon, all 18 tables were in use. They stayed in use until midnight."

In those days, most of the billiard parlors were downtown, and they did their best business at lunch time. But Klein's is best remembered, probably because it was the favorite of so many lawyers, judges, physicians and leading downtown merchants.

"Klein's also tried to maintain a certain tone of elegance, uncommon in the pool parlor business," Mr. Rosenthal observed. "You have to remember that in 'The Music Man,' Robert Preston used the word 'pool' as a metaphor for 'sin.' "

But Klein's insisted it was not a pool room; it was a billiard academy. Klein used to say, "A poolroom very often takes a percentage of the stakes and tolerates bets. We don't do either. We rent billiard tables to gentlemen."

Just before the wrecking ball took out the old building, Thomas Hagner, who was the floor manager for Klein's, told a customer looking for the wrong kind of action, "This ain't no dime-a-game pool hall, brother. This is Klein's!"

Baltimoreans with a memory of Klein's need no explanation of the difference.

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