During the 1940s and 1950s, the pocket billiards game most often played in competition was called straight pool, or 14.1 continuous, a form of pool considered by most top players to be more difficult than today's championship game nine-ball. Mosconi still holds the officially recognized straight pool high record of 526 consecutive balls (see below for more details).
Willie's father Joseph Mosconi owned a pool hall that the family lived above. Joseph Mosconi was strongly opposed to Willie playing pocket billiards, preferring he become a Vaudeville performer. He tried to keep his young son away from the game by hiding the billiard balls, but Willie improvised by practicing with small potatoes from his mother's kitchen and an old broomstick.
Mosconi was a child prodigy and his father soon realized that his son's talent could help earn money for their growing family. His father began advertising challenge matches, and though Willie had to stand on a box in order to reach the table, he beat experienced players many years his senior.
In 1919, an exhibition match was arranged between six-year old Willie and the reigning World Champion, Ralph Greenleaf. The hall was packed, and though Greenleaf won that match, Willie played well enough to draw considerable attention and launch his career in professional billiards.
In 1924, at the tender age of eleven, Willie was the juvenile straight pool champion and was regularly holding trick shot exhibitions. By the early-1930s Willie needed to take a brief hiatus from the game, but returned a couple years later in the hopes of earning some money.
Upon his return, Mosconi entered one local tournament after another and according to his autobiography, "Willie's Game", he won them all. After a short while, Willie was making a living as a professional billiards player. Willie claimed he never hustled anyone, beating everyone straight.
In 1933, Mosconi competed in the Billiard Congress of America (BCA) World Championship tournament. He nearly won the title but lost as he missed that single ball that could have made him the champion. Erwin Rudolph, the tournament winner, ran the needed balls and won. His performance garnered the attention of the president of Brunswick Corporation who immediately hired the young phenom.
That same year Mosconi embarked on a hectic cross-country exhibition tour promoting Brunswick products. Mosconi was joined by his idol and then World Champion Ralph Greenleaf, who was at the top of his game. In the end the scoreline read 57 wins for Greenleaf and an astonishing 50 wins for the 20 year old Mosconi.
From 1940 to 1941, a league was sponsored by billiard halls with eight players, and a full round robin took place. Mosconi was sponsored by a hall in New York called McGirr's. He dominated this series, and ran 125 balls from the break five times when only two other players in history had ever done the same. He continued to dominate pool into the mid-1950s in a manner few have equalled, however he was beaten by Richard Roberts.
In 1944, Willie enlisted in the US Army, having already spent several years working within the defense industry. When World War II ended, he returned to a successful tournament career and renewed his affiliation with Brunswick Corporation.
After suffering a stroke in 1956, Willie slowed down on his tournament appearances in order to recover. He later returned to the game at nearly 100%, once again winning the BCA World Championship, (1957).
Willie permanently retired from tournament play in 1966 but remained active in promoting the game. He consulted and appeared in several movies dealing with billiards, made game show appearances and wrote many articles on billiards.
Shortly before winning his first world championship in 1941, Willie married his first wife Ann Harrison. Shortly thereafter the first of his three children was born, William Jr., followed soon after by a daughter, Candace. The marriage ended in divorce.
During a world 14.1 championship match, when the score was 124 to 123, with Mosconi still at the table, the tournament coordinator wrote on the scoreboard, "It's a boy," letting Mosconi know about the birth of his son. Willie smiled and then executed a brilliant five-rail bankshot for the win. Willie married Flora Marchini in 1953. Their daughter Gloria was born in 1954. Flora remained married to Willie until his death in 1993.
Willie authored an autobiography titled Willie's Game.
Willie and a ghost writer authored an instructional book on pocket billiards entitled Willie Mosconi on Pocket Billiards. In the book he offers advice on fundamentals, includes photographs and diagrams on shotmaking and provides straight pool strategies. The book was originally published by Crown Publishers Inc. of New York (1948) and had a second printing (1959). A second ghost-written book (which on some finer points contradicts On Pocket Billiards) was also published under his name.
Willie set the world record by running 526 consecutive balls without a miss during a straight pool exhibition on March 19, 1954. To this day the record has not been toppled and many speculate it may never be bested. A handwritten and notarized affidavit with the signatures of more than 35 eyewitnesses exists as proof of this feat.
The record was set on a 4 foot x 8 foot Brunswick pool table with 4 3/4 inch pockets at the East High Billiard Club in Springfield, Ohio. However, today's standard for tables is much more difficult to play on than Mosconi's table, as today's standard tables are 9 foot x 4 1/2 foot with 4 1/2 inch pockets.
Mosconi was the technical advisor on the 1961 movie The Hustler, starring Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason and Piper Laurie. His job was to teach Newman how to walk, talk, and shoot like a real pool hustler. Newman had never even picked up a pool cue prior to filming, but was undetectable due to Mosconi's expert instruction. According to Mosconi, Gleason already knew his way around a billiard table and some have suggested that it was Mosconi himself who recommended Gleason for the role of the original "Minnesota Fats".
Mosconi also had a cameo role as a "stakes holder" during the first match-up between the film's characters "Fast Eddie" Felson and "Minnesota Fats". Actor Jackie Gleason (Fats) can be heard saying "Willie, hang on to that." when the match is commenced. At various points in the film, a keen eye can spot Mosconi in the audience watching the match go down.
The documentary short "The Hustler: The Inside Story", featured on The Hustler Special Edition DVD revealed that whenever the camera cut to Fast Eddie's hands it was really Mosconi taking the shot. (However, IMDb claims that the only shot Mosconi took was the masse shot during Fast Eddie's rematch with Fats). The movie may have played a major part in the boom in the popularity of pool.
1937 - "Super Cue Men", a short feature starring Willie Mosconi, Jimmy Caras and Joi Lansing.
1945 - Columbia World of Sports: "Champion of the Cue", an eight-minute "sports reel" in which Mosconi demonstrates his cueing expertise in slow motion.
1953 - Columbia World of Sports: "Billiard and Bowling Champs", another short documentary starring Willie Mosconi and Willie Hoppe, once again in slow motion.
February 25, 1978 - "The Great Pool Shoot-Out", a $15,000 match between Rudolf "Minnesota Fats" Wanderone Jr. and Mosconi at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. Mosconi won the nine-ball competition in three sets, 5-2, 5-3 and 5-2. Aired on ABC's Wide World of Sports with commentator Howard Cosell and referee Charles Ursitti.
August 10, 1991 - Willie played his last challenge match, against Jimmy Caras at the Valley Billiards Hall of Fame tribute dinner show. The event was hosted by the Birkbeck Twins at the Williamson Restaurant in Horsham, Pennsylvania. Both players were stopped every couple of racks for interviews.
Throughout the seventies and eighties Willie made several television appearances competing in challenge matches with other legends such as Jimmy Caras, Luther Lassiter, Irving Crane, Joe Balsis and "Minnesota Fats" Wanderone. Many of these shows aired on the ABC and the fledgling ESPN network.
In 1968, at the age of 55, Willie Mosconi was inducted into the Billiard Congress of America Hall of Fame.
In 1994, The Mosconi Cup, an annual pool competition between American and European players, was founded in Willie's honor. The event has been held in December of every year since then and is more popular than ever. The Mosconi Cup is considered the Ryder Cup of the billiard world, and players strive to become a member of their respective countries' teams.