Jimmy Caras: Greek-American Wonder Pool Player

Jimmy Caras, a renowned professional pool player. (Photo by stanford.edu)

Jimmy Caras was a renowned professional pool player, most well-known for winning multiple world billiard and pool championships between 1936 and 1949. Just for clarity, pocket billiards is the more formal name for what is commonly known in the United States simply as pool. According to the official website for the Governing Body of Pool: “Pool, is a classification of cue sports played on a table with six pockets along the rails, into which balls are deposited. Each specific pool game has its own name; some of the better-known include eight-ball, eightball pool, and its variants blackball, nine-ball, ten-ball, seven-ball, straight pool, one-pocket, and bank pool.”

Jimmy Caras was born on December 17, 1908 in Scranton, Pennsylvania to Greek immigrant parents but grew up in Wilmington, Delaware. Caras’ father, who was also named James, owned various businesses. The elder Caras’ work ethic was recalled: “My father had a billiards parlor…This was in World War I, in 1918. It was called the Arcade. My father had three billiards parlors at one time – for a side line. He had two restaurants and a lot of real estate.” (News Journal (Wilmington DE) May 27, 1976).

James Caras also regularly backed his young son in pool games against any and all players.

Caras recalled, for New York Times reporters, one particular occasion when, “I’d come home from high school with books under my arm.” When he arrived at his father’s pool hall he was told, “I want you to play someone for $100…I peeked in the cash register and saw only $35. I said, ‘Dad, what if I lose?’ He said, ‘You won’t lose.’ Talk about pressure.” But Caras won, easily.

To appreciate the life and career of Jimmy Caras it must be understood that he was unquestionably a prodigy, who at the age of 5 first began playing pocket billiards on a miniature table. As his younger brother Gus recalled’ “every Sunday our father would go to the billiards parlor to do his bookkeeping and he’d take Jimmy and me with him…Jimmy would get two soda-pop boxes, stand on them, and would have to struggle to hold his arm horizontally to play.” (News Journal May 27, 1976).

At the age of 11, young Caras won a local YMCA billiard championship. Then, on January 13, 1926, a 15-year old Jimmy Caras beat Ralph Greenleaf (1899-1950), then credited as one of the all-time greatest billiard players in the nation (Evening Journal (Wilmington DE) January 14, 1926). Given this unexpected turn of events Caras was instantly crowned in the national press as ‘the Boy Wonder’ of billiards. Yet this win did not assure the young Caras a career in billiards. As has been noted, “There was big money in pool in the 1920s. Ralph Greenleaf, a 14-time world pockets champion…made $100,000 a year playing exhibitions and the vaudeville circuit. But by the time Jimmy Caras won his first title in 1936, the big money was gone…Jimmy Caras didn’t make serious money in pool until the game came back in the early 1960s.” (Philadelphia Daily News September 13, 1973).

Given this change in the public interest in billiards, throughout the 1930s, Caras worked for the Brunswick Corporation, the sporting goods manufacturer. “I had a contract with the Brunswick Corp. I played exhibitions all over the country, $18 an exhibition, two a day, six days a week. It was fabulous money in the 1930s. (Philadelphia Daily News September 13, 1973).

Caras also married during this period. Not taking a break from one of his Brunswick tours Caras reported that he and his new spouse Marge “had a fabulous honeymoon, a 32-state honeymoon.” (Philadelphia Daily News September 13, 1973). Marge traveled with her husband until the birth of their first daughter. As his family grew Caras had no choice but to continue touring for Brunswick. Yet even then, Marge and her growing family “waited by the telephone.” Jimmy called every night, she said. “He was a family man.” (Philadelphia Daily News September 13, 1973).

In December 1935, at the age of 26, Caras won the World’s Pocket Billiard Championship. As was noted at the time, “Caras is the second youngest player ever to annex the title.” In 1936 Caras won his first World Championship, at age 26, defeating Erwin Rudolph. Caras was the youngest player to win the title. In 1937, Caras lost the World Championship. Then, in 1938, Caras won the World title over Andrew Ponzi (1903-1950). Then, in 1939, Caras won over Willie Mosconi, who was nicknamed ‘Mr. Pocket Billiards’. In 1947, by the time Caras was 39, he had competed in 11 world championships and never finished lower than fourth.

In 1949 Caras appeared in a film titled, Super Cue Men, with fellow champion billiard player Willie Mosconi (1913-1993). That same year Caras returned to professional pool competition winning over four-time world champion, Erwin Rudolph (1893-1957).

As we’ve noted, in the 1930s, and during Caras’ ascendance as a Boy Wonder of Billiards, he had worked steadily as a kind of good will ambassador for the Brunswick Corporation. This company was known for decades for its manufacturing of pool tables and equipment. Caras toured the country playing at colleges and a host of public venues. It was during this period that aside from playing any and all local billiards players Caras displayed his talent for extremely difficult shots and fancy trick shots.

Curiously, it is quite difficult to track Caras’ career for Brunswick which is especially odd given that he spent months traveling across the country as one of the company’s official ambassadors. It was also during his Brunswick tours that Caras is also credited with producing a series of books, such as Trick and Fancy Shots in Pocket Billiards (Springfield, PA. 1948 re-issued 1966), as well as Pocket Billiard Fundamentals and Trick Shots Made Easy (1969).

During this same period Caras co-authored, Official Rule and Record Book for All Pocket and Carom Billiard Games with Dorothy Wise (revised edition 1968). A potential source for future research on Caras’ involvement with Brunswick are the mail order catalogs issued from 1940s onward. Brief articles on Caras as well as advice testaments with accompanying photographs are periodically found scattered throughout these otherwise straightforward catalogs. During the 1970s, Brunswick also made available to its dealers a newsletter titled In The Pocket which would also occasionally feature accounts of Caras’ travels. In time, Caras retired from the Brunswick Corporation Billiards Division after 50 years of service.

After a 12-year hiatus from professional billiards Caras returned to cue sports, and won the United States Pocket Billiards Championship in 1967 over Luther Lassiter (1918-1988). Caras’ uncanny abilities were brought to an even wider public via the ABC Wide World of Sports nationally televised program, which twice showed Caras defeating Willie Mosconi for the National Invitational Pocket Billiards Title (Stabdard-Speaker (Hazeltown PA) February 16, 1970).

In 1973, Jimmy Caras’ wife of 42 years, Marjorie E. (nee Cook) Caras, passed away in the Riddle Memorial Hospital in Media, PA. The Caras couple had three daughters together and at the time of Marjorie Caras’ death, half a dozen grandchildren. Tom Fox, the sport’s columnist, devoted an entire column to Marjorie Caras since as he put it, “Pool players’ wives are a breed apart.” (Philadelphia Daily News September 13, 1973). After his wife’s passing Caras moved into an apartment in Drexel Hill. Later in life, he moved to Jacksonville, Florida, and lived with his daughter Linda. She said he played a game or two of the pool every day until he died in 2002.

Tributes and awards were ongoing in Caras’ life. In 1976 Caras was inducted as a charter member into Delaware Sports Hall of Fame. Next, in 1977, Caras was inducted into the Billiard Congress of America Hall of Fame. At the time of this award Billiards Digest ranked Caras as the 10th-greatest player of the 20th century. Yet another forum expressing the ongoing regard in which Jimmy Caras was held by his many fans took place in the 1990s. Brunswick Billiards, along with Jose Cues, developed a limited series of cues called the Jimmy Caras Cue Series. The last time a set of four Caras Cues were publically available the going price was $3,600.

Jimmy Caras died on Tuesday, December 3, 2002 in Jacksonville, Florida, surrounded by his family. From amateur competitors to national and even world champions, Greeks in the United States have and continue to distinguish themselves.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available