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Johnny Layton … The Smiling Irishman

Johnny Layton

Johnny Layton is dead!

Yes, Genial John, the Smiling Irishman has run out his score, but the memory of his artistic ability with a cue stick and his friendly manner will live on with those who best remember him as the one-time world pocket billiard champion and also three cushion masters.

It’s 20 years since billiard stars were great men about town. Johnny Layton, who died recently was one of the most popular on Broadway. He wasn’t the outstanding “name.” Ageless, stylish Willie Hoppe, the balk-line master, and theatrical temperamental Ralph Green­ leaf, the “home-run” pool slugger, outranked him.

But Layton won the pool title before Greenleaf, in 1916, and he held off Hoppe’s belated bid for the three- cushion championship for several years, as late as 1934.

Johnny was the average guy’s hero. He did not have the court of authentic bad men who idolized Greenleaf, nor was he the darling of the old gentlemen from the Racquet Club, as was Hoppe. In the racy, lawless, speakeasy days he was Honest John, the fellow who plugged along, always looking bad at the start of a tournament, always fighting grimly and generally successfully at the close.

When Broadway was more of a sports place, and Jack Doyle’s was one of its capitals, Layton was one of its prolific story tellers, out of his background in carpentry, minor league baseball, boxing and wrestling. His best story was about the racket he had licked- wrestling. Layton wrestled back in Missouri under the management and promotion of Layton. As he pointed out, nothing could go wrong, and nobody got paid if he didn’t.

Although Layton gave away in glamour to Hoppe and Green leaf, he was the best at three cushions in the Golden Age of 1920 -30. He won his final title in one of the game’s most dramatic tournaments, in the twilight of the sport here. That was in 1934, in the Capitol rooms, against Algredo de Oro, grand. old master who won titles from *87 through ’19; Wetker Cochran and Hoppe, the balk-line nobles; and Augie Kieckhefer, Kinrey Matsuyama, Jay Bozeman and Otto Reiselt.

The drama was set up by the feud between Layton and flip, arrogant, gifted Cochran. Lay- ton had been laid up by eye trouble in *33, and Cochran had won the title. Johnny returned in *34 with glasses, a squint and an “all through” label.

Cochran in interviews stated that “a blind, old pool player” had no business at the table with a balk-line expert. Layton burned, but also sizzled through the tournament to reach Cochran in the final match.

Johnny ran up a lead, muttering from time to time; “Just a blind, old pool player, eh?” Cochran, training 25-4 demanded a new cue ball. Layton snapped: “I’ll be glad to lend you my cue, too.” The 5-foot 2 Scotch-Irishman of 46 muttered Cochran into a 50-23 defeat, and while it was his last winning stand, it was probably his best.

It was just such actions as this which made Johnny the av­erage guy’s hero, for he never seemed to know when he was beaten. Yes, Johnny was one of the greats in the billiard game.