The journey of an old-time ‘City’ pool hustler

Ryan Miday | 11/20/2013, 11:58 a.m.
The mayor wasn’t the only person City knew at 601 Lakeside Avenue. He knew council members Charlie Carr and James ...

Part 1 of a 3-part series


Contributing Writer

“One of our best pool players is here tonight,” Mayor Carl Stokes announced during a council meeting, as he nodded to “City,” who sat amongst the citizens in attendance.

Alexander “City” Bryant would occasionally drive down to Cleveland City Council meetings on Mondays. He didn’t have a 9 to 5 job. He didn’t even vote. But he had known the mayor since 1939, when they took boxing lessons, at 12-years-old, from Wilfred “Whiz Bang” Carter at the Portland-Outhwaite Recreation Center (POC).

The mayor wasn’t the only person City knew at 601 Lakeside Avenue. He knew council members Charlie Carr and James H. Bell and former council member Jean Murrell Capers. His relationship with Capers and Carr dated back to City growing up on E. 59th Street.

Carr dated City’s aunt, and Jean Capers’ husband, who was a good pool player, worked at the Call & Post, while young City was a newsboy selling papers for five cents in the 1930s.

Years later, City would regularly play Bridge, Pinochle, and Conquian or Coon-Can, as it was called, with Carr and Bell at the smoke shop next to Skippy’s Pool Room at E. 55 St. and Central Avenue.

When Stokes and City grew up, Cleveland was experiencing the Second Great Migration, an influx of Blacks from the south. Between 1940 and 1960, Cleveland’s overall population declined but its black population more than tripled, lending to the opening of restaurants, cafes, grocery stores, and bars in Black communities.

With the bars came poolrooms.

Every neighborhood had one and every kid wanted to be inside.

It was mesmerizing for any kid, who could sneak in, to find a corner and watch the older guys get at each other. The so-called hustlers filled the room with smoke and endless talk, ordering drink after drink, while trying to hustle the next mark who walked in.

City’s pool hustling days spanned from the 1940s through the 1970s. In the poolrooms, he earned the nickname Big City or City, for his constant road travel. Cleveland was the seventh largest U.S. city in 1950, a prosperous industrial city with talented sports teams and a hot national jazz scene. The money attracted out-of-town hustlers.

But hustlers like City, who filled Cleveland’s poolrooms – P.C Owens, Skippy’s, Tiger Brown’s Billiards, Playboy Billiards – were invisible to the mainstream. They were not looking for trophies or headlines. Hustling was about making money, and, with few exceptions, there wasn’t big money in tournaments. Nor could a hustler afford to beat the best players on the front page.

There wasn’t opportunity for Blacks to play in big professional tournaments, anyway. Poolrooms were still largely segregated and Blacks were banned from participating in big national tournaments.

The Jackie Robinson of pool was Cisero Murphy, of Brooklyn. After years of dominating the New York City pool scene, he was finally invited to play in a world event. He won the Burbank World Invitational 14.1 tournament in California, becoming only one of two players ever to win a World Title on their first attempt. It was 1965.