She Broke the Gender Barrier … in Billiards
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Japanese sharpshooter Masako Katsura was a trailblazer of the pool halls in the 1950s.
Welker Cochran, owner of San Francisco’s legendary poolroom the 924 Club and an eight-time world champion in billiards, had heard about Masako Katsura. American servicemen returning from Tokyo had described her skill with a cue, and Cochran had sent his own son to scout her out in Japan (famously, his son reported: “This girl is better than you are!”). Still, he was stunned when Katsura, 5 feet tall and less than a hundred pounds, strode into his club. She gave a private performance that sold Cochran, who then went to bat for her with the Billiard Congress of America, telling them, “She has one of the best strokes I’ve ever seen.”
Katsura, sometimes called Katsy for short, arrived in the United States in 1950 at the age of 37 … and shortly thereafter broke the gender barrier in three-cushion billiards, a popular form of pool in which the cue ball must touch three cushions to earn points. She placed seventh (of 10) while becoming the first woman to compete for a world billiards title at a championship in San Francisco in 1952, then went on to finish fifth and fourth the next two years. Her career brought her a measure of fame, with television appearances on ABC’s You Asked for It and CBS’ What’s My Line? in 1958. Yet she disappeared from the scene not long after, eventually moving back to Japan before passing away in 1995.
Katsura’s remarkable life in billiards began with tragedy. After her father died when she was 12, Katsura moved in with her sister and brother-in-law, a billiard parlor owner who began teaching her the game. She took to it quickly. “I practice before parlor open every day for two hours,” Katsura told New York sports journalist Jimmy Cannon. “I play men six, seven hours a day.” And she beat them. At age 15, she won the women’s straight rail championship and soon after began touring Japan, China and Formosa (now Taiwan) with her sister, also an accomplished player. Already a top-flight billiards star with two second-place finishes in the Japanese three-cushion championships, Katsura was giving billiards exhibitions when she started doing lessons with Vernon Greenleaf, an American serviceman stationed at Haneda Air Base in Tokyo. The pair married in 1950, and the next year Greenleaf was transferred to a post in San Francisco.
Katsura’s playing career could have ended with that move, if not for the imprimatur of Japanese champion Kinrey Matsuyama, who had spoken far and wide about Katsura’s prowess. And the American billiards scene was still hopping.
Her looks were part of the spectacle: Business partners dressed her up in tight kimonos and high heels. But it was her skill that was fit to kill.
In the 1930s, The New York Times had an average of three articles per day about billiards, says Mike Shamos, a Carnegie Mellon professor and an expert on billiards history. But World War II took its toll, and the game was in decline when Katsura arrived. “Most of the players, guys in the audience, were overseas and in service,” Shamos notes. Still, three-cushion was appealing in part because of its brute force. “It’s not a game of delicacy. It attracted a certain type of spectator that liked shots taken with a lot of power,” Shamos says. The Times still averaged an article a day, though, and as long as 51-time world champion Willie Hoppe was in the game, it remained popular.
In fact, Hoppe was the defending champion when Katsura arrived to play in 1952. The public was fascinated. “San Franciscans who did not know a cue from a cucumber crowded to see her,” reported Time magazine. And Katsura didn’t fail to impress: The biggest upset of the tournament was when she won 50-46 against Ray Kilgore, a local boy nicknamed the “Giant Killer” who was seen as having a shot to dethrone Hoppe.
After the championship, Katsura did exhibition tours across America with some of the sport’s greatest players, including Cochran. Her looks were part of the spectacle: Business partners dressed her up in tight kimonos and high heels. But it was her skill that was fit to kill. “She would murder you. I found out damn quick you could not leave her an open shot. If you did she would take those balls away from you and stick them right up your pooper,” says Danny McGoorty, one of her victims, in pool expert Robert Byrne’s 1972 book, McGoorty: A Pool Room Hustler.
But Katsura stayed relatively out of the spotlight, avoiding professional tournaments in the late 1950s … it was rumored to be at the request of her husband, or because of her frayed nerves. She emerged for a 1961 title match against billiards champ Harold Worst but lost.
Still, the First Lady of Billiards knew how to make an exit. In a surprise appearance at Palace Billiards in San Francisco in 1976, the 63-year-old borrowed a pool cue and ran 100 points straight with ease. That same year, a group of young female players founded the Women’s Professional Billiard Association. Katsura was one of the first people inducted into its Hall of Fame.