banner-optimized_0_0.png
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Regional Interests

The ‘First Lady of Billiards’ Wowed 1950s San Francisco—and the Rest of the World

[dropcap]“T[/dropcap]o the average woman,” the Chicago Tribune reported, “a cushion is something you sew, embroider or tuck behind your back for comfort. Three cushions are just three times that. But to one little lady, three cushions represent a challenge never before taken up by a woman. She is Miss Masako Katsura … a wisp of a woman who looks as if she would have difficulty blowing a feather away, but who instead can make billiard balls explode, or behave like chastened children.”

It was May 8, 1952 and Chicago was reacting with the same startled disbelief that had greeted three-cushion billiard pro Masako Katsura when she’d arrived in the Bay Area six months earlier. That a woman wanted to spend hours every day inside the smoky, male dominated billiard halls was the first surprise. But it was Katsura’s ability to compete at the same level as the best male players in the world that attracted big audiences wherever she went—and big headlines.

A week after the Chicago Tribune’s report, the San Francisco Chronicle described Katsura’s battle against 51-time world champion Willie Hoppe in terms that quite purposely alluded to intimate partner violence. “No gentleman should treat a total stranger, let alone a gracefully proportioned young lady in a gold satin evening gown, the way Willie Hoppe did Miss Masako Katsura last night,” it reported. “He socked her good, he did, with a billiard cue … [Hoppe] cracked Miss Katsy. But not before he crumbled her heart by letting her a-l-m-o-s-t catch up.”

Katsura, who played ambidextrously, remained stoic during all of her matches and public appearances, despite all of the overwrought attention. She may not have understood everything the newspapers were saying about her—she was still learning English—but the effect she had on competition audiences was undeniable in any language. “She is cheerful and takes the resentment male competitors often feel with a nonchalant, ‘I don’t mind,’” the Sacramento Bee reported in 1952. “I am alone at the table,” Katsura later noted.

[dropcap]M[/dropcap]asako Katsura acquired her considerable cue skills growing up in the billiard halls of Tokyo. She started playing at 14, inside the establishment her brother-in-law owned. “I was weak and I was tired all the time,” Katsura later explained. “So my mother wanted me to play billiards to give me exercise and make me stronger.”

Soon, Katsura took a job at the hall and spent her days studying tricks done by customers. Within two years, she had won the Japanese women’s straight-rail championship, in which points are scored by making the cue ball hit two object balls. With that win came the attention of Japan’s foremost billiard champion, Kinrey Matsuyama. Matsuyama immediately started coaching Katsura and taught her three-cushion billiards, in which the cue ball must touch the table’s cushions at least three times before hitting the second object ball. It is considered, even by billiard enthusiasts, to be extraordinarily challenging.

In Tokyo, women’s presence in the billiard halls was by no means the anomaly it was in the United States. There were 2,000 billiard rooms in Tokyo at the time, and most of them had female attendants, working one to a table. Later, when she arrived in America, Katsura found the stark gender division in American halls quite jarring. “I have only met one woman billiard player while I have been here,” she said. “Here a billiard parlor is thought of as a man’s place … You know, if someone had a billiard parlor for women only, that would be good.”

Images of Masako Katsura, featured in (L) ‘The Chicago Tribune’ and (R) ‘The Sacramento Bee’ newspapers, during the early 1950s. (Newspapers.com)

Katsura’s path to America was first paved in 1948 when she met Air Force Master Sergeant Vernon Greenleaf, who was stationed in Japan. Within two years, they were married. (Kansas’ Salina Journal once referred to Katsura as “a little Japanese war bride.”) And in late 1951, when Greenleaf was transferred home, the couple moved to Mather Air Force Base, 12 miles east of Sacramento. But it wasn’t just Greenleaf greeted with warmth on his post-war return to America. Katsura, then 37, had a welcoming party all of her own—six-time three-cushion billiard champion Welker Cochran.

[dropcap]C[/dropcap]ochran was, in the San Francisco Examiner’s estimation, “the finest player in the world until he retired from competition.” He had first learned about Katsura from servicemen returning from Japan after the war. They had seen Katsura after V-J (“victory over Japan”) Day, when she began putting on one-woman shows—in which she demonstrated her most impressive tricks—for the troops. (She had spent the war entertaining Japanese servicemen in much the same way.)

So many American G.I.s regaled Cochran with stories of Katsura’s cue skills that he felt compelled to find out more about her. Cochran asked his son—who was stationed 60 miles outside of Tokyo—to track Katsura down and check her out. The younger Cochran soon sent his father a 12-page letter expressing awe, admiration and the opinion that Katsura was as good a billiard player as Cochran himself. The billiard champ immediately contacted Katsura and asked her to come to the United States.

When she finally arrived with her husband, Cochran immediately took on the role of Katsura’s manager. A month later, he told the San Francisco Examiner: “The game has needed a woman player with skill enough to compete against the greatest of men players. And I’m convinced now that it’s finally got just that.”

As Katsura traveled around the country competing in tournaments and exhibition matches, the much-respected Cochran was always on hand to sing her praises to the awaiting press. “Her form, stroke and bridge can’t be improved upon,” he once told the Detroit Free Press (who referred to Katsura as a “real Japanese cue-tee.”) Later to the Kansas City Star, Cochran marveled, “She will spend four hours practicing, then play another four in her exhibitions and think nothing about it. She constantly amazes me by the shots she makes and by her little inventions which compensate for her lack of size.” Time magazine once reported that she was “cue-tall (5 ft.) and light as chalk (96 lbs.).”

Katsura’s competitors weren’t shy about singing her praises either. Jay Bozeman said she was “one of the finest players I’ve faced in a world’s tournament.” And Willie Hoppe was stunned after playing her for the first time. “In the East they told me she was good, but I never expected to see anything like this. The girl is marvelous,” he told the San Francisco Examiner. “She’s going to win her share of matches against the best of them.”

Katsura already had. After winning Japan’s national women’s billiards tournament, she finished second place in the national all men’s competition—twice. Once Stateside, Katsura made history as the first woman to ever compete for an international billiards title. She came in sixth place. Two years later, when the 1954 world championships were held in Buenos Aires, she came in fourth. Katsura achieved all of this, despite the barriers she was presented with because of her gender. “I want to play more,” she said in 1952, “but there are many problems. I can’t go into town until my husband is through [with] work.”

Katsura spent the rest of the 1950s competing in tournaments and exhibitions, and played her final competition in 1961 against Harold Worst, the reigning world champion. She lost six out of seven matches and, with zero fanfare, quietly retired. Katsura never lost her cue skills though. In 1976, she made a surprise appearance in San Francisco, at Palace Billiards, and ran 100 points in a row before a rapt audience. Soon after, she was inducted into the brand new Women’s Professional Billiard Association—its very existence a testament to what Katsura had done for women in the sport.

As Welker Cochran noted some 24 years earlier: “Masako has opened a new field for women. Her presence has made the game attractive to women for the first time. But,” he added, “she has the power of a man.”

For stories on other Rebel Girls from Bay Area History, click here.

Copyright 2021 KQED