The ‘First Lady of Billiards’ Wowed 1950s San Francisco—and the Rest of the World
[dropcap]âT[/dropcap]o the average woman,â the Chicago Tribune reported, âa 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.â
It was May 8, 1952 and Chicago was reacting with the same startled disbelief that had greeted three-cushion billiard pro Masako Katsura when sheâd 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 Katsuraâs ability to compete at the same level as the best male players in the world that attracted big audiences wherever she wentâand big headlines.
A week after the Chicago Tribuneâs report, the San Francisco Chronicle described Katsuraâs battle against 51-time world champion Willie Hoppe in terms that quite purposely alluded to intimate partner violence. âNo 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,â it reported. âHe 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.â
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 herâshe was still learning Englishâbut the effect she had on competition audiences was undeniable in any language. âShe is cheerful and takes the resentment male competitors often feel with a nonchalant, âI donât mind,ââ the Sacramento Bee reported in 1952. âI am alone at the table,â 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. âI was weak and I was tired all the time,â Katsura later explained. âSo my mother wanted me to play billiards to give me exercise and make me stronger.â
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 womenâs straight-rail championship, in which points are scored by making the cue ball hit two object balls. With that win came the attention of Japanâs foremost billiard champion, Kinrey Matsuyama. Matsuyama immediately started coaching Katsura and taught her three-cushion billiards, in which the cue ball must touch the tableâs cushions at least three times before hitting the second object ball. It is considered, even by billiard enthusiasts, to be extraordinarily challenging.
In Tokyo, womenâs 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. âI have only met one woman billiard player while I have been here,â she said. âHere a billiard parlor is thought of as a manâs place … You know, if someone had a billiard parlor for women only, that would be good.â
Images of Masako Katsura, featured in (L) ‘The Chicago Tribune’ and (R) ‘The Sacramento Bee’ newspapers, during the early 1950s. (Newspapers.com)
Katsuraâs 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. (Kansasâ Salina Journal once referred to Katsura as âa little Japanese war bride.â) And in late 1951, when Greenleaf was transferred home, the couple moved to Mather Air Force Base, 12 miles east of Sacramento. But it wasnât just Greenleaf greeted with warmth on his post-war return to America. Katsura, then 37, had a welcoming party all of her ownâsix-time three-cushion billiard champion Welker Cochran.
[dropcap]C[/dropcap]ochran was, in the San Francisco Examinerâs estimation, âthe finest player in the world until he retired from competition.â He had first learned about Katsura from servicemen returning from Japan after the war. They had seen Katsura after V-J (âvictory over Japanâ) Day, when she began putting on one-woman showsâin which she demonstrated her most impressive tricksâfor 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 Katsuraâs cue skills that he felt compelled to find out more about her. Cochran asked his sonâwho was stationed 60 miles outside of Tokyoâto 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 Katsuraâs manager. A month later, he told the San Francisco Examiner: âThe game has needed a woman player with skill enough to compete against the greatest of men players. And Iâm convinced now that itâs finally got just that.â
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. âHer form, stroke and bridge canât be improved upon,â he once told the Detroit Free Press (who referred to Katsura as a âreal Japanese cue-tee.â)Â Later to the Kansas City Star, Cochran marveled, âShe 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.â Time magazine once reported that she was âcue-tall (5 ft.) and light as chalk (96 lbs.).â
Katsuraâs competitors werenât shy about singing her praises either. Jay Bozeman said she was âone of the finest players Iâve faced in a worldâs tournament.â And Willie Hoppe was stunned after playing her for the first time. âIn the East they told me she was good, but I never expected to see anything like this. The girl is marvelous,â he told the San Francisco Examiner. âSheâs going to win her share of matches against the best of them.â
Katsura already had. After winning Japanâs national womenâs billiards tournament, she finished second place in the national all menâs competitionâtwice. 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. âI want to play more,â she said in 1952, âbut there are many problems. I canât go into town until my husband is through [with] work.â
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 Womenâs Professional Billiard Associationâits very existence a testament to what Katsura had done for women in the sport.
As Welker Cochran noted some 24 years earlier: âMasako has opened a new field for women. Her presence has made the game attractive to women for the first time. But,â he added, âshe has the power of a man.â
For stories on other Rebel Girls from Bay Area History, click here.
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