World billiards champ started in local pool hall
MONMOUTH, Ill. — Many famous celebrities hail from small towns, but few retain their hometown ties once they go on to fame and fortune. One exception would be Will Nicol, who made Monmouth his permanent residence when not touring the world as the Great Nicola. But some of Monmouth’s other well-known progeny, such as Broadway playwright William Young and Parisian dancer Loie Fuller never really looked back after leaving the Maple City.
Add to that list Edward Ralph Greenleaf, the son of a Monmouth cigar maker and café operator, who by the 1930s became arguably the most famous professional pool player in the world, if you can believe his obituary in the New York Times, which noted, “What Babe Ruth did for baseball, Dempsey did for fighting, Tilden did for tennis … Greenleaf did for pocket billiards.”
Biographical articles about Greenleaf’s remarkable career state that little is known about his childhood in Monmouth. The writers apparently never had the pleasure of interviewing the late Review Atlas historian Ralph Eckley, who not only grew up with the future pool king, but also shared something personal with Greenleaf — they were both namesakes of the same Civil War surgeon.
Born in Monmouth in 1899, Greenleaf was named for his maternal grandfather, Dr. Ralph McCleary, who in 1901 would deliver baby Ralph Eckley. Eckley’s parents would honor McLeary by bestowing his name on their son.
Dr. McCleary was born in Wabash County, Ill., in 1833 and began practicing medicine in Fulton County in 1856. He served three years as a surgeon with the First Missouri Engineer Corps during the Civil War, and in 1865 located at Young America (Kirkwood). Three years later, he settled in Monmouth, where he worked not only as a physician but as Warren County coroner and Monmouth’s health officer.
McCleary purchased a house in the 200 block of East First Avenue, just behind the old Christy Hotel. Next door to the east was a one-story brick building which became his office. In 1891, his daughter Laura married William E. Greenleaf, a cigar maker who had come to Monmouth in 1888 from Indianapolis. Not long after that, Greenleaf converted his father-in-law’s office into a cigar factory.
By 1910, Greenleaf had left the cigar business and became proprietor of the Main Street Café at 218 South Main St. Around 1913, his son Ralph and Ralph Eckley began frequenting the Monmouth YMCA, which stood across the street from the Greenleaf home on East First Ave. The YMCA at the time occupied a former Methodist church building, so there was some irony in the fact that its attraction to the boys was that it boasted a pool table.
But it was a respectable game called “Cue-Ro-Quet” — the pool table had pegs placed in the pattern of a croquet court, and the object was to knock the ball between the pegs as if you were playing croquet. Greenleaf had an advantage over Eckley, as his father also operated a billiard parlor on the second floor of the building directly north of his restaurant. Greenleaf proved to be such a natural at pocket billiards that his father started inviting professional players to come to Monmouth and engage him in exhibition matches. The teenager held his own against countless champions, including Bennie Allen, the world Pocket billiards champion.
At age 15, Greenleaf had finished fourth in the Western championship tournament held in Allen’s billiard hall in Kansas City. In 1915, his father moved the family to Wilmington, Del., to manage a large billiard parlor, where Greenleaf got to really hone his skills before departing on a three-year exhibition tour. On the first night of the 1916 national pocket billiards championship in New York, 16-year-old Greenleaf defeated title holder Frank Taberski. The New York Times wrote, “Confident and skillful, he overshadowed his rival even in the face of happenings that would have shaken the nerve of an older contestant, and won his way to the hearts of a big gathering of enthusiasts by the clean-cut manner of his play.”
Although Taberski would rally to beat Greenleaf in that tournament, the 16-year old played with such cool confidence that his fame spread rapidly in the billiard world, and his good looks made him a fan favorite as he entered adulthood. Between 1919 and 1937, he was world champion 19 times and set a pocket billiards record for sinking 126 consecutive balls in 50 minutes. In that 1929 match, he defeated Taberski by the sensational score of 125–0.
It was said that the one opponent Greenleaf couldn’t beat was alcohol. He was first married in 1920, but his wife sued for divorce four years later on the grounds of cruel and barbarous treatment. He then married Amelia Ruth Parker, a vaudeville performer of Asian ancestry who went by the name Princess Nai Tai Tai. In 1934, they were close to divorce, and she hurled ashtrays at him, giving him a bruised head and knocking out a tooth.
Drinking and drug abuse eventually got Greenleaf banned from the professional billiards circuit and took a severe toll on his health. He died broke in a Philadelphia hospital in 1950 at the age of 50.
Greenleaf was buried in Monmouth Cemetery with a plain headstone. After Pool and Billiard Magazine ran a story about it, billiards enthusiasts contributed funds to provide him with a special stone, showing him lining up behind a cue ball. Similar to Will Nicol, who was buried nearby in his magician’s cape, Greenleaf was buried holding his favorite cue stick.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 40 years.