During his decades-long career setting up and repairing pool tables and crafting custom cues, Jack Riley has never formally advertised.
His business has all come by word-of-mouth.
That time-honored method paid off for him again last month ago when the phone rang in his South Yellow Springs Street home and John Schmidt was on the other end of the line.
Known in the pool and billiards world as Mr. 400 for his consistent ability to pocket at least that many balls in a game of straight pool, Schmidt is in dogged pursuit of the record 586-ball run legend Willie Mosconi set 65 years ago in Springfield’s East High Street Billiards.
Schmidt heard about Riley from the mouth of Tom Rossman, known in pool circles as national and international trick shot champion Dr. Cue. Rossman lived and taught the game for a time in Riley’s former pool hall across Yellow Springs Street.
Knowing Schmidt was compiling information on the night the record he is chasing was set, Rossman cued him in that Riley was one of the last living guys who might have something to add.
Although he was 12 and nowhere near the East High Street billiard the night of March 19, 1954, Riley once worked for A.Y. Thomas at the Cue and Cushion, which sat behind the Top Hat Restaurant on East Main Street.
“Lefty,” as Thomas was called, had been there that night and wrote his name on the sheet signed by all who witnessed Mosconi’s stunning feat.
So, on the phone, Riley told Schmidt Lefty’s story about how, with the 527th ball hovering near the edge of the pocket, a group of spectators gathered at the edge of the table hoping to flex the wooden floor so the six-ball would drop.
Riley also was able to pass along what he knows about the table on which Mosconi set his record: That even if someone were able to locate all six identical 4-by-8-foot Brunswick tables with 42-by-96-inch playing surfaces that were taken apart when George Rood closed East High Billiards, it would be impossible to identify the special one.
He’s not worked on a 4-by-8 Brunswick for decades now, but says “I think I’d recognize it if I saw it.”
Riley has seen a lot of tables since he began playing pool at Cue and Cushion in 1962.
“I loved the game,” he said — enough that Thomas asked him to work at his place by saying: “You might as well, you’re in here every day.”
In a time before coin-operated tables, Riley was called “Jack the Rack because he wore the Cue and Cushion’s lone pool rack around his neck and racked the balls before every game, collecting the fee as he did.
“I played for the house,” he added, which means he would be the opponent for any player who lacked one.
Young Riley’s interests did drift off to car racing for a bit, but after getting out of that, he used the proceeds from the sale of his car to buy a pool table.
Riley settled down and landed a good job in the machine shop at International Harvester (IH) in 1969. But during a work stoppage, he picked up some side money at another pool hall, the Tangerine Room. And when customers there needed cue repairs, he began taking them to Clarence Neauman, who lived in the Sunnyland edition about two blocks from Riley’s home.
While previously making some adjustments to Riley’s table, Neauman had turned down Riley’s request to become his apprentice, apparently because past apprentices had taken some of his jobs.
But as Riley brought more business to Neauman and the two discovered a common interest in Lionel model railroad trains, the relationship turned friendly and Riley proposed a deal: He would work for free and would never take a job from Neauman if Neauman would teach him the trade.
He proved a quick study.
“What makes a good table is basically the frame,” Riley said.
The frame has to be strong enough to handle three pool slates, each 185 pounds and sometimes anchored in place with the help of dowel pins.
“You put the slate on and see how it sets,” Riley said. “Some of the tables, you don’t have to touch it.”
Tables out of level, however, require shims to even the surface. Wooden shims should be of hardwood, Riley said, because the weight of the slate will crush lesser woods. But Riley doesn’t use wood.
“I shim with playing cards,” he said. “They’re real hard, and they’re a flat surface.”
The felt covers for tables come at a variety of colors, prices and qualities, he said, “and the corners are the most important.” As in making a bed, “if you don’t get the corners right, you’ll have wrinkles in the cloth.”
Over some years, Neauman taught his apprentice all this and more until the day the two of them finished a job at Dixie Corner in Tipp City and Neauman told the owner, “This is the last time I’ll work in your place. From now on, you call Jack.”
En route to that day, Riley had kept his part of the bargain, repeatedly refusing to work for Hughes Music and Bud Connor or other Neauman customers without his teacher’s approval. As time went on, that approval came more and more frequently.
“I never did take a job of his,” Riley said, but he did find plenty of work on his own, including a nearly full time gig setting up tables for Sprague Pool during another IH work stoppage. He turned down a longer term job with them when IH started up again but continued to do a setup each evening and two on Saturdays for some extra cash.
As he and wife Virginia’s two daughters, Kasey and Kelly, grew, the Rileys opened up a pool hall across the street from their home to generate money for their two daughters’ college educations.
What’s now called a “soft opening” came on a Friday night in October or November after a Shawnee High School football game.
“We turned the lights on, and people came in,” he said. “The next morning, the place was full.”
Everything about it was about that informal.
“I had a temporary operating permit for about nine years,” he said.
But it was fun, too.
Hours eventually stretched from 1 p.m. to midnight or later. No alcohol was served because the Rileys didn’t want the trouble.
Players who stayed after midnight were told to lock the doors and shut off the lights when they left. The security system was a baby monitor with a receiver in the Riley home.
Somehow, it all worked, providing 11 years of college education for their daughters and closing not long after the college bills were paid.
Never during that time did Virginia Riley, her husband’s steady and supportive companion, ever step up to a pool table to play. “I cleaned plenty of them,” she said, but had no interest in playing.
Because the slates are getting heavier and because a mature Mr. Riley can’t shim his spine with playing cards, he won’t lift slates any more. If others do that part, he’ll set up the pool table, as he recently set up half a dozen when they were relocated at United Senior Services.
Gravity also has led him to develop another lighter weight interest in the sport - making cues. He fashions them with lathes and exotic woods collected over the years and with skills he learned as a machinist at Miller Engine Co. before he signed on at IH.
Although not profitable - each cue takes hours and hours spread over the months of the many steps required — Riley finds the work rewarding.
Last year he made 18, which he called “way too much” work.
Mrs. Riley, who worries over such things, approved of the heavy workload only because five of the cues were for daughter Kelly and the four grandchildren Mikenna, Harper, Tyler and Gaven. (Daughter Kasey, the most regular player, already had one.)
Riley has also started playing pool again - one pocket, a game in which each player can score only by sinking balls in a single pocket designated to him or her.
“It’s all defense, like a chess game,” Riley said. “The first one to eight balls wins.”
Except that, at 74, the man formerly known as Jack the Rack now has the sense he wins every time he plays the game.
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