While one television at Greenfield’s Main Street Bar & Grille was tuned to NESN for a Boston Bruins game, another featured highlights from a World’s Strongest Man competition.
But instead of the flat screens hoisted on the walls, virtually all eyes inside 94 Main St. were directed toward a pair of coin-operated pool tables, where the latest installment of the Franklin County Pool League was underway.
“There’s some good players in this league,” player Gary Richardson said while watching a match. “It doesn’t matter how big this other guy is on the table. See, once you’re on the table, it’s you and the table anyway — it has nothing to do with this other guy. That’s what you’ve got to remember.”
Started in 1987 by Mike Arsenault, the league consists of teams that meet at area bars and pubs for friendly matches of 8-ball or 9-ball action.
Arsenault said he started the league because he was fed up with players not having any say in the ones run by the American Poolplayers Association. He said his league took off in popularity because players liked that it was local and that all their money stayed in the league.
“It was like my newborn and it grew,” he said. “And I ran it for 24 years.”
Arsenault said that when he decided to sell the league, he wanted to ensure the new owner would keep it going.
“All I wanted to do when I got rid of it was I wanted it to stay intact. I did not want to see it fall apart,” he said, noting he turned down an offer of twice the sale price for fear it would be dissolved. “I turned it down because I wanted this thing to keep going.”
Clinton Wells and his fiancee Kimberly Storey have run the league for about a year, having taken over from Brad Lewis. Thursdays are the nights for 8-ball, while 9-ball is played on Sundays.
“It’s just a league where everybody plays and there’s cash prizes at the end,” Wells said while watching a match at Smitty’s Pub at 26 Chapman St., a cue ball’s throw from the matches on Main Street. “Everybody has a good time.”
For the love of the hobby, and the family feel
Back at Main Street Bar & Grille, Richardson bided time until his match by watching others and reminiscing about his time in various pool leagues. The 67-year-old Brattleboro, Vt., native started playing at 14 and joined a league just as the idea was becoming popular. He said pool leagues were started by bars to get people in the door on slow Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights. He bought his trusty cue stick, a Meucci Original he calls his buddy, 45 years ago in Brattleboro for $400. Richardson said the item now has collector value.
“I’ve been playing forever. This is the only night I play. I don’t put my stick together until it’s time to play,” he said. “I don’t practice because I’ve played so much. … It can get boring and the other thing is … it makes it new to me.”
Each break scattered the balls around the table like the world’s easiest, most small-scale Easter egg hunt. Players lined up shots that occurred by happenstance or by design. All players echoed that concentration is key, as even the most experienced can shank an easy shot.
All 8-ball players belong to one of 18 teams named after the bars that serve as their home venues. Eight teams play 9-ball action. Matches are played in Greenfield, Turners Falls, Montague, Millers Falls, Shutesbury, Sunderland, Deerfield and Shelburne.
Weekly dues are $8 for individuals that play, as only five members of each eight-member team actually partake. Wells said 75 percent of dues go back to the players in cash payouts based on final standings. The remaining 25 percent goes toward the end-of-session player appreciation banquet, as well as door prizes and other raffle prizes given out at the banquet. There are two 16-week sessions, not including playoffs, every year. The spring session wraps up before Memorial Day and the fall session starts the week of Labor Day.
“Basically, the league is run by the players and we just organize and direct it so there isn’t chaos,” Wells commented.
Branch Rickey, who integrated Major League Baseball by signing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers, is credited with saying baseball is “a game of inches.” Well, pool could be described as a game of millimeters.
“It’s a cruel game,” Richardson, who belongs to Main Street Bar & Grille Team No. 1, said after a player’s ball failed by a hair’s width to fall into a pocket. “Right when you think you’re good, it reaches up and says, ‘Haha, hold on.’”
Teammate Jim Andrews of Northfield eventually called a timeout to ask for Richardson’s advice on a shot. Each player gets a single coach’s assist — called a coach — per match, the league’s version of “Phone a Friend” from “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” Calling for a second coach results in a foul. Richardson sprung from his booth to help Andrews and offer a suggestion.
“Everybody sees the table differently,” Richardson said after returning to his booth.
Once a match is finished, its players acknowledge each other with a handshake or fist bump.
“It’s like a big family,” Andrews said, adding that a friend got him involved in the league about 15 years ago. “Everybody knows everybody.
“It’s fun. It gets me out of the house,” he added. “It’s my thing on Thursday nights.”
Ladies of the league
The pool room at Main Street Bar & Grille was populated mostly by men, though Richardson said the league is open to all women, such as Storey, who said she learned to play in her parents’ basement, first standing on a milk crate to make shots, and has never stopped.
“I’m not as phenomenal as this woman here,” she said, gesturing to friend Stacie Bourbeau, “but I have the pleasure of playing with her, for sure. She’s amazing.”
Bourbeau, of Orange, is a semi-professional player and was planning a trip to Montreal last month to participate in the North American Pool Tour. She has visited cities such as Tulsa, Okla., Las Vegas, Nev., and Chicago, Ill., for tournaments, and she even got to socialize with legendary women’s player Jeanette “The Black Widow” Lee in 2011 while Lee signed autographs.
Bourbeau, who grew up in Bernardston, said she got her start at the former County Billiards, owned by Al Holmes in Turners Falls, about 25 years ago and joined the league at 17.
“I was allowed to play out of there because it was a dry venue,” she said as a New England Patriots game played on a TV in the background. “So, Mike Arsenault, the original owner (of the league), allowed me to play as long as I played only there.”
She said she enjoys pool because she likes the adrenaline of competition and “because when I do good, it’s me, (and) when I do bad, it’s all me.”
The Franklin County Pool League is a handicapped one and Wells does not foresee that changing anytime soon. He explained the more skilled the player, the higher the handicap. It is all calculated by an algorithm based on — among other factors — the strength of players’ previous wins or losses, the strength of an opponent’s handicap, and a player’s win/loss record over the past two sessions of play.
Each captain completes the weekly score sheet for his or her team, listing the competing players and their handicap. The team handicap is totaled and rounded up or down during regular session matches, but not during playoffs.
Wells said pool, and the Franklin County league in particular, offers a relaxed, accepting atmosphere for players who want to enjoy respectful matches while maintaining a competitive fire. He said unlike sports such as basketball or hockey, pool can accommodate people of different physical and athletic ability.
“It’s like the co-ed softball. No matter your skill set — whether you’re top end (like) Stacie or … if you’re on the low end of the totem pole — everybody has a chance, every single rack,” he said.
“It’s the winter alternative to golf,” Storey chimed in.
Domenic Poli joined the Greenfield Recorder in 2016. He covers Sunderland, Whately, Conway and Deerfield. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.