Billiard Legend Masako Katsura, Who Broke Every Barrier

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Billiards was considered to be a male-dominated sport before the 1950s when the lady with the most unusual passion named Masako Katsura was not known. Before that, women were considered to have no relation to cue sports and it was men only who ruled this kingdom.

It was a general belief that for women;

“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”, as reported by the Chicago Magazine

Who was Masako Katsura?

Katsura was an ordinary child, born on 7 March 1913 in Tokyo. She had a family of three sisters and a brother. She was just 12 years old when her father died.

Her mother was a very strong lady and did her best to raise her children with dignity. After the death of her father, Katsura started living with her elder sister and brother-in-law–Tomia Kobashi who had a billiard parlor.

How Masako Katsura Started Playing Billiards?

At the age of 13, Katsura started spending her day in the billiard parlor and got interested in it. After a year, she began working as an attendant at her brother-in-law’s club in Tokyo. 

After noticing her fascination with the game Kaboshi, who himself was a skillful player, taught her some basics of the cue game to Katsura. She had a Billiard at her home and used to practice all the strikes after returning from the club. Her mother completely supported her and encouraged her to pursue her liking.

I was weak and I was tired all the time, so my mother wanted me to play billiards to give me exercise and make me stronger”, said Masako Katsura in an interview.

In no time, she began competing with men at the Billiard parlor, leaving everyone astounded.

Beginning of Katsura’s Sports Career

Katsura took her passion seriously and started spending days and nights mastering her skills. After enough practice, she took part in the Women’s Championship straight rail and beat her opponent. 

After that she never looked back, she started getting appreciation from all around the world. In 1959, she said in an interview, “Then I turned professional and began touring with a sister all over Japan, China, and Formosa”. Her sisters have also been the winners of the straight rail championships in different years.

In the meanwhile, she got the attention of Kinrey Matsuyama who was a professional billiards player and had been the winner of Japan’s national three-cushion championship many times. He was even declared to be the Japanese Willie Hoppe by the Times article in 1952. Matsuyama was very much impressed by Katsura and started tutoring her for master-level championships. 

By 1947, breaking all the barriers in billiards, she became the country’s only female professional player. She won many national-level matches and became the center of attention for the sports world.

After that, Matsuyama introduced her to the three-cushion billiards which was a tricky game and required master skills and mental strength. 

For Katsura it was a new challenge and she mastered it in no time. In 1949, she took part in Japan’s national three-cushion championship and secured second place in the tournament.

Masako Katsura Married Vernor Greenleaf

After winning Billiards tournaments in Japan, Katsura started appearing in television interviews and billiards exhibitions.

She was called to show her skills to the public and gathered a huge number of admirers. It was mesmerizing for the audience to see the exceptional capabilities of a young woman.

During an exhibition in 1947, Katsura met Vernor Greenleaf who was providing his services in the U.S. Army as a master sergeant. At that time, Greenleaf was posted to Haneda Air Base in Tokyo, where he got the chance to meet Katsura.

He got attracted to her and asked her to give him lessons on some basic tricks of billiards. During that practice, the couple started falling for each other and decided to get married. On 30 November 1950, they got married.

Katsura’s Entry into the International Billiards Championship

After her marriage, she got shifted to San Francisco along with her husband. That period was the beginning of World War 2 and the sports sector was about to turn down. 

Katsura’s career would have ended at that time if she had not met Cochran, whom she met at the world championship tournament. Cochran was the champion of three-cushion billiards and earned the first position for 4 years. He was moved by Katsura’s talent and wanted to know more about her.

He asked his son V.R. Cochran to investigate Katsura, who was working as a Naval officer in Japan and to his shock, his son came back and said, “this girl is better than you are!

Finally, the Billiard Congress of America agreed to invite Katsura for a three-cushion billiards tournament upon Cochran’s request.

Katsura amazed Cochran in the very first meeting by exhibiting some professional skills. She made 300 and 400 runs at straight rails on which Cochran commented that these were “almost unbelievable shots”. After that, she shifted to balkline and scored persistently leaving Cochran surprised.

“She’s the most marvelous thing I ever saw… She’s liable to beat anybody, even Willie Hoppe… I could not see any weak spots… She’s going to give lots of those players fits.”

The atmosphere in American billiards halls was quite different from that of Tokyo. Here only men were considered to be the crown holders of this kingdom which was quite disturbing for Katsura. She commented that,

“I have only met one woman billiard player while I have been here. 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.” 

Apart from that, the media also highlighted her gender over her skills. One newspaper even called her “real Japanese cue-tee”, but she never cared about anyone’s remarks and focused on her career undauntedly.

Masako Katsura Became the First Lady to Compete For the World Title

It was for the first time in the history of the World Billiards Championship that a woman was going to compete for the world title in 1952. Katsura played against world champion Willie Hoppe who had won 51 world titles to his name between 1906 and 1952 in different forms of carom billiards including three-cushion, balkline, and cushion caroms.

For the world, it was a thrilling event to see a woman competing with a man on an international level. An unexpected number of people gathered to get a sight of the most sensational match in the history of Billiards. 

San Franciscans who did not know a cue from a cucumber crowded in to see her… Katy… stole the show”, as reported by Life magazine.

Even Hoppe was impressed by Katsura’s talent and said that “she has a fine stroke and can make shots with either hand. I look forward to playing with her.” 

Highlights of Katsura’s First International Tournament

The World Billiards Championship Tournament took place at Cochran’s 924 Club with the battle fought between the ten best players of the cue sports including Masako Katsura, Matsuyama, Willie Hoppe, Joe Chamaco, and Art Rubin.

It was a 17-day tournament offering $2000 to first place, $1000 to second place, $700, $500, $350, $300, $250, and $250 respectively. 

Katsura came against Irving Crane and showed her skills but Crane, who was the master of straight pool, defeated her by 50 to 42 in 57 innings. 

On the next day, Katsura played against Herb Hart and took the lead by scoring 15 points in five innings. She also beat Procita by counting high scores against him; the public shouted “brilliant” and “sensational” at her strikes.

Unfortunately, Katsura failed to beat the champion of this game, Willie Hoppe, and lost the innings. Katsura saved seventh place while Hoppe was undoubtedly the winner once again.

Welker Cochran who won world titles in American professional carrom said, “Given another two or three years of American competition, she will be the world’s champion. 

Masako has opened a new field for women. Her presence has made the game attractive to women for the first time. She has the power of a man and strokes beautifully. Her maneuvers with the cue ball are fantastic. All she needs is a bit more experience and she will be unbeatable.”

Exhibition Tours by Katsura and the Fall of her Career

After the 1950’s tournament Katsura and Cochran decided to take exhibition tours in San Jose, Chicago, Buffalo, Kansas City, Boston, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Long Beach. 

Katsura’s major aim was to encourage women to take part in cue sports as she said in an interview right before departing for her exhibition, “I hope my tour will convince women that billiards is not only a man’s game. Women can play just as well as men.”

After taking many tours and appearing in many public events, Katsura took virtual retirement in 1954. During that period she wrote two books named “Improve your Billiards” and “Introduction to Billiards”.

After 1961, Katsura was no longer seen on exhibitions or TV channels. It has been said that her husband was not comfortable with the bizarre comments and remarks that were generally given about her. 

Before her death in 1995, she stayed with her sister–Noriko in Japan. In September 2002, Katsura Memorial: The First Ladies Three Cushion Grand Prix, was held in Japan.

From the beginning, people were amazed by the skills and tricks of Katsura. Her enthusiasm and love for the sport were unmatchable. She was determined to prove her worth to the world and no one could stop her from doing that. 

Especially for women, she did things that were unimaginable to the world. Billiards game was supposed to be a game of power and strength whereas women were considered fragile and insubstantial. 

Although women have made their mark in many other sports including cricket, hockey, and badminton, it was jaw-dropping for the whole world to see a 5 feet and 96 lbs young woman, competing with men in the cue sports.

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Daniel Salvatore

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