A Japanese billiards professional named Masako Katsura was born in 1913 in the United States and went on to dominate billiards. Nicknamed Katsy, she was also known as the “first lady in the billiard world”. One of her specializations lies in Carom Billiards, which was popular in the 1950s, and without knowing that she would, Katsura pioneered the advancement of women into the world of professional billiards, which was an extremely male-dominated society at the time.
Her first master was the husband of her eldest sister, followed by Japanese champion Kinrey Matsuyama. Under Matsuyama’s guidance, Masako Katsura became the only female professional billiard player in Japan. In Japan, she took second place three times in a three-cushion billiard tournament. Here are some more facts about her life.
Masako Katsura: Life And Battle History Broken Into 20 Facts!
1. Masako Katsura’s youth was difficult, but led her to billiards:
The details of Katsura’s childhood are unknown but we know that the Katsura family had four sisters, and Masako was the second daughter.
The story goes that her father died at the age of 12, and Katsura began living with her married sister. Her sister’s husband, Tomio Kobashi used to run a billiard parlor, and it was here that Katsura played with her brother-in-law’s billiard parlor until the age of 13 and began working as a clerk at the age of 14.
2. She turned pro around the age of 15:
Masako Katsura’s brother-in-law was also an excellent player and taught Katsura the basics of Carom Billiards. As Katsura was so enthusiastic about billiards, the family prepared a pool table at home for Katsura. Katsura practiced hard and quickly gained enough arms to compete with Japanese men. At the age of 15, she won the straight rail tournament in Japan. In a later interview, Katsura said she then turned professional and began expeditions to Japan, China, and Taiwan.
Masako’s two younger sisters, Tadako and Noriko, also won another year’s women’s straight rail tournament.
3. Friendship with Kinrey Matsuyama:
In 1937 Katsura met Kinrey Matsuyama, a player who has won the All Japan Three-Cushion Championship several times.
Matsuyama was then an American champion in 1934 and even in 1952 was even referred to as a Japanese Willie Hoppe.
The keen eyed Matsuyama was impressed by Katsura’s play and taught top-level skills for free, and Katsura won the 4th All Japan Three-Cushion Championship (1941) after Kinrey Matsuyama in 1947.
At the time of the year, Katsura was the only female professional billiard player in Japan. That year, Katsura caught the eye of American soldier Vernon Greenleaf.
4. Marriage and success in Japan:
American soldier Vernon Greenleaf had a 22-year military career and was a member of the Quartermaster Corps.
Greenleaf first met Masako Katsura when Katsura was in charge of the billiards corner at a club in Tokyo. Greenleaf took a lesson from Katsura and was rapidly attracted to her. In the spring of 1949, the 5th All Japan Three Cushion Championship was held for the first time in eight years, and Katsura won second place after Hiroya Ogata. In 1950 she won 5th place. The same year, the two were married on November 30, 1950.
There were no children between the two. Around this time, Katsura achieved a continuous scoring record of 10,000 points at a straight rail tournament. There were 27 shots cushioned more than three times in this four-and-a-half-hour game. The year before she came to the United States, she scored 19 points in one inning with three-cushion billiards.
Masako Katsura also won the 5th place in the 8th All Japan Three Cushion in 1951. This was also the year she would relocate to the US.
5. Changing countries and relocation to the United States:
In 1951, Katsura’s American husband Greenleaf was transferred from the Haneda Army Air Corps base to the United States. As Katsura spoke little English, she was shy but still boarded the American warship Breckinridge and arrived in San Francisco at the end of December 1951. The following year, March 6, the World Three-Cushion Billiard Tournament of the year was scheduled to take place in San Francisco and we can all guess who was invited to battle!
Yes, the legendary Katsura was tentatively invited to the tournament because the owner of the tournament, Welker Cochran, heard Katsura’s reputation from Matsuyama (who she trained with as we wrote above).
6. Welker Cochran was not just the owner of the tournament:
He was also a player who had won the world championships six times in the Three Cushion and twice in the 18.2 Bokeline. Cochrane also sent his son WR Cochran (who was stationed in Japan as a naval officer) to Katsura to see Katsura’s skills.
When Katsura arrived in the United States, she visited Cochrane and showed off her skills. This was for Cochrane to see Katsura’s ability with his own eyes. At that time, Katsura scored 300 and 400 points on the straight rail, scoring “almost unbelievable shots” according to Cochrane, and showed her solid ability and prowess by scoring consecutive points even on the three cushions.
Cochrane made the final decision on the invitation by stating, “She (Katsura) is as wonderful as I’ve ever seen (…) and has the power to win against anyone, even Willy Hoppe(…)No weaknesses found(……) She will threaten many players.”
In February 1952, Katsura held many exhibitions as a warm-up to the tournament. This was the year she entered the World Three Cushion Billiard Tournament.
7. The challenges of the World Three Cushion Billiard Tournament in 1952:
Katsura’s participation in the 1953 World Three-Cushion Billiards Tournament was the first for a woman to challenge the world title.
This was only 10 years after Ruth McGuinness was the first female player to be invited to the Probilliards Tournament (1942 New York State Championships) and Katsura’s eyes were all on the world-class billiard title.
The previous champion of the tournament was Willy Hoppe, then 64, who also participated in this tournament. Pre-tournament criticism stated that if Hoppe and Katsura faced each other in a tournament, Katsura wouldn’t get 10 points in a 50-point lead match.
Hoppe, who saw Katsura’s play, said, “She has a great stroke and can hit with either hand. I’m looking forward to playing against her.” The audience was also fascinated by her play. The crowd was excited by a rare female player, and Life magazine said, “San Francisco people who can’t tell the difference between cue and cucumber were rushing to see her, Katy seems to have completely eaten the tournament”.
8. The rewards from World Three Cushion Billiard Tournament:
The tournament overview went like this: Katsura, her trainer and friend Matsuyama, Willy Hoppe, Joe Camacho (from Mexico), Herb Hardt (from Chicago), Arthur Rubin (from New York), Joe Proquita ( from Los Angeles), Ray Kilgore (from Los Angeles), Jay Boseman (from Vallejo), and Irving Crane (from Binghamton) were to compete in a round-robin round-robin round-robin battle.
All 45 games were to be played at the “924 Club” owned by Cochrane and the match lasted 17 days until March 22, 1952.
The competition was reported as “the largest tournament since before World War II.”
So it won’t come as a surprise that the first prize was $ 2,000 plus an exhibition fee of several thousand dollars, and the subsequent prizes were $ 1,000, $ 700, $ 500, $ 350, $ 300, $ 250, and $ 250, respectively, up to the eighth place.
Willie Hoppe was reportedly the winner of this title and he retired after successfully defending his title in 1952.
9. Secrets and BTS facts from the 1952 championship:
Shortly after the 1952 championship, Cochran announced that he was coming out of a seven-year retirement to play an exhibition tour with Katsura. “Millions of fans want to see this lovely first lady of billiards,” he said, “now some of them can.” The duo anticipated their tour with a three-day engagement at the Garden City Parlor in San Jose beginning April 18, 1952. Thereafter, they planned stops in Kansas City (May 2-3); Chicago (May 5-11); Detroit in mid-May; and at tentative stops in Cleveland, Buffalo, Boston, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Long Beach. The format was to be a 100-point straight-line match, followed by a 50-point three cushion game under tournament conditions, with ‘fancy’ shots or tricks to follow. Katsura said before leaving: “I hope that my tour will convince women that the pool is not just a man ‘s game women can play as well as men”.
Billiard champion Tex Zimmerman — Cochran’s partner in the 924 Club— and notorious “con man” Danny McGoorty were involved in organizing the tour. In preparation, they played on Katsura’s exoticism and physical attractiveness. Tex Zimmerman’s wife sewed tight kimonos for Katsura, cut down the side, which he wore during his shows with high heels.
Katsura was a small woman, weighing between 88 and 96 pounds and was 5 feet tall – about the height of a standard pool cue. Later, McGoorty reflected, “Masako was cute! She was thirty-nine years old, but she looked twenty-nine years old. She jumped on the table in her high heels, smiling at the fans and they all loved her.
However, it was Katsura’s playability, rather than her other charms, that made her such a phenomenon. When Cochran returned from his tour with Katsura, he told McGoorty, who was a world-class player in his own right, “you’ll have problems with her.” When they finally had a chance to play together, the match drew crowds. They could have sold bathroom seats! McGoorty exclaimed. After the game, McGoorty confirmed Cochran’s prediction:
“I had problems with her. I played hard and threw all the dirtiest things I knew at her, and I was lucky to win five out of ten games. If you had the slightest idea to calm down because she was just a pretty girl, you were dead. She would kill you. I found out very quickly that you couldn’t set her free. If you did, she would remove those balls from you and stick them on your “ass.” The killer instinct: that had it all, and never mind the little smile.
A number of pre-booked stops on the tour suffered from a lack of attendance. Cochran was very bitter about that. NEA sports editor Harry Grayson noted that the game was generally on the decline and said: “traces the decline of the championship and showroom billiards to manufacturers taking stars off the payroll during the depression.” On a previous exhibition tour by Cochran and Hoppe in 1945, they had been sold in 13 cities.
10. 1953 World Three Cushion Tournament:
In the 1953 tournament, Hoppe, who won the previous tournament, had retired, so it became a hot topic as to who would win next!
The venue was at the Chicago Town Club at the Sheraton Hotel in Chicago. Of the 11 participants, seven from Mexico’s Camacho, Katsura and her trainer and fellow Japanese champion Matsuyama, Vallejo’s Boseman, Cisco’s Kilgore, Ross’s Proquita, and New York’s Rubin participated in a row.
Harold Worst of Grand Rapids, John Fitzpatrick of Hollywood, Mel Landberg of Minneapolis, and Ezekiel Navarra of Argentina joined.
Navarra won the Cuba, Colombia, Peru and Argentina tournaments that year, scoring 1120 innings and 1295 points in three seasons, with a total average of 1.16.
This was the year that Katsura defeated Randberg in the first match 50-44 in 71 innings. She lost to Matsuyama 50-37 in 39 innings. She also lost to Rubin 50-37 in 52 innings. She defeated Fitzpatrick 50 innings 50-38. She also defeated Camacho with 56 innings, 50 to 44. She achieved eight runs in this match.
Navarra also defeated 50-40 in 43 innings. He lost to Kilgore 50 to 41 in 42 innings. Harold also lost 50-4 in 52 innings. He defeated Boseman 50-48 in 60 innings, which was the final match. The record was 5 wins and 5 losses, and the ranking was 6th. In this tournament, Matsuyama, who was second in the previous year, finished sixth. The victory was Kilgore, and the second place was Navarra and Boseman.
11. Following exhibitions the and death of her friend Matsuyama:
After the 1953 World Championships, Katsura and her trainer Matsuyama (third from the right) held an exhibition at Long Beach, California. A 100-point bokeh line, a 40-point three-cushion, and a trick shot were made. Katsura defeated her master with 100 to 11 and 100 to 3 on the Balkline, but Matsuyama won both games with 40 to 34 and 40 to 39 on the 3 cushions.
Matsuyama then returned to Japan and died on December 20, 1953.
Matsuyama had actually intended to take American citizenship and open a billiard parlor in Honolulu, Hawaii with his family. The Japanese Willie Hoppee, Matsuyama had many top Japanese players in his students, and Katsura was one of them.
Katsura later formed an exhibition match with Ray Kilgore in San Francisco on March 12-17, 1953. The match was a 600-point three-cushion. The match was 600 to 547, and Kilgore had a hard time winning. After the match, Kilgore said, “She is really wonderful.” The following week, Katsura had an exhibition with Cochrane, defeating 50 to 33 in 45 innings.
12. The World Three Cushion Tournament in 1954 was another defeat:
This year’s tournament was held in Buenos Aires with eight people.
Katsura, Jackson’s Ray Miller, Harold Worst, Argentina’s Juan and Ezequiel’s Navarra brothers, Cochrane, Camacho, and the previous winner, Kirgoa were all called to play.
Katsura was the only female participant and in the first match, she defeated Miller with 76 innings 60-47 and Shamako 60-55, but lost to Esekiel with 48 innings 60-28.
He defeated Juan 60-52 in 77 innings, with Katsura in 4th place. The victory was the worst and Navarra playoff, with the worst winning in the end.
13. Writing and stepping back into the exhibition in 1958:
Since 1958, Katsura hadn’t played in the game for about five years. In the meantime, Katsura published “Billiard Improvement Method (1956)” in Japanese. In 1952, Katsura published the instructional book “Introduction to Billiards”. In 1958, she held about 30 exhibitions.
On February 9, 1959, Katsura played a 1200-point exhibition match with Harold Worst at Randall Recreation in Chicago. She then played six 50-point three-cushion games in Philadelphia and also in New York. That year, she was featured in the American show: What’s My Line!
14. TV appearance and continued fame:
On March 1, 1959, Katsura appeared on CBS’s popular show What’s My Line.
The show is that panelists rely on hints to name special guests, and panelist Arlene Francis wrote her name on the blackboard in Japanese and named it “Probilliard Player”. To guess, Francis honestly replied, “I’ve heard Katsura’s name, but I’ve never seen a photo.”
In the same month, Katsura also appeared in ABC’s “You Ask for It” and watched the Western show being made. Katsura also appeared in “You Ask for It” again on November 25, 1960, and this time she showed off her unique activities such as trick play.
15. The 1961 Title Match:
As the popularity of the three cushions declined, the world championships were not held.
There, the 1954 champion Harold Worst planned his own defense and challenged Katsura to an impressive $2000 prize at a hotel in Grand Rapid, Michigan in 1961.
Mr. Worth played six three-cushion games and defeated Katsura 350-276. This was hard for her and by 1961, Katsura’s story hadn’t been told much.
16. Does the legacy continue?
Since 1961, Katsura’s life was away from the press but there was news from various billiard circles that Katsura’s husband was the reason for her retirement and said it was a shame. Katsura’s husband died in 1967.
McGoorty regretted her retirement, asserting various theories about Katsura’s husband who died in June 1967.
The same year, Katsura visited the Palace Billiards in San Francisco where she made an impromptu appearance, where she instantly demonstrated her skills at the request of Robert Burn, who has written many books on billiards.
Katsura borrowed a cue from a person and achieved 100 points on a straight rail with no mistakes. It was stated that: “Without fail, she smiled and bowed to the clapping crowd, moving away from the spotlight, and disappeared forever from the American billiards stage.”
17. Legacy and career highlights:
- Under the tutelage of Japanese champion Kinrey Matsuyama and her brother-in-law, Masako Katsura became the first female professional player in Japan.
- Competing for her country, she obtained second place in the national three cushion billiards championship three times. In the exhibition, she stood out for accumulating 10,000 points in the straight rail game. At the time of her marriage, Katsura already had two-second places in the Japan National Three-cushion Championship; one from the year before their wedding. She claimed second place for the third time in the year of their marriage. At that point, she accomplished the feat of scoring 10,000 contiguous points on the rectilinear guide in a nurse’s display of balls around the table 27 times over 4 1/2 hours which stopped at 10,000 points only because it was a round reference number.
- In the World Three-Cushion Championship sponsored by the United States, she took seventh place.
- In 1947, Katsura was a billiard star in Japan, the only professional player in the country.
- Katsura was the first woman to be included in a world pool tournament. Establishing his fame, she went on an exhibition tour of the United States with eight-time world champion Welker Cochran, and later with 51-time world champion Willie Hoppe.
- In 1953 and 1954, she once again competed for the world three cushion crown, ranking fifth and fourth respectively.
- Katsura returned to competition in 1961, playing a Three-Cushion world title challenge match against Worst, who then reigned as world champion, and was defeated by him. Katsura disappeared from the sport thereafter, only making a brief impromptu appearance in 1976.
- In 2021, she was remembered as Google honored her legacy through a doodle!
18. Masako Katsura died in Japan:
In 1990, Katsura returned to Japan to live with her sister Noriko. She died in 1995 in Japan.
In September 2002, the “Katsura Memorial 1st Ladies Three Cushion Grand Prix” was held in Tokyo to remember her.
May the “First Lady of Billiards”, who paved a way for women in the sport by competing and ranking among the best in the world of professional billiards, rest in peace.
19. Quote by Masako Katsura:
“I practice in an open room every day for two hours. Every day I practice, then I play with a lot of men. Men want to beat me. I play with men, six, seven hours a day. Men don’t like it, they don’t beat me. If I don’t hit a good shot, my brother-in-law, after the billiard room has closed for the day, tells me that that shot was not good. If I get that bad shot right, he tells me. There are not that many good players in Japan”. – Masako Katsura
The quote above was said in an interview with Jimmy Cannon, extracted from Robert Byrne Advanced Technique in Pool and Billiards (1990).
20. A pioneer:
Masako Katsura was the greatest thing that ever happened in the entire history of billiards, perhaps the greatest thing that ever happened in that period. For a woman to compete on equal terms with men it was said that this beauty wasn’t competing against just any man, she was competing against the best players in the world. It was a sensation. People who had never heard of billiards lined up around the building in search of tickets to see her perform.