History

The History of the WPBA.

 
 

The WPBA began in the seventies, a time that saw feminism at its peak. Women’s billiards was no exception. This was the decade for women players to stand up, shout out, and be recognized. Only, there weren’t many to be heard.

Jean Balukas was undisputedly the hottest woman player on the table. She captured her first U.S. Open win in 1972 at the ripe old age of twelve, and went on to win four consecutive U.S. Open titles. In that same year -- at the same event -- another young East Coast upstart arrived on the scene. Six-year-old Loree Jon Ogonowski (Jones) had to stand on a box to reach the table but was already a wizard with a cue, performing trick shots for fans.

Palmer Byrd, another top-flight player, became the first real outspoken missionary for women’s billiards. She signed an exhibition deal with Brunswick Corporation as the firm’s first female player rep and took full advantage of her position.  She spoke out against unfairness and inequality between women’s purses and men’s, and she challenged the fact that women’s matches were scheduled in the wee hours of the morning.     In 1976, several women players, including Palmer, Gloria Walker, Vicki Frechen (Paski), and Madelyn Whitlow, along with National Billiard News editor Larry Miller, met at Mitch Housey’s restaurant/lounge in Livonia, Michigan, on Memorial Day weekend. That meeting gave birth to the Women’s Professional Billiard Alliance. Their efforts, spearheaded by Byrd and Whitlow, got the ball rolling, and the Alliance began taking charter members.

Palmer Byrd recalled, “There was a controversy going on about the dress code. Women were not allowed to compete in slacks; we had to compete in culottes or skirts. So, Madeline [Whitlow] ran this ad in the National Billiard News that said, ‘Are you a woman who doesn’t have to wear a skirt to prove it? Join the Women’s Professional Billiard Alliance!”

More than 100 female pool players sent their dues. Byrd and Whitlow’s greatest desire was to garner respect for the women players, with the goal of having a women’s tour large enough to create full-time pro players.

Enthused by their initial efforts, the WPBA set their sights on convincing promoters to host WPBA sanctioned events. Two events materialized from their initial efforts, the World 8-Ball in Burlington, IA, and the 6-Ball Masters in Lansing, MI.

To further legitimatize the group, the WPBA established its own Hall of Fame. In 1976, Dorothy Wise and Ruth McGinnis (who had passed away two years earlier) became the first inductees, later joined by Japan’s Masako Katsura, and Michigan promoter, Joe Farhat.

Unconvinced the WPBA would make women’s pool an instant success, 18 year old Jean Balukas announced in the same year that she may turn to golf, looking at the alternative sport as a more lucrative career choice. According to reports at the time, after just a few weeks of lessons, she was breaking 90 on the links. Jean of course did not go pro in the golf arena, opting instead to become a dominant force on the women’s fledgling tour.

In 1977, Jean claimed her first world title in the Women’s World Open, promoted by the WPBA. The event was held in conjunction, but separate from, the PPPA World Open Pocket Billiards Championships, won by Allen “Young Hoppe” Hopkins.

It wasn’t long before the toddling WPBA ran into its first bit of trouble. Membership plummeted after the initial year’s excitement wore off, and Byrd, in the midst of a career change, reluctantly handed the reins of the organization to New York player and photographer, Billie Billing.

Billing enlisted the aid of Paul Balukas, (Jean’s brother) and later executive director of the WPBA. He studied models of the LPGA (golf) and the WTA (tennis), and thereafter introduced the WPBA’s first formal ranking system and wrote the group’s by-laws.

Billing, as the first official WPBA President, remained in her presidency until 1981. She is credited with developing the first women-only National Championship.  She also began to develop amateur circuit events, resulting in the development of the WPBA’s first amateur national championship, won by Jo Ann Mason (Parker), who later became a top touring pro. Still, the association continued to struggle for events with purses worth traveling to compete for. Those few players who did compete, did so for love of the game, and no other reason.

Unconvinced the WPBA would make women’s pool an instant success, 18 year old Jean Balukas announced in the same year that she may turn to golf, looking at the alternative sport as a more lucrative career choice. According to reports at the time, after just a few weeks of lessons, she was breaking 90 on the links. Jean of course did not go pro in the golf arena, opting instead to become a dominant force on the women’s fledgling tour.

In 1978, the two big events for women were the PPPA World Open and the newly formed WPBA National Championships. Both were won by Balukas.

The first WPBA President’s Award was given one year later in 1979 by Billie to top player and WPBA Vice President, Gloria Walker for “dedicated service and innovative ideas.” The President’s Awarded is still present annually.

Women players began actively seeking more events on their own, with slowly growing support from East Coast and Midwest room owners. As a measure of how seriously the women’s games were now being taken, Jean Balukas, Palmer Byrd, Shirley Caine (Weathers) and Vicki Paski are all seen in print as the first women billiard columnists, offering sound advice on everything from equipment to skill building to concentration. Gloria Walker finally made the spotlight by nabbing her first national title in the BCA National 8-Ball Championship.