Known as “Katsy” and sometimes referred to as the “First Lady of Billiards,” Japanese carom billiards player Masako Katsura (Katsura Masako, March 7, 1913 – 1995) was at the height of her career in the ’50s. Katsura broke barriers for women in billiards by competing and succeeding in the traditionally male-dominated world of professional billiards. Katsura is the only professional female player in Japan, having learned the game first from her brother-in-law and then from Japanese champion Kinrey Matsuyama. Three times she finished in second place at the Japanese national three-cushion billiards championship. She scored a perfect 10,000 in a straight rail exhibition game.
After tying the knot with an American, she moved to the U.S. In 1950, Katsura served as an enlisted man in the army, and the following year, he moved to the United States. While in the United States, she was invited to compete in the 1952 World Three-Cushion Championship, which the United States hosted. Katsura made history as the first female player to compete in a world billiards championship. Katsura’s notoriety skyrocketed after she toured the United States as part of an exhibition alongside boxing legends Welker Cochran, an eight-time world champion, and Willie Hoppe, a 51-time world champion. Once again competed for the world’s four different crowns in 1953, but instead in 1954, she placed fifth and fourth, respectively.
For the next several years, Masako Katsura was barely spotted at all. She did not compete in just about every professional tournament. Still, she did make 30 exhibition appearances throughout 1958 and instead went on yet another exhibition engagement the same following year with Harold Worst. She appeared on You Asked for It (ABC) and What’s My Line? (CBS) in 1959. Katsura returned to the sport in 1961, challenging the then-current World Three-Cushion champion Worst to a match for the title but ultimately losing. After that, Katsura stopped appearing in sports except for a 1976 cameo. She moved back to Japan around 1990 and died in 1995.
I put in two hours of prep work every day before the parlor is open to the public. As long as I stick to my daily practice schedule, I should be able to compete with many male players very soon. Guys are always trying to beat me up. I play male roles for about six or seven hours a day. The two of us don’t get along, and guys never hit me anyway. My brother-in-law will tell me, long after the billiards hall has closed, that this shot was a bust.
Shoot poorly, and I’ll make it up to you. Well, that’s what he’s telling me. Japan only produces a few world-class female athletes. One of my siblings is a sister. Simply put, it’s first-rate. We’re both using the same stroke. This quote is from Byrne’s Advanced Technique in Pool and Billiards and was initially collected from an interview with Masako Katsura conducted by Jimmy Cannon (1990)
On March 7, 1913, Masako Katsura entered the world at her parents’ Tokyo home. When it comes to Katsura’s upbringing in Japan, nobody really knows what to expect. Katsura is the lastborn of her family of four. Katsura moved in with her elder sister and her husband, Tomio Kobashi, who managed a billiards parlor, when her father died when she was just 12 years old. She began spending time with her brother-in-law when she was 13 years old, and by the time she was 14 she was working as an attendant for him. An experienced player, Kobashi taught Katsura the basics of many variations of carom billiards. Because of Katsura’s growing enthusiasm for billiards, her parents decided to get her a table of her own. After months of training, Masako Katsura was able to compete effectively against male Japanese opponents.
At the tender age of 15, Masako Katsura won Japan’s straight rail championship. In a 1959 interview, Katsura said, “Then I got professional and started traveling with a sister around Japan, China, and Formosa.” Katsura’s younger sisters Noriko and Tadako had already won the women’s straight rail title. Katsura faced the multiple-time winner of Japan’s national three-cushion tournament Kinrey Matsuyama in 1937. Before World War II, Matsuyama won the 1934 U.S. national championship, finished second three additional times, and placed second in the world at 18.2 ballline four times. Katsura’s talent astounded Matsuyama, so he started coaching her to the highest levels. Established as Japan’s sole professional female player by 1947, Masako Katsura had risen to the top of the billiards world.
In 1947, U.S. Army veteran and master sergeant in the Quartermaster Corps Vernon Greenleaf became fascinated with Katsura. Greenleaf and Katsura initially crossed paths while she was doing billiards demonstrations at a Tokyo service club. After starting lessons with Katsura, Greenleaf fell hopelessly in love with her. They tied the knot on November 30, 1950, but unfortunately did not have any offspring.
Masako Katsura had finished in second place for the previous year in a row in the Japanese national three-cushion championship before tying the knot. This was her third consecutive year of coming in second place, and it also happened to be the year they tied the knot. After nursing two balls all around the table 27 times over the course of 4 hours and fifteen minutes, she demonstrated her expertise by scoring 10,000 points in a row on the straight rail. She finally decided to go simply because $10,000 was a beautiful round number. She claimed, after the fact, that she once scored 19 points in a row while playing three-cushion billiards.
Greenleaf was stationed at Haneda Air Base in Tokyo until 1951 when he was reassigned to a position in the United States. He and Katsura, who knew little English, boarded the USS Breckinridge and arrived in San Francisco at the end of December 1951, only a few months before the start of the 1952 World Billiards Tournament with Three Cushions, held on March 06 of that year. Masako Katsura received an open invitation to participate in the world championships after Cochran, whose billiard shop was supporting the event, learnt about her skill via Matsuyama. In all, Cochran won eight world titles: two in 18.2 balkline (1927) and three in 1933 to 1945. Naval commander W. R. (Dick) Cochran’s father, Cochran, dispatched him to Japan to investigate and received a positive report: “that girl is better than what you are!”
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Cochran was given a choice to invite her, but the Billiard Congress of America (the tournament’s sponsor) had the final say. Katsura delivered an intimate performance for Cochran when she landed in the United States; he wanted to be sure she was as excellent as she was made up to be. She had an impressive level of skill at three-cushion, regularly scoring, and she rattled off runs of 300 and 400 on the straight rail, making what Cochran called “nearly incredible shots” after moving to balkline. Cochran extended this invitation. “She is the marvelous thing I have ever seen,” he said in his “last” statement. Anybody, even Willie Hoppe, might be beaten by her. I saw no vulnerabilities anywhere… Many of the players will have trouble with her.” Katsura held many displays of his billiard skills in February 1952 to prepare for the next tournament.
Masako Katsura was the first woman to compete in a global billiards championship when she entered the 1952 World Three-Cushion Billiards title tournament. Only five years before, Ruth McGinnis had made history as the first woman to compete in a professional men’s billiards tournament. Willie Hoppe, then 64 years old and a legend in the world of carom billiards, was defending his title. Hoppe won 51 world championships between 1906 and 1952 in three-carom billiards: three-cushion, balkline, and cushion caroms.
Pre-tournament predictions saw Hoppe winning the event when he faced Katsura in the finals, despite Masako Katsura still requiring at least 40 points to succeed in the race to 50 points format. Hoppe commented on her performance, saying, “She can hit the ball well with either hand. I can’t wait to spend some time with her.” The public was captivated by the unprecedented sight of a female player. San Franciscans “who did not know a cue from a cucumber” reportedly flocked to watch Katy because “Katy stole the show,” as reported by Life magazine.
Among the ten champions set to compete in the round robin tournament were Masako Katsura, her mentor Matsuyama, the favorite as well as defending champion Willie Hoppe, the Mexican champion Joe Chamaco, Los Angeles’s Joe Procita, New York’s Art Rubin, Herb Hardt of Chicago, San Francisco’s Ray Kilgore, Vallejo’s Jay Bozeman, and Binghamton’s Irving Crane. Over the course of 17 days, 45 games were scheduled to determine a winner at Cochran’s 924 Club. As of the 22nd of March in 1952, the tournament was over. “the greatest billiard field since well before World War II,” as the press put it, attended the competition. The winner won $2,000 plus exhibition fees of thousands of dollars. Award amounts for second through eighth place were $1,000, $800, $600, $500, $350, $300, $250, and $250, respectively.
Masako Katsura played her first match in the competition on the second day, March 7, 1952, against Irving Crane. Crane, the tallest player, and Katsura, “so small and doll-like she appeared like a figurine in a flowing, gold-satin robe,” provided a fascinating contrast. Crane was a straight pool expert who won many medals and six world titles. In extra innings, Crane won 50–42. Masako Katsura defeated Herb Hardt by a score of 50–42 in 58 games on March 10. Katsura was down early but rallied for 15 points in the last five innings to win. On March 11, Katsura lost 50-35 to Chamaco, but she won 50-43 in 63 innings against Procita owing to six-, five-, and four-run outings. The audience reacted with “excellent” and “sensational” to several of her shots.
Masako Katsura lost to the unbeaten Hoppe, 50–31, in 36 innings on March 14. Although Hoppe was a fan favorite, it was evident that the over 500 spectators supported Katsura the whole time. She competed against Matsuyama, her coach, and the choice to win against Hoppe the next day. Matsuyama won a tight game against his protege, scoring 50 to 48 after 51 innings. Matsuyama had a 29-21 advantage in the 21st inning. Katsura fought back and led 43-42 at the end of the 33rd, Matsuyama scored three runs in the 46th, and Katsura could not catch up. The coach and the student scored in the six-run range throughout the game.
Katsura beat Art Rubin 50–28 in 58 innings on March 18. But on March 20, she lost against Bozeman, 50-18 in 52 innings. Katsura defeated Kilgore 5046 in her final match on March 2161. An unprecedented result. It was generally agreed that, apart from Matsuyama, Kilgore (the “Giant Killer”) was the only player with a realistic shot of dethroning Hoppe. Katsura now had two victories against the only two players in the tournament who had beaten Hoppe, having also defeated Procita earlier in the competition.
Later that day, KRON-TV aired an exhibition bout between Masako Katsura and Kilgore, with Cochran providing color commentary. Hoppe won the competition for the nth time the next day. Katsura finished in eighth position, followed by Procita in ninth, Chamaco in tenth, and Rubin in eleventh. Crane finished behind her in seventh, Rubin behind her in fifth, Kilgore in fourth, Bozeman in third, and Matsuyama in second.
Welker Cochran, the five-time holder of the Billiards World Crown, said afterward, “Given another two or three years of American competition, she will be the world’s champion… By breaking barriers, Masako has given women new opportunities. Her participation has attracted women to the sport for the first time. She strokes with a man’s strength and a woman’s grace. Her cue ball skills are top-notch. With just a bit more practice, she’ll be unstoppable.
In the 1950s, Japanese carom billiards player Masako Katsura was known as “Katsy,” or the “First Lady of Billiards.” Katsura broke gender barriers by becoming a professional player after studying under her brother-in-law, Japanese champion Kinrey Matsuyama. Katsura placed second three times in Japan’s three-cushion billiards competition, and she amassed 10,000 exhibition straight rail points.