LAWRENCE — The late Ray DeSell never fancied himself a great pool player. But in death, the one-time manager of the old Lawrence Golden Cue on Hampshire Street is about to become a New England legend of the games he loved.
The New England Pool and Billiard Hall of Fame he cofounded 16 years ago has established a tournament in his honor and added his name to its annual Sy and Dolly Award.
Tonight at 6, 300 to 400 people are expected to attend an induction ceremony at Snookers Billiards and Cafe at 53 Ashburton St. in Providence, R.I., where DeSell will be honored posthumously along with 16 other pool and billiard greats from across New England.
"A lot of people didn't know him because he did a lot of things behind the scenes," said Tom McGonagle, 59, of North Billerica, a former city resident who worked with DeSell to establish the Hall of Fame in 1994.
"He was a more than adequate pool player, but is receiving a lifetime achievement award for his dedication to and promotion for the sports of pool and billiards. Without him, we wouldn't have what we have today, plain and simple. He did all the work," McGonagle said.
DeSell, a native Lawrencian who lived in the city most of his life, died last year at age 69 without fulfilling a longtime dream of receiving the Sy and Dolly Award, an honor named after Sy and Dolly Eckstadt, a husband-and-wife team from Connecticut, who were well-known for promoting pool and billiards tournaments.
"At one time, they were probably the most prominent people in the sport. They ran the U.S. Open in the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City in the 1980s," McGonagle said of the Eckstadts.
"We started that award to give recognition to people who devoted their lives to the game of pool. I had promised it to him (DeSell) this year because he did so much for the game. He didn't live to receive this honor. So, we're honoring him by renaming it to the Ray DeSell and Sy and Dolly Award," he said.
The Hall of Fame, which initially was housed in the early years in ACCU-Billards pool hall in New Bedford, now includes 47 members after this year's induction ceremony.
DeSell's claim to fame in New England pool circles was getting New England pool great Larry "Boston Shorty" Johnson of Somerville into the New England Sports Museum.
"'Boston Shorty' was the premier player in New England during the '60s, '70s, and part of the '80s," McGonagle said.
"He played all games. He was the U.S. champion in three-cushion billiards several times. In his prime, he was one of the top five pool players in the country. And Ray hounded the New England Sports Museum until they let him in," he said.
McGonagle also credits DeSell with extensive research, which has led to a permanent display paying tribute to "the who's who" of pool and billiard players in New England.
McGonagle floated the idea of starting a regional hall of fame in an article he wrote several years ago in the All About Pool magazine. DeSell contacted McGonagle and asked him if he were serious about the project, then offered his help.
"I would have been happy with a couple of pictures on the wall," McGonagle said. "But he took it to the next level. He gathered information on people I never heard of. He loved to dig up those old newspaper articles and photographs and bring some of these greats to life. And I drove him all over."
Tonight in Providence, there should be reminiscing about DeSell's days running the pool hall in Lawrence. His close friend George Rippe, the former owner of the Golden Cue, plans to be among local residents turning out for the induction ceremony. A group of proud family members intend to be there, too.
"I'm going to get dad's dream fulfilled," said his daughter Michelle DeSell, 30, of Methuen. She and her sister, Maree Werner, 34, of Sanford, Maine, intend to be there to accept the award on their father's behalf.
"Pool and billiards were dad's passion. It was a big goal for him to win the Sy and Dolly Award. And now that he's gone, the award is named after him. This is definitely a honor that makes us very proud. My father's sisters, some aunts, relatives and a bunch of my friends will be there, too. And so will his 45 buddies from the Colonial Lounge," she said.
Another passion that consumed DeSell was the card game 45's. He was one of the driving forces behind the Merrimack Valley Forty-Fives League.
Michelle admitted being bitten by the pool bug that consumed her dad.
"I remember running around the Golden Cue when I was 12," Michelle said.
"We played there as kids. I have his old pool stick. I play in Corner Pockets in Plaistow or Jillians in Manchester," she said.
Michelle also keeps a collection of some of her dad's photos (one alongside 'Boston Shorty') and magazine articles about his tireless research.
"DeSell has invested a lot of time and money digging through old newspapers, books and trunks in attics to come up with the highest quality versions of photos, posters and programs that whip a viewer back to the days when billiard results were front page news throughout the country," noted an article in the October 2006 issue of Pool and Billiard Magazine.
"The photos start out as black and white, but that doesn't last long. DeSell searched his part of the country for the top colorists and tinters, giving them guidelines on the favorite suit and tie colors of the players. Then he makes it available to fans who share his love of the history of the sport."
DeSell loved the sport so much that he relished getting trounced 150-16 by the all-time great Willie Mosconi in a 1973 pool game played in Lawrence.
"It was like batting or pitching against Babe Ruth," he said in a 1994 Eagle-Tribune story headlined "Ray DeSell: Lawrence's Mr. Pool."
Mosconi, an American professional pool player from Philadelphia, won the World Straight Pool Championship an unprecedented 15 times over the period from 1941 to 1957. There was a definite parallel to baseball legend Ruth, who was the best in his sport.
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