LARGO — A small wooden sign hangs over the patio in front of the modest, one-story home on 137th Street. The sign bears the painted image of a pool table and the words, "Home of Ray Martin, World Champion."
Martin, 76, lives in relative anonymity here, but in pool circles he is Ray "Cool Cat" Martin, three-time world champ, one of the best there ever was.
Martin will add another line to his long list of pool-related accomplishments next week, when he returns to his native New Jersey to be one of the first two inductees into the Straight Pool Hall of Fame, a designation created this year to honor the best players in the history of a brand of pool that once was the game of champions.
"He was capable of beating any player in the world, at any time," said Allen Hopkins, who should know. Two of Martin's world titles — in 1974 and 1978 — came at tournaments where he bested Hopkins, 59. Martin's first title, in 1971, came at a Los Angeles tournament where his focused, calm demeanor earned him his nickname.
An earthquake shook him awake at about 6 a.m. one day during the tournament. Martin, who grew up in Paterson, N.J., had no idea what was happening.
"Being from Jersey, I thought a boiler had blown or something," he recalled Monday in the pool room of his Largo home, surrounded by mementos of his prime playing days.
The tournament continued, but aftershocks rocked the area throughout the day. Martin was in the middle of a game when an aftershock scared off most of the crowd and some of the other players. The referee had to interrupt Martin, though, to tell him to stop.
"I hadn't noticed," he said. "I was focused."
The game Martin played that day in Los Angeles, straight pool, was the preferred game among pro players for most of the 1900s. In straight pool, a player gets one point for every ball knocked in, and the balls are re-racked multiple times during the game.
The best players can knock in hundreds of balls without a miss; Martin's personal record is about 380. The high score needed to win, usually at least 150 points, diminishes the impact of luck.
Straight pool doesn't translate well on TV, though, which is why the billiards industry moved toward 9-ball as the preferred game in the 1980s.
"The public doesn't really care to sit and watch it (straight pool). They don't really understand what's going on," said Hopkins, another New Jersey native, who helped get pool televised on ESPN and serves as a color commentator.
Charlie Williams of Orlando, another pro player who also promotes and organizes events, is the driving force behind the Straight Pool Hall of Fame. Williams organized the Aug. 31 induction ceremony and a world straight pool tournament, both to be at the Hyatt Regency in New Brunswick. Martin will be inducted along with Jerome Keogh, the man who invented straight pool in 1910. (Keogh is being inducted posthumously).
Williams, 34, even persuaded Martin, who focuses on teaching more than playing these days, to break out his cue stick and enter the tournament. Martin's competition for the $20,000 first-place prize will include peers like Hopkins, and current world champ Oliver Ortmann, 34, a German nicknamed "the Machine."
"Those younger guys gotta prove themselves. I don't," said Martin, a 1994 inductee of the Billiard Congress of America's Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, and author of The 99 Critical Shots in Pool, a widely read guide first published in 1977.
Martin never got rich off his winnings — his 1978 title earned him a $4,500 grand prize — but he was able to quit his job as a printer in 1971, buy a pool hall, and earn a living between the hall's income and his winnings.
"It's an accomplishment in life," he said of his induction. "I realize it's pool and it's not baseball, but not many people get to do things like this. … Some people had to work at jobs they hate. I got to make a living doing something I love."
Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or [email protected]