Every now and then, Palmer Byrd will stumble upon a Women's Professional Billiard Association event on ESPN.
Byrd, of Glastonbury, will linger on a WPBA tournament and marvel at the level of play. As someone who began playing the game as a teenager and once pursued a professional career, she appreciates the talent on the women's circuit.
And as she watches the polished coverage of the event, she can't help by feel a tinge of pride — it was Byrd and two friends who conceived of the WPBA in 1976.
Byrd, 59, will be inducted into the New England Pool & Billiards Hall of Fame Friday night in Providence. Byrd became a member of the WPBA Hall of Fame 10 years ago and is considered something of a trailblazer in the world of billiards.
After a successful career on the playing circuit in the 1970s, Byrd turned her attention to the WPBA while supplementing her income by performing trick-shot exhibitions around the country. She appeared with the likes of Minnesota Fats and Willie Mosconi at exhibitions, she wrote a column for National Billiards News and made TV appearances.
Still, she has lived a far more anonymous life since in 1982, when a job with United Technologies brought her to Connecticut from her native Michigan. It was 11 years before Byrd returned to pool as a hobby, joining a local coed amateur league governed by the American Poolplayers Association of Connecticut.
Byrd, who still plays, contacted the APA's home office in St. Louis when she joined the league in 1993. She wanted make sure the national governing organization knew that a former pro — and a prominent former pro — was joining an amateur league.
Yet she's never talked much about her decorated history since she relocated to Connecticut. In her 28 years in the area, Byrd has neither sought nor received media attention for her place in billiards history — partly because she was more focused on being just another amateur player.
But she's now been playing in state amateur leagues longer than she played or performed on the professional circuit.
"So I guess I feel like I've been playing in an [amateur] league for so long now that I'm accepted in that league," Byrd said. "I think it's OK now to come forward . . . I have kept it under wraps. A lot of it is that I don't like to talk about myself a lot. And a lot of it is that I just wanted to bury myself in the American Poolplayers Association of Connecticut and just play there for fun."
Byrd began playing pool as a 16-year-old in the Detroit area in the mid-1960s. A local billiards hall was offering free pool for women every Monday, so Byrd and a friend began dropping by after school.
She was immediately enchanted with the game. And she soon discovered she was good.
Michigan was something of a hotbed for women's pool in the mid-to-late1960s. Three pool halls in the state — two in Lansing and the one in the Detroit area where Byrd played — marketed the game to women. So, as Byrd began pursuing the game, she found opportunities. The more she played, the better she played. She won the national amateur title in 1971.
As she began playing in tournaments around the country, she discovered women's tournaments offered little prize money. There was a circuit of women's tournaments that acted as qualifiers for a U.S. Open, but prize money and accommodations varied from event to event.
In the early 1970s, Byrd said, there were about 24 to 36 women playing professionally. It was obvious they needed to organize.
"The prize money was so paltry . . . most of the tournaments paid about $100 to the winner and that didn't even cover your hotel or your airfare if you had to travel," Byrd said. "Once in a while there would be a big tournament and the promoter would put on a women's division as an afterthought."
The idea for the organization was hatched by Byrd, fellow player Madelyn Whitlow and Larry Miller, editor of National Billiard News. They started with about 40 members and required players to pay $30 in dues along with pictures and biographical information for publicity purposes. As they planned events, Byrd and WPBA organizers promoted players and sold advertising. It was a grassroots effort.
In those early years, there was no thought to the future of women's professional billiards. The notion that the WPBA would be on national television 35 years later never entered Byrd's mind.
"We were trying to do something right then to change what was really a bad situation for us," Byrd said. "We were just thinking one tournament at a time."
By the late 1970s, the three founders had turned control of the organization over to others. As Byrd drifted away from the world of billiards, she had stories and memories. She got to know Mosconi and the real-life Minnesota Fats, fierce rivals whose names transcended the sport.
"They disliked each other more than I could ever tell you," Byrd said. "They would turn bright red when you mentioned the other one's name. . . . It was more than just a rivalry. And I played with both and I would hear them each complain about the other."
These days, Byrd is astonished that some women's professional players make pool their full-time job. There are more than 100 players ranked by the WPBA, while tournament prize money can be in the $10,000-$15,000 range and prominent players can earn money with endorsement deals.
"The game has come a long way," Byrd said. "It is nice to watch [on ESPN] . . . it's always the WPBA such-and-such tournament. It's nice to feel like we made a difference."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun