Born March 7, 1913, in Toyko, Japan, Masako Katsura is known as the “First Lady of Billiards”. At the time, billiards was a male-dominated sport with separate billiards leagues for women. Over the course of her career, Katsura would become one of the most famous billiards players of all time and blaze a trail for future women in billiards.
Even as a teenager, she showed promise as a skilled billiards player at her brother-in-law’s carom billiards hall in Japan. She would go on to be the first woman to compete for a world title as a billiards player. Masako “Katsy” Katsura achieved international star status as a world-renowned female billiards player before leaving the spotlight to live a normal life after her retirement.
Masako Katsura’s Legacy In Billiards Began With Tragedy
Not much is known about the early years of Katsura’s childhood in Japan. What is known is that her sister’s husband owned a billiards parlor and in the years following her father’s death, Katsura would spend many hours there playing billiards against adult men (and beating them).
Her father died when she was only 12 years old, leaving behind Katsura along with one brother and three sisters. When her father passed, she was sent to live with her older sister and her husband.
Her brother-in-law, Tobio Kobashi, encouraged Katsura and her sisters to play billiards for fun at his pool hall. He was a talented billiards player who taught Katsura everything he knew. By the age of 13, Katsura’s interest in billiards had transformed into more than just a hobby.
Katsura was spending all of her free time at the billiards parlor, and so her brother-in-law decided to hire her as an attendant. It was unheard of at the time to find a teenage girl working at a billiards hall.
Working at the billiards parlor was Katsura’s passion and she diligently worked towards becoming a great billiards player herself. She used her earnings from the billiards hall to invest in a billiards table for her to play at home and she practiced the many different types of carom billiards games.
As a teenager working in the billiards hall, Katsura excelled. She played against adult men and almost always won. The next step for the young billiards prodigy was to begin entering local tournaments. She enjoyed multiple successes at a local level and was soon competing in national billiards tournaments.
At the age of only 15 years old, Katsura won the Japanese straight rail tournament. Her two younger sisters also followed in Katsura’s footsteps to win the tournament in the years following. After proving herself at the tournaments in Japan by beating men twice her age, Katsura began to compete on a national level, traveling to China and Taiwan.
I practice in an open room every day for two hours. Every day I practice, then I play with a lot of men. Men want to beat me. I play with men, six, seven hours a day. Men don’t like it, they don’t beat me. If I don’t hit a good shot, my brother-in-law, after the billiard room has closed for the day, tells me that that shot was not good. If I get that bad shot right, he tells me. “There are not that many good players in Japan“.Masako Katsura
The First Lady of Billiards
Masako Katsura was the first woman to cut through the gender barriers and make billiards accessible to women for generations to come. Although women did play billiards prior to Katsura, she was the first woman to make strides competing against men in national and world billiards tournaments.
Many people lined up to see the beautiful international billiards player cue up against the best players in the world during her prime. Masako “Katsy” Katsura was a sensation in the world of billiards who attracted attention from across the globe.
By wearing kimonos and high-heels during billiards exhibitions, Katsura’s public image in front of the cameras as a glamorous and enigmatic Japanese woman helped to create her celebrity status. However, her skill at the billiards table and not her appearance brought her international acclaim.
She caught the eye of Kinrey Matsuyama, a professional billiards player who had won the national three-cup championship and held the title of US national champion the previous year. With his mentorship, Katsura took her billiards skills to the next level. Matsuyama helped Katsura develop her skills to be on par with that of the top players in Asia.
Masako Katsura’s Marriage to Sergeant Vernon Greenleaf
By the end of 1947, Katsura had achieved a high status in the world of billiards in Asia by competing against and beating men in top-level competitions. With the end of World War II came the opportunity for Japan to once again join the Americans in friendly competition.
Katsura was working at a billiards club in Tokyo when the decorated American serviceman Sergeant Vernon Greenleaf approached her for a lesson. Greenleaf became smitten with the “First Lady of Billiards” during their intimate lessons in the dark billiards hall, and in 1950 the two were married. At the time of her marriage, she had finished second place in two national billiards competitions in Japan and had scored 10,000 points at a straight rail exhibition.
Just in time for the upcoming World Three-Cushion Championship, Vernon Greenleaf was reassigned to a post in the United States. Katsura, who barely spoke any English, joined her husband in the voyage across the sea to America from Japan. Katsura’s mentor Kinrey Matsuyama had bragged of her excellence to the billiards hall owner hosting the championship and had obtained an invitation for her play.
The host of the championship was six-time world champion Welker Cochran. He sent his son to investigate Matsuyama’s claims about Katsura’s billiards skill. When he heard from his son that Katsura could possibly be a better player than himself, he extended an invitation for her to join the tournament, with the blessing of the Billiards Congress of America.
World Three-Cushion Championship
Katsura was the first woman to compete in a billiards tournament for a world title at the 1952 World Three-Cushion Billiards Championship in San Francisco. She would be playing against the previous year’s champion, the 64-year-old Willie Hoppe who planned to retire that year with over 50 world titles under his belt.
Hoppe was expected to beat Katsura, but he spoke highly of her skills after watching her play. Her mentor Matsuyama was also in the line-up for the tournament along with several other world-renowned billiards players.
Katsura performed well in the tournament and was the crowd-favorite. People exclaimed praise as she made successful shots. She competed skillfully against world-renowned players but was only able to defeat two out of the nine other contenders. She came in 7th place at the final point tally. Her mentor Matsuyama came in as runner-up to Hoppe.
Although she was defeated in the championship, her peers all spoke very highly of her. Katsura proved that women could hold their own in the male-dominated world of professional billiards. Thanks to her, billiards became a more equal playing ground for both men and women. Welker Cochran said that with a few more years of practice against Americans, Katsura could become an unbeatable force.
Masako Katsura’s Celebrity Status
Americans were enthralled with the phenomenon of the “First Lady of Billiards”, Masako Katsura. Her exhibitions drew in crowds, who had no interest in billiards beyond the novelty of a beautiful female player. Thanks to Katsura, the sport of billiards also became a women’s sport.
She was a petite woman who weighed less than 100 lbs and stood at only 5 ft tall. Those who watched her compete in the tournament compared her to a figurine because of her doll-like figure and feminine dresses. Many described her as appearing 10 years younger than she actually was.
The size difference was staggering when she competed against Irving Crane, the tallest player in the World Three-Cushion Championship. The spectacle brought lots of attention to the billiards tournament from outside of the community.
Following the 1952 tournament, Cochran announced that he was coming out of retirement to do an exhibition tour across America with Katsura. Her celebrity status created the business opportunity to draw in crowds for the exhibitions.
“I hope my tour will convince women that billiards is not only a man’s game. Women can play just as well as men.” Katsura said in one interview.
Billiards icons Tex Zimmerman and Danny McGoorty helped organize Cochran and Katsura’s tour. Part of their strategy was to play up Katsura’s Japanese heritage and attractiveness for the American market. They dressed Katsura in tight kimonos with a split up the side, paired with high-heels.
Her tour with Cochran had mixed success, with the economic recession impacting attendance. In 1953, she went on another exhibition tour with the world billiards champion Willie Hoppe. Her husband, Sergeant Vernon Greenleaf, came along on the tour to help translate for Katsura, whose English was poor.
Following Hoppe’s retirement in 1953, the world of billiards was abuzz with speculations on who would become the champion at the next world tournament. Hoppe was considered the greatest player in the world, and billiards fans were eager to find out who would take his place as world champion. Katsura and her mentor Matsuyama both competed in the tournament and by the end, had tied for the position of fifth runner-up.
After the 1953 tournament, Katsura and Matsuyama did an exhibition of their own in California. She defeated her mentor at balkline but lost the three-cushion matches. That same year, Matsuyama passed away from a heart attack in Japan.
In 1954, Katsura entered the world championship once again as the sole female contestant. She took fourth place in the 1954 tournament before taking a hiatus and largely disappearing from the public eye.
The Legacy of “Katsy”
From 1955 to 1961, Katsura was in partial retirement. She published several billiards instructional books during that time. She came out of retirement to play 30 exhibitions in 1958. Along with billiards star Harold Worst, she played a series of week-long exhibitions in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York in 1959.
As a billiards celebrity, Katsura appeared on several famous television shows in the late 1950s and early 1960s. She appeared as a mystery guest on “What’s My Line?” and as a guest on ABC’s “You Asked For It” multiple times.
In 1961, world billiards champion Harold Worst challenged Katsura to a match to defend his title. He defeated Katsura in six out of seven matches to retain his title of world champion. This would be one of Katsura’s last public appearances.
After the 1961 tournament against Worst, Katsura disappeared from the world of billiards. Following her retirement, her peers in the billiards community speculated on why she had retired. McGoorty claimed that he heard rumors that her husband was responsible for pushing her to retire.
Her husband passed away in 1967, and in 1976 Katsura made one final appearance at a billiards hall in San Fransisco. She easily hit 100 points at a game of straight-rail, smiled, and disappeared from the world of billiards forever. She returned to Japan to live with her sister and remained there until her death in 1995.
Masako “Katsy” Katsura was a trailblazer for women in billiards. She held her own in a male-dominated sport and became the first female billiards player to compete for a world title.
On March 7, 2021, Google Doodle’s “This Day In History” celebrated the 49th anniversary of Masako Katsura becoming the first woman to compete for a world title in billiards. From her difficult childhood to her rise to fame as a world-renowned billiards player, her story is an inspiration to women everywhere.