This week, one of the all time legends...
Fred Davis was the younger brother of snooker’s first world champion but forged a professional career full of success in his own right which was to span nearly 60 years.
Fred was 12 years the junior of Joe Davis. His own professional career began in unpromising fashion. He lost to Bill Withers 17-14 in the 1937 World Championship.
Joe was furious. He didn’t rate Withers and could not believe his brother had been beaten by him.
This shook Fred’s own self confidence but it also led him to seek help from an optician, who fitted him with ‘sportsman’s glasses’, which undoubtedly improved his game.
Nobody beat Joe in the World Championship from its first staging in 1927 to 1946, when he retired.
Fred came closest in 1940, losing 37-36 in the final and was an obvious favourite for the title when his brother finally bowed out.
He lost to Walter Donaldson in the 1947 final – they were to contest eight in a row – but beat him in 1948, 1949, 1951, 1952 (see this story about Horace Lindrum), 1953 and 1954.
In 1955 and 1956 he defeated John Pulman to complete an eighth title triumph but the writing was on the wall for snooker, which was struggling to stay alive.
These were dark days for the professional game. Those who today complain about the sport’s fortunes should put themselves in the shoes of the professionals of the 1950s, where TV coverage was sporadic and prize money more like pocket change.
After the 1957 event, the World Championship was scrapped. Fred would still play exhibitions and also take part in matches on the BBC against Joe for Grandstand, especially in the winter months when there was a risk that outdoor sport would be called off because of bad weather.
This gave him some exposure but it was not the same as playing in tournaments.
In 1959 Fred was asked by Clive Everton, who of course went on to become Snooker Scene’s editor, how he saw the future of snooker.
His reply was to the point. “It has no future,” he said.
Players made money primarily from exhibitions. Fred once turned up at one and asked where the table was, only to be told, “Oh, we thought you’d bring it with you.”
In this period, Joe Davis had continued to play in other events but was only ever beaten off level terms by one player: Fred.
The World Championship was revived on a challenge basis in 1964 and reverted to knockout in 1969.
By this time, Davis was past his prime but in 1978, at the age of 64, he reached the Crucible semi-finals. It was a fine performance by a player who slaved away in snooker’s most troubled times and was now receiving some much deserved recognition in the first World Championship the BBC had covered from first ball to last.
The BBC put together a musical montage set to the Beatles song ‘When I’m Sixty Four’ featuring various shots of Fred, usually smiling. His was a story the public instantly warmed to.
He could have beaten Perrie Mans but missed a pink that would have reduced his arrears to 16-15 and was beaten 18-16.
It was all too much for brother Joe, watching from the audience. He collapsed and died just over two months later.
Fred beat Kirk Stevens in the opening round the following year, making him the oldest ever match winner at the Crucible.
On the way to victory he constructed a 109 break that even the match referee applauded.
Davis made his last Crucible appearance in 1984 at the age of 70. It seems inconceivable now that anyone of that age will ever again play on snooker’s biggest stage.
I saw him play on his last ever TV appearance in Barry Hearn’s 1991 World Masters. He was 77 at the time and played Steve Davis.
Naturally, he lost 6-0 but his famous smile was much in evidence.
He carried on playing because he loved snooker. Even though he lost his place on the professional circuit through losing a pro ticket match (which pitted a low ranked player against a wannabe qualifier) to Jason Prince in 1990, he carried on competing when the game went open in 1991.
The following season, at the age of 78, he drew a 16 year-old Ronnie O’Sullivan in the qualifying rounds for the Grand Prix. Despite the 62-year age gap, Davis took a frame off the future world champion.
He finally retired at the age of 79 in 1993, some 57 years since he first competed as a professional.
He had been awarded the MBE in 1977. He also won two World Professional Billiards titles.
Fred may have lived for a long time in his brother’s shadow, but consider this: he played professional snooker in six different decades, a distinction that may never be bettered.
He died the day before the 1998 World Championship at the age of 84.