Actor Jackie Gleason was known as The Great One. But on one afternoon in the early 1970s, Miami carpenter, yo-yo champion and amateur pool player Jimmy Sanz was The Greater One.
Sanz, who died of cancer at 77 at his Cutler Bay home on May 10, was a regular on the billiards tables at Bird Bowl (his picture hung there for some 30 years) and a long-gone bar on Northeast 79th Street. A gentleman approached Sanz with an offer to play Gleason at the television and movie star’s house.
“Jimmy said, ‘Of course,’ and followed him to Jackie’s house,” Sanz’s wife Patti said, adding that he was a bit leery of the stranger’s unexpected offer so he brought along his brother Richard just to be safe.
Now, Gleason wasn’t just an actor who earned an Oscar nomination for playing pool champion Minnesota Fats in the 1961 film classic, The Hustler. He knew how to play the game.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
After Gleason died in his Inverrary home in 1987, Minnesota Fats told reporters that the actor, namesake of the Miami Beach theater where he filmed his Jackie Gleason Show from 1964 to 1970, never asked him for advice before taking on the role. “He was very good. You couldn't beat him. And he played real good pool. He didn’t need no help from nowhere,” Fats said.
But Sanz could, and did, beat Gleason.
“He wasn’t happy,” Patti Sanz said, laughing. Still, “Jimmy said he was very gracious but nobody likes to lose.”
Richard Sanz said his brother won $11,000 or $12,000 that day off the star after the two played several games on Gleason’s billiards tables. Sanz won every round.
“He was a pretty good sport and played good pool. It wasn’t one-sided pool. Jimmy was just better that night,” he said.
Sanz, born Jose Jaime Sanz in Miami on Jan. 21, 1939, to a “Conch dad and North Carolina mom,” was always good with his hands, his family says. He’d wow kids with his yo-yo skills as a representative for Duncan Toys Co. as a teenager, feats that would later earn him spots on Popeye Playhouse hosted by “Skipper Chuck” Zink on Miami’s WTVJ and CBS’ Captain Kangaroo.
“Jimmy could do yo-yos with both hands. He was ambidextrous,” his wife said. “He would practice with a football helmet on his head because when he’d do around-the-world he kept hitting himself on the head. He traveled all over the country demonstrating yo-yos to little boys and girls. He was young — 16, 17, 18. He did that for about three years and then worked with his dad at his store for a few years to help out.”
Sanz’s father Jaime owned the Sanz Market on Eighth Street off Ponce de Leon Boulevard that did deliveries through Coral Gables up until its closing around 1967. Sanz Market was a popular draw for Miami politicos like Key Biscayne banker Bebe Rebozo and former Miami and Miami-Dade Mayor Steve Clark. “That was the beginning of Jimmy getting to know a lot of people,” said his brother Joseph Sanz.
“When he was a young boy, the Miracle Theatre [in Coral Gables] was having a yo-yo contest and he won a television set. He kept calling his dad to say, ‘I won a TV!’ His father said, ‘Boy, you come up with some excuses to get me to come pick you up.’ He said, ‘A guy offered me $100 for it.’ We had the first TV in the neighborhood,” Patti Sanz said.
He was the only person in life that I would hope was standing on the shore with a line if I was drowning…I admired him and now will always think ‘What would Jimmy do?’ when faced with a tough decision.
Matt Reynolds of Miami on Sanz’s obituary guest book on
After graduating from Miami High and serving with the Air Force, Sanz developed his carpentry skills. That trade took him inside Rocky star Sylvester Stallone’s one-time Coconut Grove home to do construction work. He did volunteer maintenance work at Stiltsville and helped rebuild his Cutler Ridge neighborhood after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. He bought some of the homes and fixed them up.
“He let people use extra rooms in the home if they had a skill to help rebuild. That’s how this whole block came back,” his wife said, also citing his repairs of the homes of many of the community’s elderly residents post-Andrew. After Hurricane Charley made landfall near Port Charlotte in 2004, Sanz loaded a food cart with supplies and drove to the West Coast to donate them and to help in the rebuilding efforts.
“He was genuinely a good guy,” sister-in-law Joan Sanz said. “You couldn’t go to his house without a bunch of people being there. They were never alone. That was unique about Jimmy.”
In addition to his wife and two brothers, Sanz is survived by daughter Crystal Sanz Hinton; stepson Bryan Bouchard; granddaughters Jaime Amelia Hinton and Lily Patricia Bouchard; and sister Marylou. A private celebration of life will be at 4 p.m. May 28 at the family home. Donations can be made to The Wounded Warrior Project and St. Jude’s Research Hospital for Children.
Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.