According to his granddaughter Sherry Sirianni, Julius Popwell acquired the nickname "Little Man" not because of his size -- he carried 300-plus pounds on his 5' 6" frame -- but because of his expertise as a youngster hustling pool against men twice his age. He was a born gambler who would place a wager on almost anything and is reputed to have once won close to $1 million on the outcome of a World Series game. But Popwell also accommodated others who, like himself, enjoyed wagering on the turn of a card or a roll of the dice. The time was shortly after World War II, from the mid 40s to early 50s, when people had plenty of money to spend but few goods were available for purchase as the country's production had been almost totally geared toward the war effort. Numerous gambling operations sprang up throughout the United States, one of which was Popwell's. He ran his business -- including two separate lotteries, craps, and various card games -- from the basement of the family home, which was located in Shelby County some 10 miles from Birmingham, Alabama. But gambling was illegal, and Popwell was constantly harrassed by the Birmingham police, the sheriff of Shelby County, and U.S. Treasury agents. His plush gaming establishment was raided numerous times, and according to news reports, Popwell was indicted and eventually incarcerated for running an illegal lottery and for income tax evasion.
Despite his brushes with the law, Popwell earned a reputation among his friends and business associates as a fair and honorable man whose word was his bond. He was well-respected by his fellow gamblers and always made good on his bets. Skilled at many card games, including pitch, gin rummy, and cooncan, Popwell especially enjoyed a good game of poker.
"He was a top player of the time," said Horseshoe Tournament Director Jim Albrecht. "He was one of the most fervent road gamblers, and his enormous love of poker caused him to travel across the country to play in various games." Popwell's road game was five-card stud, and he regularly played against Johnny Moss, Henry Green, Aubrey Day, Oscar Webbey, and other legendary big players of the day.
Popwell is also remembered as a kind-hearted man, and according to his obituary in the Birmingham News, he was "a soft touch" who helped those down on their luck. "As is typical of guys in this group, he was generous to a fault," Albrecht said.
His granddaughter remembers that on one occasion, the owner of a toy business repaid his gambling debt to Popwell in toys. In turn, "Little Man" distributed the toys to poor children who lived in the hills near the family home. A gambler's gambler, Popwell continued to pursue his vocation, despite ill health, until his death on May 19, 1966, at age 53. The cause of death was cancer. To commemorate "Little Man" Popwell's induction into the Poker Hall of Fame, Binion's Horseshoe will issue a special collector's chip, which will be available in December.