1515 Young St.
Exhibition tours are almost as old as organized bowling. One of the earliest—and most publicized—trips was undertaken in the fall of 1902 by a Chicago crew calling itself The Big Three.
Leader of the group was W.V. Thompson, star bowler and Brunswick executive, who convinced the company to bankroll the expedition. The other members of the trio were veteran kegler Fred Worden and reigning ABC Singles champ Fred Strong. As a sub, the Big Three brought along a 21-year-old farm boy who was just starting to make a name for himself, Harry Steers.
They left Chicago by train on September 28. First stop was a three-day engagement in St. Louis. The tour’s format called for the traveling trio to roll a three-game match against whatever local talent the home houses could round up. As expected, the Big Three swept the competition. Knowledgeable fans were impressed by the 1832 series the Chicagoans rolled against the Martin Kern Missouri Big Three.
From St. Louis the tour moved west through Texas, with performances at San Antonio and El Paso. Then it was across the high plains and desert to California. Outlaw bands still roamed the wild country—New Mexico and Arizona were not yet states—and the travelers were relieved to reach Los Angeles without incident. There they rolled three matches in three different establishments in a single day. One of the L.A. stops was at Monarch Recreation, which Thompson pronounced the most luxurious bowling center he had ever seen.
At Santa Monica, the audience was two-thirds female. Perhaps it was because Steers was on the lanes that day—the baby-faced young man seems to have been a sort of 1902 version of Leonardo DiCaprio. In any case, the Chicagoans put on a good show. In the seventh frame of the final game, when Steers rolled a strike, Strong tossed him a silver dollar in tribute. Steers struck again in the eighth, and Worden gave him his watch. Another strike in the ninth, and Strong threw in his coat. The kid then proceeded to close with three more strikes, and his colleagues tossed him a “gift” after each ball, Thompson capping off the fun with a $50 bill.
Santa Monica was followed by Santa Barbara, before the tour moved up the coast to San Francisco. The highlight of the three days in the Bay area was the grand opening of the new Central Alleys, where the Big Three was the headline attraction. The final California exhibition was at Stockton. Then the boys began heading home.
Once more they went into the wilderness, this time through mountains. The 1,000-mile journey took nearly 40 hours, and the train was late getting into Denver. The Big Three barely had time to get to their engagement at the Overland Alleys. Stiff and out of practice, they lost badly to the local team. The next day, after getting acclimated, they returned to form and had no further trouble in Denver.
Lincoln, Nebraska, came next, and the Big Three posted their highest single game of the tour, 674. In Iowa they gave performances at Carroll and Boone before arriving at Marshalltown, the boyhood home of baseball star Cap Anson. The old first baseman was now a Chicago proprietor, and Fred Worden was one of his bowling teammates. After the Big Three rolled their match, they were feted in a special banquet, complete with welcoming speeches from Marshalltown politicians.
The last stop was Dubuque. Here the hometown team swept the match with a 1756 series. That was the best score rolled against the Chicagoans on the tour, so Brunswick awarded each of the victors a new bowling ball and leather bag.
The Big Three tour lasted five weeks. During those 35 days, they traveled over 5,000 miles and rolled 44 separate matches. They lost only four. Thompson was the leading scorer among the regulars, averaging a shade under 188 for the trip. Worden stood next at 187, with Strong posting 186. Thompson’s 258 was the highest single game.
After the tour, each of the Big Three continued to make news. Strong won the 1903 ABC All Events championship. Worden moved to St. Louis and managed the city’s largest bowling resort. Thompson continued his distinguished career as a bowler, writer, and promoter. And little Harry Steers, the sub who’d wowed the ladies of Santa Monica, went on to become a charter member of the Bowling Hall of Fame.
First published in Bowlers Journal, January 1999.