The temperature outside was -30 degrees when Pete Carter performed this exhibition at Anaconda, Montana. It wasn’t much warmer inside the bowling center.
Eddie Kawolics was the first TV star I ever saw in person.
Kawolics was one of the mainstays of early televised bowling, and by the time I was 10, he was as familiar to me as Howdy Doody. One Saturday morning in 1958, while I was bowling in my junior league, I paused to take a quick comfort break. When I finished, I happened to notice the man standing at the facility next to me.
Eddie was a crony of our proprietor, Rudy Habetler, and would occasionally show up to shoot three-cushion billiards. As time went on, he showed up more often. By then his bowling career was in decline.
It had been some career, though. Born in 1907, Kawolics began to make a name as a bowler around Cleveland in the 1930s. A colorful performer, he made exhibition tours for Ebonite billed as “The Mad Russian from Findlay, Ohio.” Actually, he was Hungarian.
World War II interrupted this pleasant life. Kawolics left for the army in 1942. He spent four years in service, was wounded, and earned a chestful of medals. When the war ended, he moved to Chicago.
This was the era of the great teams, and Eddie was on a lot of them. Tavern Pale, Meister Brau, King Louie, Hamm’s Beer—his teams dominated the Chicago Classic League and cleaned up in tournaments. Eddie himself won enough titles to be named an All-American three times.
Kawolics was not physically impressive. Short and wide, he was built like two men sitting down. As he aged he took on the appearance of a grumpy Buddha—definitely grumpy. Eddie did not suffer fools gladly. To his admirers, this suggested he was direct and honest. Other people simply thought he was a grouch.
His bowling style was unadorned, a measured waddle of four short steps, with little backswing and a stiff-arm pitch onto the lane. Long after it had gone out of fashion, Kawolics was one of the last star bowlers still using a two-hole ball.
Eddie’s biggest moment came at the 1963 ABC. He was now bowling with up-and-comers Jim Stefanich and Les Zikes for Old Fitzgerald. Though Kawolics didn’t score well, the rest of the team got hot and carried home the title. After 31 years, Eddie at last had an ABC eagle.
But most of the glory was over. His Brunswick contract ran out, TV appearances grew rare, and Eddie took a night job at an insurance company. Now we would see him every Saturday morning when he wheeled his ancient Mercury into the parking lot at Habetler Bowl.
If a PBA telecast were scheduled, he would stay on at the bar to watch and criticize the bowlers. He would get especially nasty whenever Ray Bluth was on. Bluth had burned Eddie out of a big prize on a TV show a few years back, and Eddie couldn’t stand him.
We kids in the junior league had grown older along with Eddie. As teenagers, we no longer held him in awe, but tolerated him with amusement. We smiled at his ranting against the current pros, and snickered at his complaints against lane condition—“I’ve got a better alley out back of my house” was one of his milder comments. Eddie was not to be taken seriously.
He showed us one time, though. The Classic League made its annual trip to Habetler’s one winter night in the mid-‘60s, and we were all on hand to see what the old man could do. And darned if Eddie didn’t start the first game with seven straight strikes! Yet he never once looked back at the cheering section of convinced adolescents gathered behind his bench. He didn’t need to—he knew his work.
I don’t remember what Eddie finally shot that night. Probably I could look it up somewhere, but it’s not important. The memory of that hammered-down little hulk bouncing around the approaches and happily cussing out the pins is still fresh and green.
Eddie Kawolics died in 1976.
First published in Bowlers Journal, December 1991.
Joe Falcaro (1896-1951) spent most of his bowling career in New York, knew how to get publicity, and often antagonized people. When he won the match-game title, he defended once, then fended off all challenges until he was put out of action by a gunshot wound. These facts have caused many historians to undervalue Falcaro’s bowling talent, and delayed his Hall of Fame election until 1975. Yet the 1999 Bowlers Journal poll ranked him as high as #27 of 20th Century bowlers–which is still about 26 places lower than Chesty Joe would have ranked himself.
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