His name still sends a thrill through the hearts of an older generation. For a decade or so after World War II, he was the ideal of American tenpins. Many of those who watched Junie McMahon in action remained convinced there has never been a finer bowler.
He had an impressive presence. Tall, erect, and square-shouldered, with a barrel-chest physique tapering to a narrow waist, he seemed to radiate coiled power. On the lanes his style was classic—compact, direct, with no wasted motion. It was said that McMahon was so smooth going up to the line that he could balance a tray of drinks on his head.
And of course, there was that devastating hook. In the days of rubber, lacquer, and hardwood, nobody rolled a ball like Junie McMahon. Put him on the modern Pro Tour, and they might have to stick weights on him, as they do for a race horse.
He was born in Passaic, New Jersey, in 1912. Named James after his father, he was first called Junior—which he hated—and then Junie, which he learned to live with. He was a schoolboy athlete of note, though he did not bowl his first game until he was 17. Then Pop McMahon was put in charge of the church’s new bowling lanes. The kid was soon hooked.
Much of his career would have a storybook flavor. Take the matter of his first bowling tournament. After four seasons on the lanes, Junie had worked his way up to a 200 average. Some friends talked him into entering the New Jersey state tournament. So Junie proceeded to walk off with the Singles title, and added the All Events for good measure. He felt so pleased about the whole business that a week later, he rolled his first 300 game.
He moved up from there. Over the next dozen years he made himself into a deadly match-game opponent, knocking off sweepers, and rolling boxcar numbers, until he got too big for the East.
Bowling’s big time was in the Midwest in 1945. McMahon decided to sell his talent to a major team in either Chicago or Detroit—it didn’t matter which, so his wife Helen suggested they flip a coin. It came up Chicago.
He joined Joe Wilman’s Monarch Beer team. And for the first time, the terror of the East ran into trouble. The tough competition didn’t bother him; it never would. What bugged McMahon was the peculiar Chicago habit of waiting for two lanes to clear on either side before you bowled. Accustomed to a swifter tempo, his game suffered. Not until he had a full season under his belt did he feel comfortable.
McMahon’s performance at the 1947 ABC Tournament was his first brush with national fame. Rolling in the Singles, he came down to his last eight frames needing eight strikes to pass the leader. He began stringing.
As usually happens in such situations, the rest of the squad paused to watch. Just as McMahon went after his sixth strike, a restless pinboy signaled his bowler by banging a kickback. The noise startled Junie. He pulled his shot onto the nose—but all the pins fell anyway. After that, the last two strikes were anticlimactic. McMahon had won the ABC Singles. And just as he had done in New Jersey in his first tournament, he took the All Events as well.
He bowled with the world’s best teams, but McMahon is not thought of as a team bowler. Tightly wound and aloof, a man who would never speak a sentence when a single word would do, he never quite fit in with Wilman’s easy-going Monarch crew. After two seasons he moved over to Paul Krumske’s high-powered Meister Braus. The Braus promptly lost their team match-game title. All the people McMahon had alienated over the years had a field day with that one.
Junie did have a more serious problem than the occasional personality conflict. He drank too much. Old timers still shake their heads about it, remembering him belting down shots of whiskey between matches at the All-Star Tournament. He led that most prestigious event going into the final day in 1946, then abruptly fell to third. Insiders whispered that alcohol was the reason.
He redeemed himself in 1949, running away with the All-Star by an impressive 11-point margin. It’s said that some of Junie’s friends took turns chaperoning him, keeping him well-rested and sober. The enduring image of that tournament, however, is of the new champion sitting at a table, stoically soaking his mangled right hand in Epsom salts. The annual 100-game destruction of that hand would become another part of the McMahon legend.
He was named Bowler of the Year a few months later. Then he set an ABC Ten Year Average record—something he always called his proudest accomplishment. A second All-Star title followed in 1951. When Bowlers Journal announced its All-American team each year, McMahon seemed to have a permanent spot.
As he had outgrown the East, McMahon now outgrew the bonds of conventional bowling. He quit league play to bowl exhibitions. He appeared in films and wrote an instruction book. Stories on “America’s top bowler” ran in glossy journals. His income climbed past $30,000, unheard of for someone in his profession.
Inevitably, McMahon was elected to the bowling Hall of Fame in 1955, his first year of eligibility. By then he and Helen had returned to New Jersey to open a pro shop. And though he remained the biggest name in bowling, sharp-eyed observers detected signs of deterioration.
He no longer challenged in the All-Star. The ABC scores were not so high. Other bowlers were knocking off the tournaments. At an age when Marino, Varipapa, Wilman and many other greats had not yet reached their peak, McMahon was already going downhill.
Early in 1959 he appeared on the premiere of the new TV show, “Jackpot Bowling.” The format was strikes only, and Junie showed some of his old fire defeating his opponent, Carmen Salvino. Minutes after the program signed off, McMahon collapsed in the dressing room. It was a stroke.
Junie McMahon would never bowl again. At 47 he was now partially paralyzed and speech impaired, and would spend the rest of his days at home and in a succession of medical facilities. Every few years a story might appear in one of the bowling magazines about how he was coming along. Always it was worse than the last time. The end finally came in 1974.
The number of people who remember him dwindles each year. Yet you can still find a few of them at bowling tournaments. Let a young hotshot with a slashing hook bunch together some strikes, and for a time the light will shine in their eyes. And you will know what they are thinking. They are hoping to see the magic of another Junie McMahon.
First published in Bowlers Journal in November 1993.