ABC Hall of Fame, 1966
1 ABC championship (1915-D)
The picture is arresting enough.
Glancing through a portrait gallery of bowling’s hall of famers, you can’t miss him. The dude with the handlebar mustache. Looks more like one of Wyatt Earp’s Dodge City deputies, or perhaps that forgotten ancestor peering out from the dusty picture frame in Grandma’s attic. This guy was a bowler?
Meet John Koster. Charter member of the ABC Hall of Fame. Mentor to Mort Lindsey, Barney Spinella, and other legendary stars. And through the first 50 ABC Tournaments, the only man to win four eagles.
He was a native of Germany, born in Bremen in 1872. Tenpin bowling was considered a German sport in those days, but Koster never touched a ball until he was 19 years old. By then he was living in Brooklyn and making deliveries for a delicatessen. One day he made a stop at a Manhattan bowling alley. In good storybook fashion, he promptly fell in love with the game.
It was just as well he was a big man. Physical strength was vital to successful bowling a century ago. The alleys were pockmarked and badly lit, the pins as rugged as tree stumps. The bowling balls didn’t have finger holes. Koster towered over his friends on the lanes. They nicknamed him Long John.
Within a few years he was counted among the best bowlers in the East. Koster won the Greater New York Individual Tournament and was presented a special gold medal by the Police Gazette. This prize carried great prestige, since the paper also provided the challenge belt held by boxing’s heavyweight champ.
At the first ABC Tournament in 1901, Koster ran second in both Singles and All Events. That was only a warm up. The next year his 247 game—high in the tournament—helped the Fidelias win the Team championship, and his 1841 set took the All Events. If there’d been a Bowler of the Year award in 1902, Koster would have won hands down.
These were prosperous times for Long John. He left behind the deli delivery carts and moved to the fashionable Bronx, buying half-interest in a bowling center. His Bronx Central Recreation became one of the city’s best-known houses.
In 1912 Koster was back in the ABC championship circle, as captain of the Brunswick All-Stars. Included in the lineup was a chunky fellow just starting to make his mark in competition, Mort Lindsey. The following year Koster won his final ABC title in the Doubles with Peter Schultz.
That made four eagles for Long John, a feat unmatched until Joe Wilman bagged his fourth in 1954. Though the fields were smaller in Koster’s day, it must also be noted that Long John missed at least a half-dozen tournaments because of New York’s ongoing feud with the ABC. Possibly he would have won even more championships.
The four ABC titles are merely the highlight of Koster’s resume. He once estimated he’d won 35 medals in major competition. Eventually he sold his interest in Bronx Central and moved up the Hudson to Nyack. Long John’s last tournament victory came in 1928, when his Nyack Roofing team captured the New York state championship.
By now the handlebar mustache was gone. Koster had become somewhat gaunt, and Long John began to resemble Honest Abe. From time to time he showed flashes of his old form, posting a high finish in the Petersen Classic, and rolling a 673 in the ABC Singles when he was past 60. Arthritis finally forced him to stop bowling in 1941.
Koster died on August 14, 1945. This happened to be the same day the fighting ended in World War II. Peace news held everyone’s attention for days thereafter. Long John was already buried before most of the bowling world heard he had gone.
John Koster. Yeah—that guy was a bowler, all right.
First published in Bowlers Journal, December 1990.