Gil Zunker, one of the 13 charter members of the bowling Hall of Fame, died 75 years ago tomorrow. Here’s my profile of Zunker, first published in the January 1991 issue of Bowlers Journal.
When the ABC Hall of Fame held its first election in 1941, three men dominated the voting. They were Hank Marino, Jimmy Smith, and Gil Zunker.
The first two names are at least vaguely familiar to someone knowing a bit of bowling history. To find anything about Zunker, you must delve deeply into the record books. He died young in 1938.
Perhaps the fact that Zunker was freshly dead influenced those first Hall of Fame voters–that and the man’s own charisma. Zunker was one of those larger-than-life personalities who are hard to capture in cold print.
Yet even a half-century later, anyone reading the accounts of his short life is struck by his jaunty spirit, and by the warmth his contemporaries felt for him. Here is the kind of guy you’d want on your team, whether he could bowl or not. And make no mistake, Gillie could bowl.
Zunker was born in Milwaukee in 1901 and grew up among his fellow German-Americans along Teutonia Avenue. When and how he learned to bowl is lost to history. We first find him making his mark in local leagues during the mid-1920s.
For many years he worked as a beer salesman. This is appropriate, since Gillie was built along the lines of a beer keg. He stood 5-10, weighed well over 200 pounds, and was known for his appreciation of good food. A natural extrovert, Zunker couldn’t keep still on the lanes. He entertained both teammates and opponents with his noisy exuberance. They called him “El Zunko,” and he often referred to himself by that name.
Gillie’s sunny approach to life is best illustrated in a story from the 1933 ABC Tournament. Before leaving Milwaukee, he bet several friends malteds and sundaes that he’d shoot at least one 600 series. At the tournament he managed only 598 in the team event, but then followed with 750 in doubles and 712 in singles. He won the doubles with Frank Benkovic, and his 2060 was a new all events record. Gillie returned home and paid off his bets anyway. After all, he explained, he hadn’t really shot a 600 series–just a “5″ and two “7″s.
Zunker was not a fancy bowler. He took four quick steps and rolled a short hook with plenty of speed. He didn’t mind if he looked sloppy going to the line. “Smoothness is fine,” he said, “but above all, heave that ball out onto the alley.” He never tried to spot bowl because he considered it “unnatural.”
The Depression years were good to Zunker. He bowled with the Heil Products, a Milwaukee-based team that then rivaled the Green Bay Packers in statewide popularity. The Heils held the BPAA match-game title for four years, and won the international championship at Berlin in 1936. Gillie continued his strong shooting at the ABC, taking over leadership of the Ten Year Average List in 1938.
That December. the Heils lost their match-game title. Gillie was not at his best in the match, but came back strong two days later with a 742 in league. The next morning he awoke with a headache and blurred vision. He took it easy for a few days and seemed to be recovering. Then he was stricken again over dinner.
Zunker was rushed to the hospital. He was a victim of Landry’s Paralysis, a rare condition which was then untreatable. Shortly after midnight on December 19 he died, just 37 years old.
The bowling world was stunned. Memorial tributes poured in to Heil Products, to ABC offices, to Bowlers Journal, to anywhere that the sense of loss could be shared. Zunker’s teammate, journalist Billy Sixty, wrote a farewell poem which began–
“A vacant seat upon the bowler’s bench–
Strange silence, emptiness, and gloom
Where once a raucous shout had echoed clear . . .”
Bowling moves on, records fall, new competitors take their places. Not many people in our rough-and-ready sport have inspired poetry, though. Gillie Zunker had to be something special.
ABC Hall of Fame, 1970
#2 Bowler of the 20th Century
Bowler of the Year, 1960-61, 1962-63, 1964-65
All-American, 1955-56, 1956-57, 1958-59, 1959-60, 1960-61, 1961-62, 1962-63, 1964-65, 1965-66, 1970-71
Bowlers Journal Bowler of the Decade, 1960s
All-Star champion, 1961-62, 1962-63, 1964-65, 1965-66
Match Game Doubles champion, 1956, 1960, 1961
1 ABC championship (1962-CT)
26 PBA titles