1 ABC championship (1965-CS)
Someone once asked George Frederick Calder if he claimed to be the greatest bowler in the world. “Naw, I don’t claim that,” Calder replied. “I admit it.”
He was a pretty accomplished performer during the 1940s and ‘50s, though his record never did measure up to his bravado. Calder was best known for his flamboyant personality. He probably collected more nicknames than tournament titles.
People generally called him Ace. He was also known as Bowling’s Dizzy Dean, The Gorgeous George of the Alleys, The Clown Prince of Bowling, or simply The Great Calder. You could say he made an impression. Thirty years after his death, old-timers around Chicago still trade Ace Calder stories.
He was born there in 1911 and grew up wanting to be a baseball player. He had the talent. After graduating high school Calder signed with the St. Louis Cardinals. He was working his way through their farm system when he injured his arm.
If you read the biographies of PBA stars, you’ll be struck by how many were aspiring baseball players who started bowling “to build up their arms.” Calder was one of these. He was 25 years old and had never bowled in his life. Yet within a year he had rolled a 300 game in one of Chicago’s toughest leagues. He never went back to the Cardinals.
Calder’s bowling style hardly had the grace of a professional athlete. He scuttled up to the line on dips and lurches, like a puppet with its strings tangled. The large cigar clasped between his teeth might have been there to keep him from tipping over. His release was the overturned spinner common in the days of shellac. It produced a shot that was unremarkable—unless it found a friendly track.
He found that track on Lanes 7 and 8 at Kaadland Recreation. Calder became the captain of a team in the North End Traveling League sponsored by Keeley’s Half-and-Half, a dreadful brew that combined the worst features of beer and malt liquor. The North End was a home-and-home league. As such, teams were expected to doctor their home alleys to suit their games. Nobody did that better than Calder and his Keeleys.
In 1946 the team won the ABC award for the country’s highest 3-game series, 3629. The following year the Keeleys became the first team to take the award back-to-back with 3577. Calder himself rolled a 796 set in 1948, the best in Illinois that season. When the Keeleys didn’t crack 3300 at home they considered it a bad night.
You did not beat Calder or the Keeleys at Kaadland. During those glory years, Calder rolled a series of eight-game charity matches on his favorite pair. He knocked off Andy Varipapa, Connie Schwoegler, Joe Kristof, and a whole roster of other stars. The only invader to defeat him was Joe Norris—and Norris had to shoot 300 the last game to do that.
On the lanes, Calder appeared to genuinely enjoy his bowling. He ran out strikes, he yelled at the pins, he kidded the spectators, he mimicked the styles of his opponents. Critics said he might do better if he would only get serious. They claimed he could only bowl well at Kaadland, where he didn’t have to think.
But life was more fun Ace’s way. Sometimes he bet every horse in a single race so he would come up with a winner. Returning to Chicago after a tournament, he might check into a suite at a Loop hotel and throw a party—and then send the bill to Keeley. The team bowled exhibitions around the Midwest. On the day of one of these matches, the Keeley front office received a telegram from its captain which read: “Am in South Bend. Where should I be?”
Another tale concerns the young hotshot who lost a $100 match to Calder and couldn’t pay. The debt dragged on for weeks. When the kid finally decided to settle, he tried to carry it off with a flourish, appearing at Kaadland before a packed house and ceremoniously presenting Calder with a $100 bill. Calder accepted the money without comment. Then he struck a match, ignited the $100 bill, and lit his cigar with it.
A stroke ended the good times in 1965. But something of The Great Calder has survived. In 1954 he appeared against Buddy Bomar on the Championship Bowling TV show. Calder went through his whole routine and had the match locked up until he chopped a spare in the final frame. With that, he picked up Bomar’s ball and almost flung it down the lane.
It’s worth getting the tape of that match, even though the result is known. Everyone, at least once, should see Ace Calder in action.
First published in Bowlers Journal in June 1995.
Joe Norris died at age 93 on February 19, 2001. This piece was published in the April 2001 issue of Bowlers Journal.
I didn’t know Joe Norris as long or as well as most of the people who are remembering him in print. But the man was so engaging that, once you met him, you felt you’d been friends with him forever. I sure did.
It was 1963, and I was 16 when I first read a profile Mort Luby Jr. had written about Joe. All the famous Norris stories were there—I particularly liked the one about the dead fish under the massage table—and I was impressed. Here was a guy zanier than any of my friends. Joe was retiring from Brunswick, and had told Mort, “Now I’m gonna sit on my butt and just watch the world go by.” We all know how that worked out.
Years later, when I started writing historical pieces about bowling, he was the logical person to contact. I remember the first time I called him. Nervous about disturbing a living legend, I stammered a little when he came on the line, saying I hoped Mr. Norris could spare me a few minutes.
“I read your stuff all the time; I was wondering when you’d get around to calling me,” he said. And by the way, he added, there was no Mr. Norris at that number. “Call me Joe—or just Norris.” And then he burst into a high-pitched little giggle that let me know all was right with the world.
After that, I would phone him every few months. Fortunately, those Chicago-to-San Diego long distance calls were a tax-deductible business expense, because Joe never knew the meaning of a short conversation. His memory was always vivid and sharp. Sometimes I suspected that a few of his memories were a bit too vivid to be absolute truth. But that was part of Norris Experience.
Once he really scared me. We were talking about his first 300 game, and he excused himself to get a scrapbook. A few seconds later, I heard a loud crash on the line. Then nothing.
A full minute went by. Then two minutes. By now my mind was racing—I had killed Joe Norris! Nobody in any bowling alley would ever talk to me again!
I was about to hunt up my rosary when Joe finally came back on the phone. “Sorry for the delay, Jake,” he said casually. “I knocked over the TV set.”
I finally got to meet him in the flesh in the summer of 1999. That was when I spent a memorable day at Mort’s home, working with Joe and a few more living legends on our list of the one hundred Bowlers of the Century.
Joe was in top form. He had an opinion and anecdote on just about everyone. What impressed me, though, was when he asked Tom Kouros for some advice on getting a different bowling ball. Joe might be over 90, but he was still a competitor.
The next day, our work finished, Mort had a dinner party. My wife Terri had been listening to Norris tales for years, and wasn’t sure what to expect. We had just entered the house, and were still greeting Mort and Pat, when suddenly Terri felt someone grab her arm and start kissing it from her hand up toward her shoulder. That was her introduction to Joe Norris.
Joe was in even better form with the ladies present. Now his stories were R-rated. One of them was about a famous star of the ‘40s, whose wife caught him in bed with another woman and promptly divorced him. Joe’s summation was priceless: “That man’s wife was really narrow-minded.”
On the way home, I wondered what Terri would be thinking about this old goat Norris. And her summation was priceless: “That’s what I want you to be like when you’re 91.”
The last time I talked to Joe was just after last year’s ABC Tournament. I had written about the leg brace he had to wear, and said that if you asked him, he might show it to you. “You clown!” he roared at me. “I must have had fifty guys at Albuquerque asking me to roll up my pants!” And then he giggled—someone had put something over on the great practical joker.
And now he’s gone. And I wish I had called him more often. And I wish that, just once more, I could hear that giggle.