Watching Lou Campi bowl was fun. Especially the first time you saw him.
He was a little guy with glasses and a soft smile who looked like a sawed-off Clark Kent. As he shuffled into his approach, your immediate impression was that he was crowding the foul line. No room for him to slide. Then he was suddenly spinning the ball out onto the lane. With the crash of the pins, your brain finally caught up with the visual images of Lou’s style, and you realized what had happened. Campi had finished his delivery on the wrong foot.
To summarize—Lou Campi was a right-handed bowler who slid to the line with his right foot. If you think that’s easy, try it some time.
Many noted bowlers have had offbeat styles, and all of them have claimed their way was really an advantage. But not Wrong Foot Louie. The way he told it, he had played a lot of Italian bocce as a kid, got used to delivering the ball off his right foot, and it was too much trouble to change.
Campi was born in Verona, Italy, in 1905. The family moved to New Jersey when Lou was fourteen. Papa Campi was a stone mason, and his son followed in the trade.
Though he didn’t get around to tenpins until he was well past thirty, the bocce master swiftly made the transition, averaging over 200 by his second year. With his crazy style, he won quite a few money matches before the other bowlers wised up.
By 1947 Campi was a big name around North Jersey and New York City. Andy Varipapa had competed against Campi in several leagues, and chose him as a partner in a challenge-match for the BPAA Doubles title. The pair won the match, then successfully defended their title in the tournament the following year.
During the 1950s Campi bowled with the Faber Cement Blocks, the finest team in the East—and a fitting sponsor for a stone mason. In 1957 he teamed with Lindy Faragalli to again capture the BPAA Doubles. Besides the doubles title, Campi won several individual events that season, and was named a first team All-American. He was also a finalist at the All-Star Tournament four times, finishing as high as third place.
His wrong-foot finish aside, Campi did not hesitate to restructure his game. Long after he’d become famous, Campi switched from pin-bowling to spot-bowling. He also developed the unique “Campi Twin Grip,” a four-hole drilling in a rectangular pattern that allowed him to vary his grip as the night wore on.
Campi was also one of the early stars of TV bowling. On one show he won two automobiles. His greatest performance, though, was on the East vs. West Bowling Sweepstakes program.
For fourteen straight weeks Campi defeated the Who’s Who of bowling—Carter, Weber, Nagy, Lillard, Lubanski, and so on. The station even extended the show to see if someone could beat him. By then they’d run out of challengers. Bill Lillard was brought back for a second try, and Campi was finally defeated . . . by three pins.
That incredible television streak may have been the peak of Campi’s career. He continued to bowl with the Fabers and give exhibitions for AMF into the 1960s, gradually winding down from big-time competition. When he was elected to the ABC Hall of Fame in 1968, he was managing a bowling center.
Yet for all his accomplishments, Campi may be best known today as a bit of historical trivia.
Question: Who won the first PBA tournament?
Answer: Lou Campi at Albany, New York, in 1959.
If you’re doing the math, you’ll note that Campi was already 54 years old when he captured that inaugural PBA event. Thus, pro bowling had a senior champion before it had a regular one.
Lou Campi died in 1989.
First published in Bowlers Journal in February 1993.