Undefeated Champion

When cancer killed Joe Falcaro in 1951, he had been calling himself Bowling’s Undefeated Match Game Champion for twenty-two years. That billing was open to dispute, but Chesty Joe did have a point.  No one ever took away his title on the lanes.  A gun did that.

He’d won the championship from Joe Scribner in a 60-game set in 1929.  Falcaro was a New Yorker, knew about publicity, and knew that being the champ was worth much more than being an ex-champ.  So after beating Scribner in a rematch, he concentrated on socking away the dollars from endorsements and exhibitions, while refusing all challenges.  “Go get a reputation first,” he’d snarl at would-be opponents.

Joe Falcaro—LIFE magazine, 1940

Early in 1933 a group of Eastern proprietors decided to blast Falcaro into action. They announced a series of elimination events to provide a challenger for the champion.  With the Depression getting deeper and money getting scarcer, Falcaro agreed to the plan.

Joe Miller of Buffalo won the eliminations.  On February 23 the contract for the championship match was finalized. Falcaro and Miller would bowl 80 games, spread over eight 10-game blocks, at eight different houses in six cities.  The opening block was set for the evening of March 31, in Philadelphia.

What happened next was reported on the front page of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  On the afternoon of March 30, the day before the big match, Falcaro emerged from a house on 31st Drive  in the Astoria section of Queens, to be confronted by a man named Frank Mazzola.  With hardly a preamble, Mazzola pulled a pistol and shot Falcaro in the groin.

The street was crowded with children from a nearby school.  Amid the screams and chaos Mazzola tried to get away, but was tackled by a passerby.  Police arrived and placed Mazzola under arrest for felonious assault.  Falcaro was taken to St. John’s Hospital.

The reason for Mazzola’s attack came out in court two weeks later. Mazzola had been serving a prison stretch, and thought Falcaro had been paying too much attention to the estranged Mrs. Mazzola. According to Mazzola, Falcaro had reached for a gun when they’d met in front of the wife’s home on 31st Drive.  Mazzola claimed he’d shot Falcaro in self-defense.

By then Falcaro was out of the hospital and declined to pursue the case.  Mazzola was sent to the Welfare Island jail after pleading guilty to a reduced charge of illegal firearm possession.  The reports about him end there.

Meanwhile, the bowling promoters were doing some hasty improvising.  Instead of waiting for Falcaro to recover, they matched Miller against Stewart Watson, who’d won a Chicago elimination and was scheduled to meet the winner of the Falcaro-Miller match.  When Miller defeated Watson in May, the promoters proclaimed Miller the new match game champion.  That didn’t set well with Falcaro.  He sent a press release to forty-one newspapers that he was still the champion, and that the Miller-Watson match was nothing more than a “pot game.”

Now things get fuzzy.  One report said that the promoters got Falcaro to sign a statement surrendering his title.  There was also a story that Miller would bowl Falcaro to settle the matter.  The match didn’t come off, and Falcaro was soon reasserting his claim.  In February 1934 the Bowling Proprietors Association of America assumed control of the match game championship, recognizing Miller as champ.  If Falcaro wanted a crack at the title, he’d have to enter future eliminations, like any other bowler.

He never did.  And to the chagrin of the BPAA, Falcaro continued to cash in as the Undefeated Match Game Champion. He branched out into magazine articles, an instruction book, movie shorts, and the first-ever bowling TV program.  He was the subject of feature stories in Life, The New Yorker, and The Saturday Evening Post.

Joe Falcaro became the highest-paid bowler in the world.  So in the end, did it really matter whether his title was official or bogus?

First published in BOWLERS JOURNAL INTERNATIONAL in May 2016.  For this story and 89 more, buy a copy of my book THE BOWLING CHRONICLES.  A great Christmas gift for any bowler!  Available on Amazon—


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