Archive for the ‘STORIES’ Category

Johnny Small’s Magic Ball

April 28, 2022

Most knowledgeable bowlers know the origin of the high-tech bowling ball.  In 1973 PBA pro Don McCune discovered that soaking a plastic ball in the chemical solution MEK improved the lane-gripping qualities of the ball’s surface.  Thus began the era of Chemical Bowling.

Yet McCune was not the first person to demonstrate the scoring potential locked in the shell of a bowling ball.  For that part of the story, we have to go back further in time.

In 1939 the Raybestos-Manhattan Company began making bowling balls.  The firm was an old, established manufacturer of rubber products, and the booming bowling market provided a logical opportunity for expansion.  As one bit of advertising copy promised, the new Manhattan ball would be the finest ever made.  It would “offer greater resistance to wear, and maintain its original spherical shape longer than any pellet ever offered to the tenpin world.”

In Chicago, radio broadcaster Sam Weinstein had just gone into the bowling supply business.  He became the first distributor of the Manhattan ball.  The factory sent Weinstein a batch of 100, and he sold most of them.  Then problems started to develop.

The new balls had an excess of static electricity.  And as we learned in junior high science class, rubber that has an excess of static electricity gets sticky.  “Those balls gripped the lanes like no other ball ever did,” Weinstein remembered years later.  “But they really got dirty and the bowlers couldn’t keep their hands clean.

Johnny Small

That didn’t bother Johnny Small.  A member of Joe Wilman’s Budweiser team, Small was one of that large group of bowlers who ranked just below the elite—“a good team bowler,” the expression went.  He was a rugged competitor who rolled so many pot games that friends called him The Marathon Man.  Two things about Small stood out.  His backswing was ridiculously short.  And though just in his early thirties, he was almost completely bald.

Small had purchased one of the new balls from Weinstein.  He was in the electrical business himself, so presumably he understood why his Manhattan got so greasy so quickly.  What mattered to Small was that he was suddenly cleaning up in all his money matches.  At a time when the best bowlers averaged a shade over 200, he was regularly rolling 240s and 250s.

Meanwhile, Manhattan had been working to correct the rubber problem.  The company issued a recall of its “electric” balls, replacing each one with a new model.  At first, Small didn’t want to turn his in.  Weinstein finally convinced him, and Small got a different ball.  Just as he’d feared, his game reverted to its previous level.

Now Small went back to Weinstein to retrieve the original ball.  A search of the shop revealed that it had been shipped back to Manhattan.  The factory was contacted, and an exhaustive search of those premises was undertaken.  After weeks of uncertainty, the news finally came back—the magic ball had already been melted down.

The next part of the tale should say that Small spent the next thirty years, and thousands of dollars, trying to replicate that lost ball.  Maybe he did.  But if he did, he never admitted it.

Manhattan continued to manufacture bowling balls for decades.  Sam Weinstein’s supply business became a success.  Johnny Small’s bowling resume eventually included three ABC eagles, a share of the BPAA Doubles title, and an eighth-place finish in the All-Star Tournament.

Of course, we may presume that Small would have done even better if he had managed to keep that special ball.  Had that been the case, today we might all be using rubber bowling balls . . .  and washing our hands between frames.

First published in BOWLERS JOURNAL INTERNATIONAL in February 2008. For this story and 89 more, buy a copy of my book THE BOWLING CHRONICLES. Available on Amazon or at select bookstores.

Undefeated Champion

November 25, 2021

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—

How Bowling Bounced Back From the Spanish Flu

July 20, 2021

I was recently honored by the International Bowling Media Association for the Best Feature Story of 2020. Thank you to the judges and to the IBMA for this award. The story below originally appeared in BOWLERS JOURNAL INTERNATIONAL in May 2020.

In September 1918, as the new bowling season got underway, sports in America faced an uncertain future. The United States had been pulled into the Great War in Europe. The government was curtailing all activities that didn’t further the war effort—“Work or Fight!” the order went. Thousands of young men had already been drafted into military service. The last month of the baseball season had been cancelled, with the World Series held just after Labor Day.

Bowlers were trying to continue on as best they could. Some leagues had folded, and pinboys were getting hard to find. There was talk that next year’s American Bowling Congress championships at Toledo might be called off.

In Chicago, Bowlers Journal was completing its fifth year of publication. The journal had begun as a weekly newspaper chronicling the local bowling scene. But by 1918 editor-publisher Dave Luby already had several correspondents sending him regular reports from the country’s main bowling cities. Also featured were letters home from Dave’s sons Mort and Forrest, both serving with the army in France.

BOWLERS JOURNAL front page—June 15, 1918

The big Chicago tenpin news was the follow-up to last spring’s Patriotic Bowling Tournament. Local bowlers had staged the city-wide event in May, raising more than $2,000 to build a bowling facility at the Camp Grant army post. That plan had fallen through. Now it was announced that the money would be used to install alleys at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station.

The leagues started rolling. As usual, Bowlers Journal printed weekly roundups from the Randolph, the North End Traveling, and the city’s top leagues. Gertrude Dornblaser reported on women’s bowling. Luby’s correspondents in San Francisco, Cleveland, Minneapolis, and the other cities checked in.

And now, as September moved on, a new disruption to America’s everyday life began to be felt—the Spanish Flu.

A century later, there’s still no definite answer on where or when this pandemic started. Later it came out that there had been influenza outbreaks in different parts of the world as early as March. But with a war going on, the governments in the belligerent countries exercised tight control of the news, and the general public knew little of these health concerns.

That wasn’t the case in Spain. Spain was a neutral country, without wartime censorship. So when people began dying in Spain, that fact was reported in all the warring nations. By June the new disease was labeled—unfairly—the Spanish Flu.

Unlike most diseases, this flu was deadliest to people in their twenties and thirties. It came on quickly, too. A person would be feeling fine, then suddenly get headaches and fever, and start vomiting. Then he would turn blue and begin spitting up blood. Within a day or two, he was dead.

Large gatherings of people were thought to spread the disease. In 1918 the United States had no centralized center for disease control, no federal Department of Health. As the new flu began to spread, individual city and state governments took whatever containment measures they thought would work.

Notice Posted in a Chicago Theater

People tried all sorts of home remedies. Hanging a bag of camphor around your neck was one method. So was chewing plug tobacco. Apple cider vinegar, boiled red peppers, honey-laced rye whiskey, and the old reliable chicken soup were other treatments. Eating raw onions was a favorite cure—that certainly kept people from getting too close. Meanwhile, scientists labored desperately to develop a vaccine.

On October 4 Pennsylvania closed all places of public assembly. Philadelphia alone had more than 75,000 cases of the disease, with 139 deaths reported in the past three weeks. Schools, theaters, churches, political meetings, sporting events were shut down. Soon similar large-scale closings were ordered in Boston, St. Louis, Cleveland, and Buffalo, as well as in hundreds of smaller towns.

Bowling alleys were often included in these blanket shutdowns. By the middle of October, Dave Luby’s correspondents were reporting that establishments had also been shuttered in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Indianapolis. Yet in New York City and some other places, the alleys were allowed to continue operating. Bowling was considered a form of exercise that would help a person remaining physically fit, better able to fight off the deadly flu.

Still, only active bowlers were to be allowed on the premises. Proprietors were told to turn away spectators and anyone else. And since fresh air was thought to diffuse and weaken the virus, proper ventilation had to be maintained.

Chicago was one of the cities where the alleys remained open. But most people were staying off the streets, and a number of leagues cancelled sessions. Open play virtually ceased.

Jimmy Smith ad in BOWLERS JOURNAL

Jimmy Smith was bowling’s match-game champion. He had been contracted to bowl a series of exhibition in Chicago. On October 14 he beat local star Frank Kafora in an eleven-game set at Randolph Recreation. The next day Smith was on the train back to his home in Brooklyn, the rest of his schedule scrapped by the killer flu.

On October 19 Dave Luby weighed in with a Bowlers Journal editorial titled “Keep the Alleys Clear and Clean.” Luby recognized that the Spanish Flu had become “a serious menace,” something that everyone should be concerned about. Still, there was no reason for the bowling community to panic. Common-sense measures would help defeat the threat.

Luby urged Chicago proprietors to keep their premises “well-ventilated, clean, and sanitary.” Crowds should not be allowed to gather. At the same time, bowling must continue, since it was one of the best “health-givers” available. “The influenza germ has not yet been found in a bowling alley,” he concluded, “and it will not be if the rules of sanitation are strictly adhered to.”

Bowlers Journal also printed some practical advice from a flu survivor, none other than W.V. Thompson. The Brunswick exec, often called “the final authority on all things bowling,” had been working in New York. No sooner was he transferred back to Chicago than he came down with the disease.

“If all the bones of your body ache, and you discover many you did not know you had and they also ache, you have the Spanish influenza,” Thompson wrote. “Get home quickly. Immediately upon arrival, take a hot and then a cold bath. Open up all the windows. Bundle up and get in bed. Send for a doctor, and get the best.

W.V. Thompson

“Some say feed the [flu],” Thompson went on. “I starved mine. I was back in the office in three days, and bowled on the fourth. Not very good, but good enough to convince myself that bowling was good for what ailed me.”

Just as public morale was hitting rock bottom, the news finally started to turn good. On October 21 scientists announced they had developed an effective vaccine. Shipments of the drug were rushed to all parts of the country. Chicago alone received 100,000 doses, and inoculations quickly began. Within two weeks, the number of flu deaths plummeted.

Then, three weeks after the vaccinations began—on November 11, 1918—an armistice was signed in Europe. The conflict that future generations would call World War I was over.

The country began to rebound. Bowling began to rebound. The shuttered establishments reopened. In Indianapolis, proprietor Jess Pritchett took out large display ads in the city’s newspapers, announcing that his Central Bowling Alleys, “the best ventilated in the state,” were again open for business. In case anyone missed the fresh-air selling point, the ad further advised the public to “avoid influenza by indulging in healthy exercise.”

Two major regional tournaments—the Middle-West and the Atlantic Coast—had been cancelled because of the flu outbreak and the war. But in St. Paul, the International Bowling Association event went on as scheduled. In the spring, the big one—the American Bowling Congress championships—rolled out in Toledo with a record entry of 796 teams.

The Spanish Flu was gone. More than 50 million people had died worldwide, a greater death-toll than all the wars of the twentieth century put together. The United States alone suffered 675,000 deaths. Among bowlers, the most prominent victim was Henry “Heine” Haselhuhn, a onetime ABC champion. And there were all the others, known only to their family and friends.

Those left behind dealt with their grief. One of these was a 29-year-old Chicago bricklayer and 150-average bowler named Florian Przedziankowski. In that horrible October of 1918 he lost both his wife and his mother to the killer flu.

But Florian moved on, as he had to. In 1920 he remarried, and a year later, he had a daughter. And that daughter became my mother.


I Remember Billy Welu

April 6, 2021

I met Billy Welu twice.  In my memory, he will always be linked with sudden, unexpected death.

The first time was a Sunday morning in November 1963.  President Kennedy was lying in state at the Capitol, killed by a sniper named Lee Harvey Oswald.  But in Chicago the bowling gods had come to town for the World’s Invitational.  I was a teenager and had gone down to McCormick Place to see them.  I had just entered the building when the Great Welu appeared in my path, all 6-foot-5 of him.

“Did you hear?” he asked me in a vacant voice.  “They just shot Oswald.”  Like old friends we chatted about the president’s assassin for a few moments.  Then Welu wandered off.

He finished down the list in that tournament, something that didn’t happen often in those days.  Welu was one of the best, at the top of his game.  ABC Doubles champ . . . winner of the All-Star Tournament . . . charter member of the Budweisers . . .  captain of the Falstaffs . . . PBA champion . . . many-time All American . . .

His was a Hall of Fame resume—and he was barely thirty.  But it was the way Welu bowled that was most impressive.  A big man was supposed to charge the line and overpower the pins with brute force.  Welu seemed to glide down the approach like a man on skis, the ball flowing noiselessly onto the lane.  How could he get so much power out of so little effort?  It made the rest of us want to give up bowling and go play croquet.

By 1963 Welu was already launched on his second career as color analyst for thePro Bowlers Tour” telecasts.  The teaming of the “aw-shucks” Texan with the polished Chris Schenkel was inspired.  A few years later, Roone Arledge would give us “Monday Night Football” with the unlikely trio of Gifford, Cosell, and Dandy Don.  I’ll always believe that Arledge got that idea from his Saturday afternoon bowling show.

Welu could play the part of the cornpone philosopher perfectly.  It didn’t matter that Billy was a college graduate who’d worked on a Master’s degree.  He was Jed Clampett in a bowling shirt.  We came to treasure all the little Welu-isms, like “Hit ‘em thin and watch ‘em spin,” or if that wasn’t appropriate, “Hit ‘em high and watch ‘em fly.”  And the ultimate compliment—“Good speed!”

Still, among all the clichés, the Welu wit was ready.  It might peak out at any moment, particularly when the conversation strayed from bowling:

Schenkel:  “Billy, if I had your money, I’d retire.”

Welu:  “And if I had your money, I’d throw mine away.”

As it happened, Welu the Broadcaster was not quite through as a player.  When the 1964 TV season wrapped up, he went off and won the Masters.  That felt good, so the next year he did the same thing.

His credentials re-established, he could relax.  He settled into the color role, describing the talents and triumphs of lesser bowlers.  The only place we could now enjoy the wonderful Welu style was on reruns of “Championship Bowling.”

The years passed.  From time to time Welu came to Chicago for a sportsmen’s show.  I went to a few of these, and would see him there, but I never approached him.  The crowd was always too thick.

Then, one day in 1974, I was walking through O’Hare Airport when I saw him coming toward me.  I had aged from a crewcut teen to a long-haired-and-bearded grad student.  But when I started to tell Welu that we had met once before, he immediately said: “When Ruby killed Oswald, right?”  We reminisced for about thirty seconds, then each of us walked off into our separate lives.

A month later, one bright spring morning, I opened the Sun-Times sports section and read the headline: “Billy Welu Dead at 41.”

First published in BOWLERS JOURNAL INTERNATIONAL in April 2004.

For this story and 89 more, buy a copy of my book THE BOWLING CHRONICLES.  Available on Amazon.

A Christmas Story

December 20, 2020

To many people this time of year brings back cherished memories of the magic Christmases of childhood. But I always remember the Chicago Classic League, and its annual visit to Habetler Bowl.

The time was the early 1960s. The PBA Tour was on the rise, and the Classic League had passed its peak.  Yet the league still loomed large on Chicago’s bowling scene.  It had a history.  Twice a week, our four daily newspapers carried the scores of the Classic’s two divisions.

And there were the bowlers! The league boasted many of the legends we had grown up watching on TV—Joe Norris, Paul Krumske, Harry Lippe, Eddie Kawolics, and more.  Those demigods would be performing on the same lanes as our Saturday morning junior league.

The Classic came to our house the last Tuesday before Christmas. That date was important, for with school on vacation, it was easier to talk parents into letting us stay out to watch a 9:15 league.  Our proprietor, Rudy Habetler, was a former president of the Classic.  I like to think he secured that special date so his junior bowlers could attend the session.

The publicity blitz began around Thanksgiving.  Large posters were hung on the Habetler Bowl walls proclaiming that the Classic League was coming.  The message was echoed on the outside signboard for the enlightenment and edification of the motorists along Northwest Highway.  Around the middle of December, the Classic League Yearbooks appeared. These were digest-size booklets crammed with pictures, statistics, and schedules, and we eagerly scooped them up.

The big night finally arrived. Portable grandstands had been set up behind the last eight lanes, and spectators began filling them as early as 8 o’clock—which produced some nervousness among the 150-average bowlers in the early league who suddenly had an audience.  Then, a little before 9, the Classic Leaguers began drifting in.

Everything about them said class.  They were freshly barbered, spoke in low voices, and smoked seven-inch cigars.  They carried leather bowling bags and wore silky shirts with the finest embroidery.  When they took to the lanes to warm up, even the bottom-rungers managed to get a devastating curve out of a hard-rubber ball with no apparent effort.

Don Eberl (1941-1998)

Each year there seemed to be some new phenom who had been tearing the league apart. His name might be Jim Stefanich or Don McCune or Les Zikes Jr.—with the final suffix, since Les Sr. still bowled in the Classic.  One year the promising rookie was our own Don Eberl, a graduate of Habetler’s Friday night scratch league.

Of the actual bowling I recall very little. There was roo much to take in.  My most vivid memory is of Eddie Kawolics coming out of the box with the first seven strikes.  Another time there was an old-timers’ match.  Rudy bowled along with some other vets.  What made this special was I got to watch the great Adolph Carlson in action.  It was the only time I would ever see him bowl.

And then it was over. My friends and I came out of our trance.  We drifted sleepily into the night toward our homes, declaring that we would show up a half-hour early for league next Saturday, so we could try out the tricks we gleaned from observing Andy Rogoznica or Lou Cioffi.

Going home from one of these sessions, I had the aura of the Classic League reinforced for me. It was long past midnight, and as I walked down Foster Avenue, a police car pulled up next to me.  Vacation or not, Chicago youth had a strict 10:30 curfew.

When I told the officer where I had been, his face brightened, and he asked me how the Biasetti Steak House team had done. He then told me to get into the squad car—and gave me a ride home.  He spent the trip talking about Vince Grzelak, Biasetti’s young phenom.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

First published in BOWLERS JOURNAL INTERNATIONAL in December 2008.

For this story and 89 more, buy a copy of my book THE BOWLING CHRONICLES.  Available on Amazon.

The Patriotic Bowling Tournament

January 21, 2020

In the spring of 1917, the United States entered World War I.  Among the unforeseen results was the largest bowling tournament the world had ever seen.

Germany was the enemy, and anti-German hysteria was sweeping the country.  Schools dropped German language courses.  Opera houses cancelled Wagner programs.  Restaurants changed sauerkraut to “liberty cabbage.”  Some resident Germans were tar-and-feathered.

Because bowling was still close to its German roots, some super-patriots talked of outlawing the game.  With many proprietors and tenpin officials sporting German names—Bensinger, Baumgarten, Bruck, Schuenemann, Mueller, and so on—the major players sounded like a roll call of the Kaiser’s General Staff.

It happened that many army recruits from Chicago were taking their basic training at Camp Grant, near Rockford.  Word reached home that the recreational facilities at the camp were limited.  The boys didn’t even have a bowling alley.

ABC Treasurer Pasdeloup

ABC treasurer Frank L. Pasdeloup announced the solution in Bowlers Journal in February 1918. The city and state bowling associations, along with the local proprietors, were going to build bowling facilities at Camp Grant.  To raise money, they planned to stage the Patriotic Bowling Tournament.  Now all the doubters would know that bowling truly was an All-American game.

Over the next few months, the tournament committee rounded out the details.  They decided to make the Patriotic Tournament a full-blown “ABC-style” show, with Team, Doubles, and Singles events.  All male bowlers in Illinois were eligible.  Entry fees were set at a modest $1 per event.  Bowlers would be allowed to shoot at the establishment of their choice.

The last proviso set the tone for the tournament.  With so many houses involved, scoring conditions couldn’t be consistent, so the Patriotic Tournament would forget about competitive standings.  Prizes would be awarded through a blind drawing.

Public response was enthusiastic.  As Patriotic Tournament Week got closer, entries poured in.  Some leagues simply added an extra week to their schedules and bowled as a unit.  Churches, fraternal societies, athletic clubs, offices, and factories all organized teams.  At the Chicago Stock Yards, rival meatpacking companies engaged in friendly competition to see which one would field the most teams.  Armour won, and had to reserve an entire floor of Wabash Recreation to accommodate its bowlers.  The largest contingent from a single business was the 104 teams representing the Crane Plumbing Company.

The games began on Saturday, May 25.  One bowler at Prima Recreation got into the patriotic spirit by showing up dressed as Uncle Sam.  A total of 1,066 teams participated, including 134 from towns outside Chicago.  The Doubles entry was 762, while the Singles attracted 1,585.  All entry figures were records.  In fact, the biggest bowling tournament up to that time had been the 1916 ABC at Toledo, with 756 teams.

The concluding festivities were held at Randolph Recreation on June 22.  Former ABC president Judge Howard was master of ceremonies.  Medals were presented for the highest scores in each division:  Team—Olsens (3223), Doubles—Hank Marino and Bob Rolfe (1336), Singles—Robert Phelps (759).  Then the Judge began drawing for the prizes.

The monetary awards were in the form of war certificates and thrift stamps, ranging in denomination from $1 through $20.  Various businesses had donated merchandise.  Boxes of cigars and subscriptions to Bowlers Journal were hot items, though the prize list included socks, straw hats, fountain pens, a new bowling ball, a case of marshmallows, and an “assortment of cookie treats.”  Everyone who bowled in the tournament received a red-white-and-blue badge.

The Patriotic Bowling Tournament raised $2,646.48, an impressive sum in 1918.  Unfortunately, government red tape then began to tangle things.  Army officials backed out of their commitment to provide a building for the lanes.  Angry words were exchanged, letters were fired off to the Secretary of War.  Both the YMCA and the Knights of Columbus were approached to co-sponsor the Camp Grant bowling facility.  Neither group was interested.

At last, the Great Lakes Naval Training Camp agreed to accept the gift.  Ten new bowling lanes were installed at the base.  On December 19, 1918, the facility was formally dedicated.  Its work finished, the Patriotic Bowling Tournament committee disbanded.  By then the war had been over for a month.  But in this case, it was the thought that counted.

First published in Bowlers Journal, October 1995.  For this story and 89 more, buy a copy of my book The Bowling Chronicles.  Available on Amazon, or from McFarland Publishing for bulk orders.  A great gift for any bowler!

Brunswick or AMF?

May 28, 2019

In Chicago, where I come from, baseball loyalties are sharply divided.  You are either a Cubs fan or a White Sox fan—never both.  It’s mostly a geographic thing, North Side versus South Side.  When I was growing up in the 1950s, there was a similar schism among the city’s bowlers.  The question then was, are you Brunswick or AMF?

Affiliation had nothing to do with geography.  Your bowling loyalty depended on the house in which you’d learned the game, and the type of equipment they had.  It was like your religion or political party, something you were born into.  In my own case, I started bowling at Habetler Bowl.  So, naturally, I was a Brunswick man.

Everything was ordered.  Like all my friends, I bought my Black Beauty at Buddy Bomar’s store.  Don Carter won all the tournaments, and guys like Lillard and Nagy and Day ruled on “Championship Bowling.”  And if you were of the female persuasion, there was Marion Ladewig to follow.  That was our world.

1970—Still loyal to Brunswick!

Our one apostate was Steve the Greek.  For Steve, being cool was the most important thing in life.  His favorite bowler was Johnny King, the coolest dude this side of the “77 Sunset Strip” TV show.  So when Cool Johnny joined AMF, Steve dumped all his Brunswick gear, replacing it with anything that had the Magic Triangle logo.  But then, Steve always did things backwards—he was left-handed.  And who ever heard of a lefty bowler?

When you grew up in a Brunswick house, there were certain things you knew.  It was an established fact that Brunswick alleys hooked more, producing higher scores.  Furthermore, AMF approaches were always tacky—except when they were too slippery, and you fell down.  AMF may have invented the automatic pinsetter, but their machines looked dumb, with the pins hanging out in the open in those cheesy slots.  And they were too noisy.  As for the T-square ball returns, they were a disaster if you took a five-step approach.  There was also the matter of color.  AMF was all yellow and red and brown, like stale scrambled eggs.  The true color of bowling was Brunswick Blue.

If we needed any further proof of Brunswick superiority, there was “Championship Bowling.”  For years it was a showcase for high scores and Brunswick stars.  Then, around 1962, the program abruptly switched to AMF.  Fred Wolf was still doing the commentary, but now guys were winning matches with 590s.  What did that tell you?

Still, there was Dick Weber.  By this time he had become the World’s Greatest Bowler, and he was AMF.  How to explain that?  You couldn’t—except to say that Weber might have won even more tournaments if he’d had the right equipment.

Eventually, we started to question our parochial attitudes.  During my last two years of high school, I bowled on the Habetler teen traveling team in an eight-house league.  A majority of the places were AMF, and they weren’t bad.  I suppose my experience was similar to the knee-jerk bigot who gets involved with other racial groups, and discovers they are human after all.  When I rolled my first 700 series, it was in an AMF house.  That gave me something to think about.

College opened even wider perspectives, and induced a large dose of skepticism in traditional beliefs.  My classmates were protesting the Vietnam War, challenging all aspects of American society.  The times, they were a-changin’.  In that spirit, I finally went out and bought an AMF three-dotter.

Yet old superstition dies hard.  At the ABC Tournament, I would always bowl badly in the odd-number years, when AMF was in charge.  The pattern was obvious, and a few times I seriously considered sitting out.  Then I broke the string by doing even worse in a Brunswick year, and I had run out of excuses.

Today I can happily report that I have learned an important lesson in tolerance.  Unthinking prejudice is a terrible thing, and I have a completely open mind on the merits of bowling equipment.  So now I announce it to the world, loud and clear—I will bowl on any lanes and use any ball that gives me higher scores with less effort.

First published in BOWLERS JOURNAL INTERNATIONAL in January 2002.

For this story and 89 more, buy a copy of my book THE BOWLING CHRONICLES.  Available on Amazon.

Bowling’s Cinema Verite

February 14, 2019

They say that life imitates art. One of the more colorful cases of this maxim has a bowling angle.

The original Scarface was one of the movie hits of 1932. Starring Paul Muni as a thinly-disguised version of Al Capone, it chronicles the rise and fall of a brutal bootlegger in Prohibition-era Chicago. Onetime city-beat reporter Ben Hecht wrote the screenplay, so the film carries the stamp of authenticity.

About halfway through the story, Muni decides to eliminate rival mobster Boris Karloff. Karloff learns of the plot and disappears. But he can’t stay put. One night he goes bowling.

Muni is at the theater when word comes that Karloff has been spotted. So our scarfaced hero and some henchmen head for the bowling alley. And they don’t take their bowling equipment with them.

Boris Karloff goes bowling

Out on the lanes, Karloff is happily spilling pins. Muni and crew enter unseen. “Now watch this one,” Karloff tells the guy next to him.

Into his delivery goes Karloff. Just as he reaches the foul line gunshots ring out, and he crumples to the floor. The camera, however, follows the ball down the lane. The ball hits the pocket. Pins scatter—all except the 10-pin, which spins crazily in circles a few times before finally toppling over.

Film critics loved the bowling scene. They praised director Howard Hawks and his use of the slowly-toppling pin as a symbol of Karloff dying off-screen. In fact, the whole idea of killing a character in a bowling alley was brilliantly original. That had never been done.

Gangland applauded the film, too. Members of the Capone mob were tickled to see their exploits portrayed on the giant screen in glorious black-and-white. One of those mobsters was Machine Gun Jack McGurn.

Machine Gun Jack McGurn

A trusted Capone lieutenant, McGurn was reputedly the lead gunman in the notorious St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Yet he didn’t fit the public image of a gangster. McGurn dressed in conservatively-cut charcoal gray suits, and charmed those he met with his gracious manners. He could discuss history and literature insightfully. Disdaining the wicked city where he made his livelihood, he owned a bungalow in sedate, suburban Oak Park.

McGurn was also a sportsman. As a golfer he was good enough to qualify for the 1933 Western Open and play the first six holes in one-under-par, until some spoilsport cops turned up to arrest him. In winter he was a regular 200-shooter at Avenue Recreation on Chicago’s Northwest Side.

On St. Valentine’s evening in 1936, McGurn decided to roll a few lines. Along with two friends he journeyed into the city, arriving at Avenue about midnight. McGurn and his pals removed their outer clothing and prepared to bowl. Suddenly, three men rushed in, brandishing pistols and announcing a stickup.

Reports of what happened next are confused. Most of the patrons dove for cover. So did McGurn’s companions. The intruders ran up to where McGurn was standing and shot him three times before he could draw his own gun. Machine Gun Jack died on Alley Two with a house ball in his hands.

Within hours the papers were on the streets with extra editions. McGurn’s death was bigger news that FDR, Hitler, or the turmoil in Spain. One homey touch was the unsigned Valentine left on his body—

“You’ve lost your job,

You’ve lost your dough,

Your car and your fine houses.

But things could be worse, you know—

You haven’t lost your trousers.”

Machine Gun Jack goes bowling

The murder was never solved, credited to the usual “Person or Persons Unknown.” What’s unmistakable is the eerie echo of Karloff’s death in Scarface. Someone had seen the movie, been impressed by the staging, and decided to copy it.

A few observers claim that bowling’s image problem dates from the McGurn slaying. By extension that puts the blame on screenwriter Hecht and director Hawks. Certainly their Scarface scenes put bowling in a sinister light.

But they might have done worse. They might have given us Dreamer.

First published in BOWLERS JOURNAL INTERNATIONAL in November 1993.

For this story and 89 more, buy a copy of my book THE BOWLING CHRONICLES.  Available on Amazon.

In Search of Johnny King

March 20, 2018

First published in Bowlers Journal International, May 2011. 

Johnny King celebrates his ninetieth birthday this month.  In bowling’s golden age of the late 1950s, he was a legendary figure.  And like most legends, it’s sometimes hard to separate the fiction from the fact.

To begin with, his actual name was Howard King.  Growing up in Cleveland during the Depression, he was forced to drop out of school and go to work in a factory.  He eventually became a precision grinder.

King didn’t make his bowling mark until he was in his thirties.  Then he won the Cleveland Match Game Championship twice, and in 1956 posted the city’s highest league average, a lofty 223.  That same year he took home one of bowling’s biggest checks in the George London Dream Tournament.

Now he began to appear on TV, and the legend began.  In 1957 King was all over the tube.  He scored big on two syndicated film series and even rolled a 300 game in front of the cameras.  The year ended with King the top TV money-winner, with prizes totaling over $25,000—about $200,000 in today’s money.

King was fun to watch.  He bowled with a long cigar stuck in his mouth, approaching the line slowly and smoothly, sending the ball out onto the lane without a sound.  Then he went into action with a dazzling array of body English.  A teammate claimed that King used to practice his moves in front of a mirror.

Johnny King was a star.  More women were bowling, and they became some of his biggest fans.  The ladies liked Johnny. Johnny liked the ladies, too.

He moved to Chicago to bowl with Buddy Bomar’s Munsingwear team.  That caused a flap, since King had already promised to join the Pfeiffer Beer team of Detroit.  Pfeiffer captain Lou Sielaff, ordinarily a soft-spoken gentleman, blasted King all over the bowling press.

If King was bothered, it didn’t show.  He won the first of two straight Chicago Match Game titles and finished fourth in the World’s Invitational.  He made exhibition tours for AMF.  During an appearance in Indiana, King averaged 277 for seven games.

He was a tough opponent, and looked for every edge.  During one match, King flicked some cigar ash onto the side of the approach and started sliding his shoe through it—which made his opponent start worrying about sticking.  Another time, on the bench during a TV match, King pulled out a mirror to comb his hair.  The mirror reflected the glare of the overhead lights onto the other bowler, just as the man was releasing his shot.

King was also known for his prowess at gin rummy.  He won so regularly that many people refused to play with him.  Others kept coming back for more, trying to figure out how he did it.  According one bit of locker-room gossip, King could have won the 1957 World’s, but ran out of gas after playing cards all night.

He continued on Bomar’s team, then bowled the 1961-62 season with Fresno in the National Bowling League.  The NBL folded after one season, but King and some of his ex-teammates won a Classic Division eagle as the California Bombers at the 1963 ABC.  That December he won his only PBA title at Hialeah, Florida.

He was living in Florida and selling liquor dispensing equipment when he was tapped for the first Great and Greatest Tournament in 1978. He teamed with Johnny Petraglia and finished in the middle of the pack.  It’s worth noting that King was the only “Greatest” invitee who is not in the Bowling Hall of Fame.

And that’s it.  I’ve talked to dozens of bowlers and writers and bowling officials, and nobody knows what happened to Johnny King.  For the last thirty years, he has communicated with the bowling world strictly through rumor.

Happy Birthday, Johnny.  And if you get a chance, drop me an e-mail.

Update: Some months after this article was published, I learned that Johnny King had passed away in Florida on March 12, 1998.

For this story and 89 more, buy a copy of my book The Bowling Chronicles.  Available on Amazon, or from McFarland Publishing for bulk orders.  A more useful award for your league champs than one more trophy!


Pioneer Don Scott

February 1, 2018

February is Black History Month. That makes it an appropriate time to remember one of bowling’s pioneer African American pros, Don Scott.

A native of Cleveland, Scott learned his bowling as a teenage pinboy in Akron.  He began making a name for himself in local league and money matches during the 1950s.  He also won a number of events sponsored by The National Bowling Association, the black-oriented group created during ABC’s segregated days.

When the PBA was launched, Scott was one of the first blacks to join.  His proudest moment on Tour came in 1961.  The premier PBA event was the National Championship, and that year it was being held in Cleveland.  Charging out of the box in front of a hometown crowd, Scott topped the qualifying field of 192 entries.  He finished ninth in the tournament.

Don Scott (1927-2010)

The 1960s was a time of transition for America.  Many large businesses which had ignored black Americans now awoke to the fact that there was a huge untapped market out there. With his tournament success and outgoing personality, Scott was a natural to spread the gospel of bowling.  AMF signed him to its advisory staff to roll exhibition and stage clinics, and the Cleveland-based Carling Brewery hired him for similar work.

In 1964 Scott became the first African American to appear on the “Championship Bowling” TV show.  The series was at the peak of its popularity, and carried at least as much prestige as the still-new PBA Tour.  “We bowled in Akron, and Harvey Firestone from the tire company was one of the sponsors,” Scott remembered.  “He told [the producers] that he had a lot of black customers who were buying his tires, and they got the message.  It came down to J. Wilbert Sims and me.  I had been competing around Ohio, and most of the white bowlers knew me.  AMF was sponsoring the show, I was with AMF, so I got the nod.”

Admittedly nervous, Scott still did respectably.  He bowled against two future Hall of Famers, George Howard and Carmen Salvino, beating Howard and losing to Salvino.  His 1216 six-game total put him in the middle of the show’s 24-man standings.

Though he belonged to the PBA for nearly twenty years, Scott never bowled a full Tour schedule.  He had a bowling center and other businesses to run in Cleveland, and didn’t have much free time.  So he stuck to those events “a tankful of gas away” in places like Detroit, Buffalo, and Waukegan.

Besides, the competition was getting tougher.  “When I first went out there, if you carried a 203 or 204 average like I did, you cashed,” Scott said.  “Then it started to go up to 205, 206, 211, 212, just to cash.  I was still the same, but instead of cashing, now I was on page eight of the standings.”

Scott encountered very little racism in his PBA days.  The other bowlers were generally welcoming and supportive.  Scott remembers one episode with a chuckle.  He was sitting at the lunch counter at a tournament venue in Miami, and the waitress repeatedly ignored him.  Scott happened to mention it to Bill Allen, one of the Tour’s leading stars and a native Southerner.

“Allen got really excited,” Scott says.  “He told me, ‘You don’t have to put up with this! We’re going to tell Eddie [Elias]!  We don’t have to stay here!’  I finally had to tell him, ‘But Bill, it was a black waitress.’”

Scott eventually moved on from bowling into other ventures.  For more than thirty years he operated the country’s largest black-owned nightclub.  He and his wife Val raised three children “who never caused me the grief I caused my parents,” and who carved out successful professional careers of their own.

In 2000 Don Scott received the Congressional Black Caucus’s Unsung Hero Award to honor his bowling achievements.  He still lives in Cleveland, and plans to get copies of his old TV matches, “so my grandkids can show off to their friends.”

First published in Bowlers Journal, February 2007.  For this story and 89 more, buy a copy of my book The Bowling Chronicles.  Available on Amazon, or from McFarland Publishing for bulk orders.  A more useful award for your league champs than one more trophy!