If bowling—yes, bowling—does not instantly supplant baseball, football, basketball and hockey as the nation's No. 1 spectator sport, it will not be for any lack of optimism on the part of the proprietors of the new National Bowling League. The NBL, like the AL, the NL, the NFL, the NBA, the NHL, the AFL and all the other alphabet organizations of big-time spectator sport, is dedicated to the proposition that a lot of people are willing to pay good money to watch other people play a game, and its owners already have gambled $14 million on the proposition.
"Big-league bowling has come to Dallas," boomed a stentorian announcer at the league's premiere in Texas a fortnight ago (originally scheduled for October 13, the opening was hastily rescheduled for the 12th because the 13th fell on Friday), and in the two weeks since, big-league bowling has come to eight other U.S. cities as well.
At the Dallas premiere, held in the gaudily decorated amphitheater of the new $3 million "Bronco Bowl," some 2,000 fans, astir with delicious anticipation, paid upwards of $3 apiece to goggle at the strange new scene. The auditorium was set up in somewhat the same way as an old-time burlesque theater, with six gleaming lanes serving as the runways and with the audience ranged horseshoe-fashion on three sides.
Ushers for the event wore white shirts and red string ties. A Dixieland band ("straight from the levee," confided the announcer) tootled away as a slim, sexy blonde songstress snapped her fingers in rhythm. Up on a gigantic scoreboard at the rear of the lanes, two shapely Texas girls wearing white skirts, white blouses and headsets awaited the electronic instructions that would tell them the names and numbers to chalk up on the board. On each side of the scoreboard was a triangular diagram of pin positions that lighted up to indicate what the bowler was shooting for. Multicolored globes hung suspended on wires over the audience, shedding a soft glow. Spotlights shone down from the rear. TV cameras devoured the action.
October 30, 1961
The bowlers warmed up. Some of the crowd ooed and aahed at the big hook of the New York Gladiators' young Johnny Meyer, a left-hander, and at the power of the Dallas Broncos' J.B. Solomon. The New York team wore gold pants and natty black shirts with names and numbers printed on the back. The Broncos wore white trousers, white shirts and red jackets, on the back of which were their names, a picture of a bucking bronco and a map of Texas with a star indicating the location of Dallas. Between rolls, the Broncos wiped their hands on red and white handkerchiefs, while the Gladiators sopped up their sweat with cloth of gold. After the inevitable shoddy rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner that inaugurates all sporting events, Dallas' Stentor introduced the bowlers, giving full value to such nicknames as "the Brooklyn Bomber" for Johnny Meyer, "Mr. Stoneface" for J. B. Solomon, and "the Iowa Farm Boy" for Andy McBride.
As thousands cheer
Before the match started, Vince Lucci, captain of the Gladiators, worried gloomily over the strange setup. "They're going to have trouble concentrating," he predicted. Jack Aydelotte, the bespectacled playing manager of the Broncos, thought the enthusiasm of Bronco rooters might make his boys nervous. "We had an exhibition match in Kansas City," he said, marveling, "and that was the first time I ever saw a crowd jump to its feet and cheer bowling."
If the crowds continue to cheer bowling throughout the next six months of the new league's season, however, the sound will be music in the ears of a Dallas sports fan named J. Curtis Sanford, chief booster of spectator bowling. A shrewd promoter who founded Dallas' Cotton Bowl back in 1937, Sanford has long been a big man in participant bowling as the owner of two huge Dallas lanes, but he always felt that bowling was never given a real chance as a spectator sport. "There are about 30 million active bowlers in the country that we can draw on for our audiences," he said recently in his office in the Curtis Building. "Up to now, though, spectators have never been able to watch the game properly. All they see in big tournaments is the bowlers' backs. Where's the drama in that? I envisioned stadiums with luxurious seats and good lighting, where at least half the fans could see the bowlers from the side. I also felt the game itself could be hyped up to make it more interesting."
It was about a year ago that Sanford's ideas began to take positive form, and the Dallas promoter set about getting businessmen interested in building bowling stadiums or in metamorphosing old theaters into suitable spectator arenas. He built his own Bronco Bowl, which uses $335,000 worth of air-conditioning equipment as part of his plan for a "fair shake for spectators." Meanwhile, he and other promoters began building teams. They engaged a league commissioner-Dick Charles, a former Omaha TV sports announcer—and devised rules calculated to perk up spectator interest in team bowling.
The first player drafts were held in July 1960. The ten teams taking part at $75,000 per franchise were the Broncos, the Gladiators, the Detroit Thunderbirds, the Fort Worth Panthers, the Kansas City Stars, the Fresno Bombers, the Omaha Packers, the Los Angeles Toros, the Twin City Skippers of Minneapolis-St. Paul and the so-far-homeless San Antonio Cavaliers.
In Kansas City and Omaha, theaters were converted into bowling stadiums; in the other cities stadiums were built new, the total cost for construction and conversion coming to $14 million. Besides Sanford's own Bronco Bowl, the plushest are those in Fort Worth, Minneapolis and Detroit. Unable to find a home on top of Manhattan's Grand Central Station, where it had hoped to perch like a city pigeon, the New York team finally landed in a new stadium at Totowa, N.J.
Each of the 10 teams is made up of from seven to nine bowlers. The smallest salary paid any team member is about $6,000 for the six-month season; the average salary is about $10,000. Bowlers have a one-year contract, with a one-year option. The total nut per season for a club—including the team's travel expenses, living expenses on the road and upkeep of arenas—will come to about $250,000 a year. "If the Bronco Bowl is only half filled, I'll break even," Sanford said recently, looking happily around his more than half-filled (four-fifths) auditorium.
Owners like Sanford, whose auditoriums are connected with public lanes, are also counting on the influence of the pros to boom business in the lanes. "If the spectators don't bowl after seeing a match," says the ebullient Sanford, "they'll eat or play pool or something."
Not all the greatest names in the game have yet rushed into the NBL. At the player draft in Omaha, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Jackie Brandt (Baltimore Oriole outfielder) were selected by various teams, but none accepted the offers. Don Carter, considered the smartest and best bowler in the country, reportedly turned down an offer of $50,000 a year. Since Carter's affiliation with Budweiser and the money that comes to him from exhibitions, tournament prizes, TV, endorsements and other sources have made him one of the richest athletes in the country, this was not surprising. "We couldn't come to terms with him," says Sanford, "but we're not at all hungry for name bowlers."
Among the big-name bowlers who have signed are Buzz Fazio (Packers), Tony Lindemann and Bud Horn (Cavaliers), Bill Bunetta (Bombers), Steve Nagy (Toros), Joe Joseph (Stars), Billy Golembiewski (Thunderbirds) and Jack Biondolillo (Broncos).
Commissioner Charles, a silver-haired man in glasses, believes the league will give a tremendous lift to all bowling. "Up to now," he says, "there have been only about 15 bowlers in America who could make a living just by bowling. Now there are something like 100. To make sure it's a success, we wanted bowlers with fan appeal as much as bowlers who can knock down pins. It's all in how you do it."
New league rules governing how-you-do-it provide new opportunities for suspense and team strategy. There are two ways a player can earn points for his team—by winning his individual match (worth one point) and by making "bonus" points. If a player bowls from 210 to 219 he gets one bonus point. If he bowls from 220 to 229 he gets two bonus points. A 300 game gives him 10 bonus points. The winner is the team that gets the greater total number of points, bonus and match. Suspense derives from the fact that a team can be way behind but can catch up if its anchor man has a hot streak and adds not only a match point but seven or eight bonus points to the team score. Total pinfall does not count unless the two teams are tied in total points.
Matches are divided into two halves, with five players from each team pitted against each other. They're called the leadoff man, the pressure man, the pivot man, the cleanup man and the anchor man. The first match, called a team match, is played on a team-rotation basis, though opposing players compete on a head-to-head basis (leadoff man vs. leadoff man, pivot against pivot, and so on). The second half pits player against player, each bowler bowling one complete game before his teammate bowls.
The trickiest innovation in the new league is the wild-card substitution rule. When a team is in trouble and a bowler is faced with a shot he is not too sure of, his captain may call in a specialist to roll for him. The most common wild-card substitution is calling in a left-hander for a right-hander when a couple of pins on the right side of the alley must be knocked down for a critical spare.
Because he was not in favor of making the league too lively, Commissioner Charles refused to sanction the hiring of such obvious wild-card prospects as a trick-shot artist who could roll seven balls down the alley simultaneously or a California chimpanzee who bowled with both hands. "We want the league to stand up on its own merits," says Charles.
The two leadoff men in the premiere match between the Broncos and the Gladiators were Carmen Salvino and Jake Charter, respectively. Charter, a stocky, dark-haired man, blinked several times, crouched low, stalked up to the foul line and bowled. He left the 7 pin. Salvino, a devout believer in the application of body English, leaped high in the air as he rammed a strike. Apparently having trouble with his concentration, Charter got only a single strike, winding up with a 167. Salvino, cavorting, falling to his knees in supplication and otherwise trying to guide his hook by extrasensory remote control, got a 205 and one match point for his team. The bowlers in their laneside chairs shouted encouragement, and the fans cheered the conversion of a difficult split like a crowd at Yankee Stadium or sighed when a slow 10 pin collapsed. In the end the Broncos slaughtered the Gladiators 22-2, and when the match was over, a smiling Sanford pronounced himself pleased not so much at the Texas victory but at the reaction of the fans. "They knew just when to holler, didn't they?" he says. "They really went for that Salvino. Especially when his body English started working. Notice how he made those eight strikes in a row right at the finish? That's what I call showmanship."
Whether the 30 million American bowling fans that Sanford is counting on will consider it a show worth paying for is open to question, but the odds look good.