The six-year-old Professional Bowlers Association is out to match, if not surpass, the status and wealth of the more established Professional Golfers Association, and although the difference between the two groups is still approximately the difference between beer and champagne the gap is closing. The PBA has imitated golf by organizing its own successful winter and summer tours, some 30 to 40 tournaments that range from Miami to Seattle and are worth some $1.2 million in prize money. Like golf, many of these tournaments are carried on national television. Finally, to give its image polish the PBA has, in recent years, altered much of its basic terminology. Alleys are now lanes, gutters are channels, and pits—into which pins are sent flying—are receptacles.
Last week the PBA took still another major step forward, staging the kind of event that is certain to attract more attention to the sport than any dozen euphemisms. Into Akron, Ohio came 43 of the finest bowlers in the country to compete in the $100,000 Firestone Tournament of Champions. The first prize of $25,000, which was won by 23-year-old Bill Hardwick, was easily the highest in the history of bowling. It was also $5,000 more than Jack Nicklaus earned for winning the Masters, a fact that delighted the PBA. Firestone also put up $12,500 for second place and $6,500 for third. Even dead last was worth $1,000, which not so long ago was considered pretty good first-place money for some bowling tournaments. Stops on the tour are arranged so that, as in golf, the bowlers can conveniently move from one place to the next by car. They regularly hit such big cities as Detroit, Philadelphia and Montreal, but once in a while they pack into an outpost like the Tokay Bowl in Lodi, Calif. From only three stops in 1959 and seven in 1960, the PBA tour has grown to more than 30 tournaments a year. Promoters in Australia and Japan have sent feelers, and next month a handful of the top bowlers will compete in Caracas, Venezuela.
The Tournament of Champions, the tour and the PBA itself are the promotions of Eddie Elias, a nonbowling Akron lawyer who acts as a sort of all-purpose business manager for professionl bowling. Although he also represents several pro golfers, Elias thinks bowling is by far the better game for television, especially since preliminary-round scores in the PBA tournament are thrown out and the three top men go into the televised final round all even.
"When the Masters came on television last year," he said, "you could see immediately that Arnold Palmer was the winner. For an hour and a half people knew. What suspense is there? Golf leaves it to chance, we don't. For two years CBS Golf Classic has been run head-to-head against the professional bowlers' tour every week. They clear a few more stations than we do, which gives them an advantage, but we have consistently higher ratings. CBS is coming up with its own bowling show this year, the follow-up to CBS Golf Classic. I guess when they saw we beat the heck out of their show, they thought they better come up with a CBS Bowling Classic.
"I've often had the feeling—and I think it's correct—that bowling is like a quiz show. If he does it he wins money. If he doesn't he loses, or at least he doesn't get as much. It's simple. People can understand it."
The man who "does it" more often than anybody is Dick Weber, who is so skinny he would not be able to slip an extra "B" into his name and still make it fit on the back of his bowling shirt. He appears too frail to lift his 16-pound hard-rubber ball, yet, going into the Tournament of Champions, he was the tour's leading money winner ($27,840) and was also the alltime PBA leader ($169,235). He makes additional pin money from two St. Louis bowling establishments, endorsements and TV shows. Elias is currently negotiating a five-year contract with an automatic pin-setting company for him that will bring in about $40,000 a year.
Weber is the best example of how rolling strikes—strikes are still called strikes—can pay off" these days. In 1954 he was a $3,700-a-year mail clerk in Indianapolis, and his wife had to rob the piggy bank to send him to occasional tournaments. One day he signed a contract with the old Budweiser team of St. Louis against the will of his father and packed his wife, their two children and all their belongings into a decrepit 1948 Plymouth. The cracked car windows were repaired with tape and would not roll down, and he had to stop every few hours to buy crankcase oil, but he made it to Missouri. He was wearing his only suit, a double-breasted brown creation that no self-respecting skid row bum would pass out in. It had lapels reaching to his shoulders and wide pin stripes. His tie was so wide it looked like a bib. Budweiser bought him a new outfit before he was allowed to pose for the team picture.
Today Weber works for himself and dresses well enough to pose for men's fashion ads. So could most of the bowlers on the tour—except when they are bowling. The men battling for wads of Firestone's cash last week were all winners of at least one PBA event apiece since the last tournament of champions in May 1962, yet they sold space on their backs like bus-stop benches or sandwich boards. Their shirts advertised such things as bowling gloves, department stores, car dealers and even a diner in Syracuse. Image, image, where are you?
While most professional bowlers approve of the growing tour, there is a small dissident group which pines for the old days of the brewery teams. "The Budweiser people were spending $125,000 a year on bowling," says Tom Hennessey. "If I went to a tournament and won $300, I made a $300 profit, because they paid my expenses. Now if I win $300 I break even. The guys on the team were there to help one another. Today the game has changed. If you're down they want to see you stay down. Then they don't have to worry about beating you. This is mean competition."
The bowling at Akron was just such a competition. Under the format of the tournament the bowlers competed for five days, after which all but the top three were eliminated. Weber led the way into the finals, reading the boards the way a golfer reads the green. It was almost as if the pins were fainting at the sight of him. He led at the ends of all rounds but the first and seemed to be coasting as the mortals beneath him fought for the other two positions in the finals. Hardwick, who was the leading money winner in 1963, finished behind Weber, using his claw grip. Hardwick injured the ring finger of his right hand in a high school machine shop, forcing him to use only the middle and index fingers. More than 200 pins behind him was Joe Joseph of Lansing, Mich., as round as the ball he throws.
The finals consisted of two anticlimactic and rather inconclusive games. Weber's 163-pin lead over Hardwick and his 425-pin lead over Joseph, built up over a full week of bowling, should have allowed him to drop-kick his ball down the lanes and still win but—loyal to the winter tour format and the television ratings—the bowlers started from scratch in an effort to provide a slambang finish for home viewers. Television made other demands and, of course, they were met. Instead of using the center lanes, the competitors bowled at one end so that half the live audience either had to use telescopes or watch silent, fuzzy TV monitors. While the same live audience twiddled its thumbs, TV had a ludicrous 23-minute intermission between games for a dab of track and field from the Southwest and what seemed to be an anthology of commercials.
Weber had the choice of going first, second or third, and he chose to start. He threw five straight strikes. Joseph could not keep up, but young Hardwick, who had been so nervous that morning that he had slapped on his after-shave lotion before realizing he had not yet shaved, matched him frame for frame. Weber broke the string by sparing the sixth. So did Hardwick. Then Weber proved himself human by sparing the seventh and eighth. Hardwick threw strikes in both frames and won the game, 258-231. Even though Weber won the second game, he could not make up the 27-pin deficit, and Hardwick walked off with $25,000.
Despite the unsatisfactory final, it was a good tournament overall. More than 5,000 people stood or sat in uncomfortable temporary bleachers through the seven afternoon and evening rounds at Akron's Bowlarama, and even the opening-day practices drew 300 to 400 people. True, the tournament lacked the tradition of the Masters' golf and was way short on beauty, but when a bowler failed to keep an important string of strikes going the crowd groaned just as if Arnold Palmer had missed a putt. The fans were knowledgeable, noisy and appreciative.
Even before the qualifying rounds were over, pleased Firestone officials announced they would sponsor the Tournament of Champions again in 1966, and offer another $100,000. That's what is known as bowling green.