The Count had come out of the Balkan states, tall and slender, with a fine mustache, and he was tough on the ocean liners. Out on the decks or downstairs, wherever the card game was, he would join it, pull a few aces out of a sleeve and then leave with everybody's money in his pockets. The suckers on the water eventually got wise to The Count, so he took his act onshore. In the big towns—New York, Chicago, Philly—and later out in the sticks he chose bowling alleys to make his mark. On a night in Schenectady he would come into the place with his opera cloak whirling around him, a black satin top hat on his head. Tapping the blond, shellacked floor with his cane, reaching down to rub his hands over it, concluding a thorough examination, The Count would look up and ask the local studs, "What is this for? Dancing?"
The studs would laugh out loud and start bowling him, beating him badly for a few games until The Count, claiming that the holes in the ball hurt his fingers, that he couldn't throw anything but palm shots and that the damnable game was a waste of time anyway, would politely ask for a glove. Then he would turn everything around and, suddenly learning the game, he would roll a few eight-baggers to clean out the house, the studs, their backers and all the cash registers, too, before sweeping off into the night.
It would not be accurate to say that bowling has come full cycle from the day of The Count, John Dengler, who flourished during the Depression of the '30s, to its current royalty, Dave Davis. Certainly Davis is not a true hustler. But he provides a touch of class, as Dengler did a long time before him, in a particular area of Americana that is not exactly surfeited with it. He also symbolizes the perplexing but inescapable anonymity of his sport, even at its highest level. John Dengler, understandably, loved secrecy; Dave Davis loathes it.
"Bowler of the year? Superstar?" asks Dave Davis. "Nobody knows me. No one knows who I am. How can I be called a superstar?"
Last year, in his fourth full season, Davis was named Bowler of the Year after winning six tournaments (Las Vegas, Denver, Milwaukee, Green Bay, Omaha and the PBA National Championship in New York) and more than $54,000 in prize money, tops on the PBA tour. With his victory in Madison Square Garden he became the first man to win the National twice, and his six wins in one year also set a record. He is the only pro to finish among the top five money winners in each of the past three years, and this season, despite a long slump, he ranks second in earnings, thanks to a $25,000 first-place prize at the Tournament of Champions in Akron. At the age of 26, Davis is already recognized as one of the best in the sport's history and certainly the finest left-handed bowler of all time. But down the street from the Happy Bowl Lanes, who knows Dave Davis?
Among the pros, left-handed bowlers are considered fortunate. Because the right side of a bowling lane gets far more play than the left, righthanders are usually forced to bowl over a grooved track, which calls for adjustments in their target spots and changes in their approach angles several times during a block of games. Lefthanders, on the other hand, have far fewer adjustments to make; their surface is almost invariably flat.
"We do have an advantage on some lanes," Davis concedes, "but it all evens out. The Las Vegas tournament is made for lefthanders. A lefty has won there the last four years. But up at Garden City on Long Island now, we've had only two lefthanders make the finals in four tournaments. We just can't score there. When the track is real good on the right side, anywhere on the right side, the righthanders will bury the lefties. Even they will admit that."
"Right now I have something nice to say about all lefthanders," says Pat Patterson, a member of the famous Budweiser teams, "but just get me or any right-handed bowler drunk one night and you'll really learn what we think of them."
A more neutral observer is Chuck Pezzano, a bowling writer and PBA member who has followed Davis' career from the beginning. "It's true that most lefthanders, when they get their conditions, will destroy you," says Pezzano. "But this kid takes it a step farther. Even when he doesn't get his conditions he'll move deeper into the middle and de stroy you. There are a lot of places where he can't touch it, but Davis has passed the point of being just an exceptional left-handed bowler. He's a great bowler, period. Give everybody their conditions all the time—that is, let everybody, right or left, bowl the best he knows how on the ideal lanes for his type of ball each week—and Dave Davis might win every tournament out here."
Apart from the nuances of the right-to-left relationship, professional bowling is replete with intricate touches and abstruse how-to-do-its, making it as subtle a game as golf. "Not too many average bowlers really understand this game," says Davis. "They think it's easy. Even the 170-, 180-average local guy would never dare change his spot or change his approach. He doesn't know how! Well, we might do it every few frames. It takes a detailed study of the game to average 200 consistently-and even that score won't win anything for you on the tour."
How-to-do-it with the head, the shoulders, the arms, the hands, the fingers, the finger holes, the hips, the legs, the feet, the shoes, the ball, the lanes and everything else, excluding, presumably, the Tel-E-Scorer pencil (at least you don't have to keep your own score), provides plenty of discussion among the pros long into every postmatch session. Most of these gatherings take place in an area directly adjacent to the lanes themselves, normally a dark, smoky cocktail lounge that serves as the social center of "The House." The House is what the pros call a bowling establishment, as in "Whirlarama is a bad House" or "Waukegan needs one more good House." Even outside the House the pros continue the masochistic exercise of comparing their sport to golf. Dave Davis will go on for hours on that one.
"Well, really, how much tougher can golf be than our game?" he asks. "To match golf's weather, we've got the television lights drying up the lanes and making them hook. It's practically impossible to control the ball under heavy lights that have been burning for a long time. Like golf, we've got a hundred different shots. But we've got 10 things down there to hit, 42 boards to go down and across. We're carrying a 16-pound ball, swinging it while we're moving, and then we have to stop and throw it. The part of the ball that touches the lane is the size of a pen tip; if the ball hits a crack or dip or any other imperfection you're through. Plus, the righthanders have to fight that track, go over or around it, and we all have to perfect four releases and throw them all well enough to carry and score.
"In both games," Davis goes on, "the variables determine your score, but that's what people don't understand about bowling. In golf, if you hit a bad shot you can recover. In bowling, if you throw a bad ball it's gone. You don't get it back. Granted, the first shot in golf, the drive, is important. But the first shot in bowling is everything. You can't afford to leave a bad split. Another thing, if you hit a good shot in golf you are seldom penalized. Here, if everything goes well with your ball—if you cross those boards that are hooking and backing up and jumping at you, if you cross those boards correctly, if you catch the groove, have the proper release and the proper spin and timing, if you get the ball in the pocket just so and everything else goes right, you know, a great shot—you still can get rapped, and all the pins won't go down. Something happens down there and you don't know what. It just happens. I know I'm learning golf a lot faster than I ever learned bowling."
Dave Davis learned bowling relatively late, after his family had moved from Wilkes Barre, Pa. to Phoenix following his junior year in high school. He worked as a mechanic and maintenance man at a couple of lanes in Phoenix, polishing his game in the off-hours and waiting until he could scrounge enough money to become a pro. He rounded up a group of 13 local men to support him when he started the tour in 1964, but he has since become associated with Glen Smallcomb, a young real-estate developer from the San Francisco area who is rapidly becoming the Mark McCormack of bowling. Smallcomb now handles the investments, endorsements and other financial matters of 12 bowlers on the tour.
Smallcomb Enterprises is a child of bowling's new prosperity, a condition created by sponsors like Firestone and Lincoln-Mercury, who have stacked their money solidly behind the tour in recent years. Four seasons ago only one PBA tournament had a first prize of more than $4,000; now on the winter tour minimum first prize is $6,000.
"Dave Davis is the next superstar of bowling," says Smallcomb. "He has made a quarter of a million dollars in the last four years, and his marketing value is just starting. Guys like Dave project one helluva future for pro bowling. It is a sport that focuses on the individual. Anybody can identify with the star. When we get this over to more national advertisers bowling will be bigger than ever. Last year our staff won $300,000 in prize money and picked up $60,000 in endorsements. This year I see $100,000 in endorsements. Davis' earning potential is limitless."
Last year Smallcomb dispatched a speech-and-etiquette teacher to accompany his valuable client on the tour. "The guy taught me how to buy clothes and dress and meet people and everything," says Davis. "He sure could drink Scotch, too."
With a thin, angular face dominated by clear eyes and bunny-rabbit teeth, Dave Davis, at 6'2" and 145 pounds, resembles the young Dan Dailey of Meet Me in St. Louis. He brings big-time bowling a fresh if somewhat undernourished look, and he is at the forefront of the mass assault on the sport by a new young breed. To appreciate how completely youth has taken over the PBA, it is only necessary to examine the results of bowling's four most important events—the Tournament of Champions, the National, the All-Star and the Masters—over the last two years. Of the five different winners of these tournaments only one is more than 29 years old. Eight of the top 12 money-winners this year are 28 or under. In addition, the major titles and the money-earnings race are slowly becoming the personal domain of a new Big Two: tall, slim Dave Davis and stocky, powerful Jim Stefanich, also 26, of Joliet, Ill.
Last season, while Davis took the National on the way to his brilliant record, Stefanich won the Tournament of Champions plus two other titles and $42,575, second only to Davis. This year Stefanich has already tied Davis' record of six tournament wins (including the All-Star). With his victory in the Houston Sertoma he became the first bowler to win more than $60,000 in one season.
The accomplishments of Davis and Stefanich over such a short time (each has nine career victories) already compare favorably with the records of bowling's alltime heroes, Dick Weber and Don Carter. Weber, with 17 PBA tournament victories over nine years, has won four All-Stars but not one of the other big tournaments. Carter, though the winner of three of the four major titles, has taken just six PBA tournaments. And it is clear that their dominance has long since come to an end. Weber has not won on the tour in two years, and Carter has not won since 1962.
Weber says, "These young kids come out here knowing about the ball, about the boards, about release, about everything. They're not inexperienced anymore, they're not green and, especially important, they're not afraid.
"I've always considered Don Carter the greatest bowler who ever lived—and he's a good friend—but he returned to the tour this year after a layoff, and he just can't do it. He's bowling as well as he ever did, but there's just more people who can beat him now. I consider myself lucky just to stay in with some of these kids. They're pushing guys like Don and myself right off the tour.
"I think Davis and Stefanich are already superstars. Davis is uncanny with equipment. The ball. He'll use a ball for maybe four or five bad games in a tournament, then get a brand-new one out of a box, one that's never been used, and drill it the way he wants. Then he goes out and wins the tournament with it. That's like a catcher or a second baseman trying to play a game with a brand-new glove that isn't broken in."
Sitting in his spacious ranch-style home in Phoenix with his wife Pat and their 2-year-old daughter, Dion Michelle, Davis looks out at the grapefruit trees in the backyard, far from the turmoil of a missed six-eight conversion but not exactly content. He is concerned about the sale of his home, which, he and Pat have decided, is just too large, considering the short and infrequent periods they are able to spend there. He plans to use his leisure hours to golf and fish (a 71-pound white marlin is on one wall in the den) and spend his working days bowling. Again the anonymity of a top bowler's lot disturbs him.
"We got some attention late last year when To Tell the Truth had Pat and me on, and they tried to guess which of the three girls was my wife," he says. "Pat was number three, but Orson Bean guessed number one. He said, 'I voted for number one, but it's probably number three because she's got a great set of pins.' We got a kick out of that, and Pat's a ham anyway. But that kind of exposure is rare.
"I think about my role in sports a lot. For baseball, golf and all the others, the papers always print the leaders, the top 20, stuff like that. Bowling, if it's there at all, gets last billing under 'Sports Shorts.' You know, 'So-and-so kegler is leading the blank-blank tournament with a score of blip-blop.' One paragraph. When I won the Champions we got a little half-column story in the Phoenix papers. Television isn't much better. Pete Tountas from Tucson won the Masters this year and got about four seconds on Phoenix TV. I'm getting a little tired of it. Bowling has been in obscurity long enough.
"I was talking to a guy downtown just the other day. I said, 'You know, I don't really know anybody in this town.' Oh, I know the mayor and the superior court judge to go up to and say hello. I've met them a few times at banquets. But I really don't know the big people around here. I mean, I don't want to know them to use their friendship. I just want to know them and have them as friends.
"This guy said it's probably because I'm young or because I'm away from home so much, and maybe that's right. But maybe it's the sport, too. You know, when you have a dream, and you think about what will happen to you? I always thought that if I ever made Bowler of the Year it would be great. I'd be like Carter. I'd walk around with my head in the clouds and not see anything for a while. Everything would be swell. But here I am, and it never really pumped me up at all. I mean, it's a great honor and everything, and I dress and act differently, but the fame and fortune hasn't come the way I expected it to. I don't really believe bowling makes any dent on sports. I mean, I didn't expect all the stars to call me up or write me letters of congratulations or anything like that. But I bet if you went up to Willie Mays or Arnold Palmer or somebody like that and asked him who Dave Davis is, he wouldn't know. They just wouldn't know at all."
So Dave Davis goes his anonymous way, a prince to the guys with HORMEL HAMS and DIVIDEND GAS on their shirt backs, but a face in the crowd outside the Bowl-A-Drome parking lots. Occasionally he even has trouble with his sport at home. On a recent evening Pat Davis was surprised that little Dion would want more food at dinner. "She shouldn't be so hungry, Dave," Pat said. "She had all that popcorn down at the bowling alleys."
Dave Davis slowly looked up from his newspaper, disappointment in his eyes. "Lanes, honey," the superstar of the proletariat said to his wife. "Bowling lanes."