At first glance it seems to be a joke. The bowling ball rolls down the left side of the lane, hanging over the lip of the last board like a Mack Sennett jalopy about to fall off a cliff, a sure gutter job. But then, as if bewitched, the ball hooks sharply to the right, locks in on the 1-2 pocket and down go the pins. Crash! A minute later Dotty Fothergill does it again—and sometimes again and again. And along with knocking down pins, she has been known to knock down a few male reputations. Only 5'1" tall, Dotty Fothergill has become one of the most powerful forces in competitive bowling.
This may not be the Dotty Fothergill you recognize if you hang around the beaches of New England, where she is a sort of superdriver of the dune-buggy set. Or if you were part of the sandlot football bunch a few years ago in North Attleboro, Mass., where Dotty used to tie on the shoulder pads and scrimmage just like one of the guys. But it's the same young lady—she is just expanding her horizons.
Dotty can be totally feminine, a blue-eyed, brown-haired 25-year-old in high heels and mod dresses. But high heels don't work very well where she now spends most of her time. Four years ago she became a professional bowler, and twice since then she has been Woman Bowler of the Year. She is now singlehandedly storming that male bastion known as the Professional Bowlers Association, going at it the same way she goes at everything—headfirst.
Dotty admits that her purpose in seeking membership in the all-male PBA is to make off with some of its prize money. "They have about 40 events on their tour each year," she says. "The women had just eight last year. We went from last Thanksgiving until last May without a tournament. That's no way to make money. And most small events during the off season exclude the top women bowlers because we scare off the men."
In March 1970 Dotty applied for membership in the PBA. In September she got a letter saying her application had been rejected "for the time being."
"What's that supposed to mean?" she asked, and proceeded to sue the PBA for discrimination, demanding $2.5 million in damages.
The PBA reaction was uncharacteristically quick. In November, while on a bowling tour in Japan, Dotty got a phone call from her mother back in North Attleboro. The PBA was countersuing for $3 million, her mother said, claiming Dotty had caused it undue hardship and embarrassment.
Last January she went to PBA headquarters in Akron to give a deposition. "I thought it would be just a few questions," she recalls, "but they kept at me for eight hours." Since then the legal action has cooled down considerably, and chances are good for a settlement.
Dotty insists that her case is not an adjunct of Women's Lib, but she does charge that the only reason the PBA turned her down is because she's a woman. "They claim it isn't so, but at a tournament last year I got one of the six guest invitations," she says. "All the other guests were men. They were all approved, but I wasn't." Dotty has not made herself entirely popular with the other lady pro bowlers by suing the PBA. Some male bowlers have decided that if she is allowed into the PBA they will begin entering some women's events, and Dotty's female cohorts are understandably apprehensive at this prospect.
On the other hand, Dotty would probably cash in on the PBA circuit, even if she never won a single event, for she has already defeated some of the finest male bowlers mano-a-mano. In December 1968, she won two of three games against the 1964 Bowler of the Year, Billy Hardwick, winning the series 631 pins to 555. Three months later she took on Jim Stefanich, winner of a record $67,375 in 1968 and the male bowler of that year. She swept him in three straight.
The rest of 1970 she was bothered by a foot tumor that ultimately required surgery, by new and unsatisfactory equipment, by the departure of her longtime coach and by the snubs of fellow women bowlers. And she lost her lucky chestnut, a talisman she had carried in her bowling bag for years. Still, Dotty struggled through the season with a 207 average, won the Woman's International Bowling Congress singles with a three-game 695 and was on the WIBC championship team. But it was the first year she didn't win a tournament on the tour. It was also the first season since she turned pro that she wasn't Woman Bowler of the Year.
"If you've known nothing but being on top, it hurts not to be there," she says. "People watch me bowl and think I'm a natural. They don't know how hard I've worked on my game."
Dotty began bowling during her senior year in high school, and it soon became an obsession. When her boy friend protested, she just plunged deeper into the game, perfecting her hook during long sessions at nearby alleys, getting home at two or three in the morning. Just the thing to reassure a suitor.
Charley Parker, the pro at her favorite alley, first noticed Dotty when she ordered a bunch of equipment from him, then told him she only had $5 to put down and would pay the rest on time. Charmed by Dotty's financial brass, and even more so by her bowling style, he went along. He also began coaching her, helping her to groove her hook and teaching her how to read lanes. After graduation she took a job as a short-order cook at a local bowling alley and spent every spare moment practicing.
For the next few years she haunted alleys around North Attleboro, competing against the best male competition she could find. The hottest action, she discovered, was in the late-night games that take place after the league bowlers clear out. That's when the local hotshots come out with their sharp hooks and fat wallets for challenge rounds. These midnight cowboys proved ripe picking for Dotty, whose ducktail hook and deceptive strength kept her in pin money.
Some girls rush home from school dances or class parties, bursting to tell their mothers about their social successes. Dotty Fothergill used to rush home from bowling alleys and fill her mother in on her latest bowling conquests. "Then I'd show her all the money I'd won that night and throw it up in the air and let it float down."
Hoping to increase the showers, Dotty turned pro in 1967. Her expenses were paid that first year by a local furniture dealer, but since then she has been paying her own way. Her first big victory came in the tour's main event, the All-Star, the first time in history that a rookie won it. She was also the first lefthander to win.
During her first three years on the tour, she won six tour titles and five other major events, for about $40,000 in prize money, and bought a used Cadillac and a new home for her parents. Then she sold the home and bought a motel, where they all live now. Her bonanza allowed her to indulge another passion—the telephone. She spends inordinate amounts of time on long distance; during a trip to Japan her phone charge for one day was $85.
She developed a reputation for self-assurance and an ingenuous interview style. Excited about having come from behind with seven consecutive strikes in the final game of the 1968 Denver Open, she blurted out, "The fans were great, the press was great—I was great." But others are lavish in their praise, too, and one of her ardent admirers is Andy Varipapa. "She throws the most powerful ball I ever see a girl roll," says the old expert. "She's one of the most refreshing things to happen to this sport."
At the heart of Dotty's skill is an astonishing finger action—you can hear the fingers snap as she releases the ball. Jim Stefanich calls her Superfingers. To maintain her edge during the off season Dotty rolls 10 or 20 games a day, keeping two lanes going at once, concentrating almost exclusively on trying to roll strikes.
Sometimes Dotty drives her car and her dune buggy the way she bowls—seemingly determined to knock down everything in her way. She rarely gets so much as a scraped fender, but her near-misses are legend. She was in a head-on crash a year ago (as a passenger, it happens) that left her practically unscratched despite the fact that she went through the windshield. Probably has something to do with the way she went through the windshield: headfirst.