Flattop, Rags, Buckwheat, the Martian and the Sundance Kid were part of the 52-man mob that rode into Fairlawn, Ohio last week looking like so many oldtime thugs. They wore maroon suits, white suits and even suits of blue and green crushed velvet. Mobsters? Naw, just bowlers competing in the $129,500 Firestone Tournament of Champions, the most lucrative event in the history of the Professional Bowlers Association.
The gangsterish garb is the newest fad on the PBA tour. For some curious reason, bowlers have always been weird dressers. Back in the late '50s, when the PBA began, bib overalls, grease-rack dungarees and T shirts were standard. A bowler who brought an extra T shirt to a tournament was thought to have overpacked.
Nowadays the PBA has what is called, no kidding, the Image Committee, and it has a rule: "Neat, well-appearing attire should be worn both on the lanes and off; bowling outfits should be neat, clean and pressed, as well as coordinated." Boy, are they ever coordinated. Many competitors in the Firestone had bowling balls that matched the garish colors of the outfits they wore.
Alas, the bowler most responsible for starting the latest trend was not at the Firestone. He is Chuck (Bugs) Moran, who when fitted out in an ankle-length overcoat, brim-down fedora and cannon-sized cigar looks like Al Capone.
Bugs was absent because he has not won a PBA championship. Even being a titlist does not ensure a spot in the 52-man Firestone field, however. A complex point system is also involved. One big winner in recent years, Bill Allen, made it to the Firestone only as an alternate. Not the sort to take out a contract on a fellow bowler, he just hoped someone would come up ailing. Besides the shot at first-place prize money of $25,000, every Firestone contestant is guaranteed a minimum of $1,000. Allen got his when Butch (Count Dracula) Gearhart went to bed on Wednesday with what appeared to be food poisoning.
As the tournament progressed, many outstanding bowlers were eliminated, among them Wayne (Z-man) Zahn, Johnny (Gunner) Guenther and Jim (Tarzan) Godman, the only two-time winner of the Firestone. Only five made it to the finals on Saturday. Why five? Because five bowlers fit so snugly into 90 minutes of TV. Five men play four matches and the bowler unbeaten is the winner.
Larry (the Sundance Kid) Laub of Santa Rosa, Calif. was the fifth and last finalist. Laub grew up in San Francisco where he was, as he phrases it, "a real punk. I hung around with gangs, got into fights every day and almost got expelled from school. When I was 10 or 11 I felt so guilty about doing the wrong things that I couldn't sleep. So I went into a shell and became super-shy. When I first came on tour I was so shy I was afraid to bowl in public. But once I got over that I started bowling well."
This year Laub has bowled so well that he qualified for the finals of seven of the previous 12 tournaments. He won three of them and earned the February Hickok professional athlete award.
The first match of the finals pitted Laub against Curt Schmidt, who qualified for fourth place. Schmidt is nicknamed the Martian because he, well, looks like a Martian. Although the 5'6", 140-pound Schmidt does not appear athletic, his career has been dotted with sporting achievements—and misfortunes. He won the Indiana Class C horseshoe pitching title a few years ago, but his days as a baseball pitcher ended when he caught his fingers in a car door. Schmidt once won the table tennis championship of Allen County, Ind., a title he was unable to defend the next year because of measles. For the past two years his right arm has bothered him while bowling. "I hurt it playing golf," Schmidt said. "What happened was I hit a bad tee shot, got mad, threw down another ball, swung and hit the ground. My arm's hurt ever since."
Laub started off well in his match with Schmidt, but the latter got seven strikes in a row to win 259-244. Laub was eliminated, and Schmidt went up the ladder against the No. 3 man, Earl (Flattop) Anthony, a realtor from Tacoma who sports one of the rarest items on the tour: a crew cut. Anthony himself is a rare sort. He doesn't go in for mod clothing, he doesn't mix in card games on the road. He is a quiet family man who can't wait to get home. But like Laub, Anthony was a rambunctious youngster. "I got into fights every day and once some of us broke all the windows in the school," he said. Last year he won two PBA events and $45,812 and he was the state of Washington athlete of the year.
In the Anthony-Schmidt match, turnabout was fair play. This time Anthony got seven strikes in a row to win 248-200. Anthony now had to play king of the mountain with the No. 2 man, Roy (Buckwheat) Buckley, 30, of Columbus, Ohio. At 5'10" and 135 pounds, Buckley would seem to be an excellent candidate for a clothespin endorsement. Frail though he may be, he is a consistently high finisher and scrappy competitor.
Anthony, who is renowned among bowlers for his composure, kept his cool during the match with Buckley. Before Anthony rolled in the seventh frame there was a pause for a TV commercial. He went to a cooler for a cup of water and then, noticing a friend's fiancée in the bleachers signaling thirst, filled a cup, leaned over the wall behind the lanes and handed it to her. He was equally calm in picking up two strikes, three spares and a 215-213 win.
That set up the title match between Anthony and No. 1 qualifier Johnny (Rags) Petraglia, winner of the Firestone in 1971, the year he set the PBA record with total winnings of $85,065. It was also the year he became convinced his mother was right when she told him there was good luck in the color red. "Nine times I was on the TV finals in '71," Petraglia said. "Four times I used a red towel and each time I won. Five times I used other colors, and each time I lost." At the Firestone he took no chances. He had a red towel and a burgundy ball.
Prior to the Firestone, Petraglia had gone home for intensive training. In seven days he bowled 200 games, and at the Firestone earned the No. 1 spot in the finals by averaging better than 221 for 48 games.
The Petraglia-Anthony championship game went back and forth. In the third frame Petraglia suffered a horrendous 4-6 split, but then he came up with strikes in the fourth, fifth, eighth and ninth frames, and joyously pounded a fist into his hand.
Anthony coolly closed out with four strikes and two spares, getting strikes after reracking the pins on the left lane because he felt the automatic pinsetter had set them out of line in the sixth and eighth frames. He finished with a 216 and it was all up to Petraglia in the 10th frame. Petraglia was carrying two strikes and needed another on this try to win. Red power and good luck failed him. His shot left the 2-pin standing. Petraglia lost with 213 for second-place money of $14,000. Still, he and the others at the Firestone showed they are one gang that can shoot straight.