If I had led a normal life I would've been bored to death," says Carmen Salvino, who has bowled through life on and off the alleys. The 40-year-old Salvino has been a success despite unaligned hips, a short leg and a swollen ego that has alternately made him as loathed as a 7-10 split or as beloved as a clown. Twenty years ago he was one of the finest bowlers and the most captivating showman in the sport. High scores and sonic-boom laughs were his trademarks. By 1969, though, he could not find the strike pocket and was on the brink of a breakdown. As a last resort he sought help from Hank Lahr, a pal from his early bowling days in Chicago.
Lahr, an engineer, was on an extended leave of absence from his job of constructing nuclear power plants. "You can't believe how far Carmy had sunk," Lahr recalls. "I told him bowling could be reduced to a mathematical equation that could make him a champion again. But he would have to trust me. The work wouldn't be easy."
Lahr began by having Salvino tell him all he knew about bowling: footwork, shoes, angles, speed, lane conditions, temperature, humidity and air conditioning at the alleys, approach, release, follow-through, instinct, aim, ball rotation, strategy. For eight, 10, 12 hours a day they went at it. They argued, fought, yelled. "It used to be that my body ached from bowling," Salvino says, "but after those sessions it was my mind."
"We invented a language, a combination of layman's terms and engineering terms," Lahr says. "For six months I taught Carmy the basics of physics and engineering. When he wanted to quit I'd say, 'Go ahead. Be stupid.' If a .300 hitter can't get out of a slump it's usually because he doesn't know what he's looking for. He's proved he has the talent to hit, but that's not enough unless he also has knowledge about hitting. What can you learn from practice if you don't know what you're doing? Carmy had to learn the value of knowledge, of thought and problem solving. I also taught him the uselessness of being negative. I'd say, 'Tell me one way being negative will help.' He couldn't. This sounds easy, but it's not when a man's locked into a deeply negative state."
May 5, 1974
Almost imperceptibly progress was made: portions of the bowling equation were found, Salvino toppled more pins and Lahr's philosophical discourses broadened Carmen's outlook. In June of 1971 Salvino finished fifth at the Fresno Open. Two months later at the Grand Rapids Open, Salvino lost to Tommy Tuttle by one pin. Carmen wept. "I admit it," he says. "When they handed me my check I told the crowd, 'I'm emotional. I always will be. I just want you to know one thing—I'm back.' "
Again in 1972 he came close to winning, but a last-frame strike by Barry Asher deprived him of victory in the Japan Gold Cup in Tokyo. It was, however, a fine year in other respects: Salvino and Asher took the American Bowling Congress Classic Doubles for pros and Carmen earned money in 27 events on the Professional Bowlers Association tour, a record. As gratifying as that was, Salvino's deepest longing had not yet been satisfied. "I had won 10 PBA titles, but I hadn't taken one since 1968," he said.
While Salvino traveled with the PBA tour Lahr remained in Chicago, where he labored for 18 months on the elusive equation. He came up with the following, in which E[Total] is total energy; E[T] is the energy of translational forces; E[R] is the energy of rotational forces and E[LF] is energy loss caused by lane friction:
To a physicist the equation is sound but essentially meaningless because it is just about impossible for a human to apply it while bowling. There are too many variables. No matter to Salvino, who believes in it and has the scores to back up his belief. In his own mind he thinks of his right arm as a controlled pendulum (E[T]) and goes around mumbling to himself about vector analysis and the principle of Archimedes.
Salvino continued to bowl well early in 1973, and at the Lincoln-Mercury Open in New Orleans he qualified for the fifth and last spot on the TV finals. Stringing strikes the way he did in his prime, he beat Dennis Swayda 225-183, Gus Lampo 248-212 and Alex Seymore 236-216. And in the finale his five straight strikes finished off Bob Strampe 245-204 for the title, $10,000 and a new car. Salvino had made it all the way back.
Carmen Salvino was born in Chicago, but his father felt the family would do better on a Florida tenant farm, and the Salvinos soon moved south. For a year Carmen had no shoes. For two years he had one pair of overalls. There were long days of work. School was a place to rest his aching body. Carmen and his older brother plowed fields. They did not have a horse, so one brother held the plow, the other put on the traces.
One year 10 acres of tomatoes grew in lush splendor, but a heavy frost destroyed the crop. After five years the family returned to Chicago, where Carmen shined shoes on Madison Street. Then in 1945, when he was 11, he found he could earn $3 a night setting pins at a bowling alley, an enormous sum to a boy who in Florida had been paid $2 for digging potatoes by hand for 14 hours.
"The first ball I ever threw was a strike," Salvino recalls. By the time he was 16 his average was 203. Chicago then was the mecca of bowling and the Chicago Classic League the most prestigious in the country. At 17 Salvino beat out 6,000 bowlers for $3,000 first-place money in a national tournament called the Dom DeVito Classic and soon became the youngest ever to roll in the Classic League. At the time Salvino wore bib overalls with OSHKOSH BY GOSH on the back, and he publicly announced, "I'm great and I'm gonna be the best bowler alive." Other bowlers resented him, understandably, and Salvino remembers deciding, "The way to show 'em is to beat 'em, stomp on 'em and let 'em know how good I am. I was hated by the players and the public. After a while I didn't care. I was getting bigger and meaner all the time."
At 19 he went to the National Doubles with Joe Wilman who then was thought to be washed up. "We finished second to Fred Bujack and Don Carter," Salvino says. "That year Carter had already won the singles and team championships, and all he needed to wrap things up was the doubles. In those days the second-place team at the nationals could challenge the winner to two matches. Whoever had the high total for those matches won the title. We challenged. Bujack and Carter decided to bowl first at a site of their choosing and pressure us by building up a big lead. They beat us in Detroit by 248 pins. Then we bowled 'em in Chicago. We beat 'em by 650 pins and won the championship—washed up Joe Wilman and the punk kid."
In 1954 Salvino was on the squad that won the ABC team title, and he was being called The Boy Wonder. He was good, and he did not let anyone forget it. After losing 12 straight match games to Salvino, Oscar (Iron Man) Stevenson was so distraught that he stuck his head in the ball-return rack.
Salvino's nickname was Spook, and he had a rubber stamp with a Kilroylike face on it and the words, "Spook Was Here." Spook was everywhere. "I stamped everything," he says, "floors, ceilings, walls, toilet paper, windows, women's blouses."
People could not avoid Salvino's ego or his rubber stamp. When things did not go his way he argued, shouted and kicked the ball-return rack until balls thundered to the floor and rolled aimlessly, as loud and out of control as Spook himself. And yet he could not fathom why people disliked him, or so he said.
When the Dallas Broncos played their opening match in the new National Bowling League in 1961, Salvino threw the very first ball, got a strike and finished the night with eight strikes and a superb 232 average. Those were the days. Salvino's games were underlined by his leaping, sliding mannerisms and by his high scores. Not even the collapse of the NBL after one season could stop Salvino. He quickly proved himself in the PBA, of which he was already a charter member.
Salvino was involved in as many zany escapades off the alleys as on. To win a $20 bet he climbed a rickety 55-foot diving tower in Houston and did what he describes as "half a belly flopper that left my body black and blue for a month." In Pontiac, Mich. he accidentally walked through a plate-glass door, severely gashed his bowling hand and then, immediately on his release from the hospital, rolled a 700 series in tournament play.
On the eve of a revolution in Caracas, he says, soldiers halted his cab, found some round "bombs" and ordered him to stand against a wall with his arms raised. Tommy guns were aimed at him. But he claims he made this difficult diplomatic spare by convincing the soldiers the round objects were bowling balls that had not yet had finger holes drilled in them.
Physically he was a marvel. He did daily sit-ups, push-ups and drills. During a power failure in Puerto Rico he walked down 23 flights to the hotel lobby, then realized he had forgotten to put a weighted belt on his waist, and returned to his room for it. Wearing the belt, he walked down once more to the lobby.
"I'm like steel," used to be his favorite line. About the only complaint Salvino had during his glory days in the mid-'60s was that he was rapidly growing bald.
Salvino's collapse came suddenly. In 1968 his curve began skittering across the lanes, knocking down fewer and fewer pins. He figured out what was wrong, yet he was unable to correct the situation. Alleys were being coated with new surfacing agents that cut costs, and because of their hard finish it was almost impossible to make a big curve behave properly. Bowlers with cranked-up curves packed and went home. Salvino could not. Bowling had been his salvation, had fed his ego, had made him what he was. Life on the tour—travel, meals, rooms, entrance fees—is expensive. Salvino earned $28,170 on the tour in 1967 but barely $12,000 each of the next two years. The Boy Wonder was 35—no boy, no wonder.
Once he went six tournaments without pocketing money. After early elimination from one event Salvino went home, hoping that a look at movies of how he bowled when at his peak would enable him to regain his touch. Back on tour he was asked what he had learned. "That I used to have a lot more hair," Salvino said. But he knew he was in dire trouble.
His frustrations manifested themselves in many ways. He drove 600 miles round trip to have a ball drilled. It was no help. Salvino's "body of steel" snapped after 83 exhibitions in 90 days while he was trying to earn money he could no longer win on the tour. That sidelined him for six weeks.
As part of his effort to get back to winning form, Salvino underwent extensive physical therapy. He discovered that his hips were out of line, and he began walking exercises, wearing a belt with two arrows; when they were aligned, so were his hips. He exercised so much that he wore a path in the living room carpet, but he learned how to keep his hips in line.
Next he found that his right leg was shorter than his left and that his feet toed out excessively. Now he wears a shoe that is built up one-quarter of an inch, and he no longer tilts to the right. Correcting his splay feet was not that simple. When he went to bed he had to wear 15-pound orthopedic boots connected by steel rods that kept his feet and toes straight. Salvino still brings along weight belts when he travels. And at home he goes for long rides on a stationary bicycle.
In the depths of his slump Salvino bought a blender and juice extractor, and took them on tour. His roommate, Jim Stefanich, moved out. "Couldn't blame him," Salvino says. "The room looked like a vegetable garden—carrots, tomatoes, grapefruit, oranges, lemons."
Salvino tried just about everything to help his game. Once he decided his bowling ball should be harder, so he stuck it in an oven. When he took it out the ball had melted into an egg shape. Another time he poured a plastic solution into the finger holes to improve his grip. Since he was to bowl on TV shortly, he placed the ball near a hot plate to help dry the plastic. Minutes later the ball was on fire.
Salvino sometimes seemed to worry about his hair as much as his game. "When my hair started to disappear I tried a vibrator on my scalp," he says. "It didn't help, so I read books about growing hair. One suggested using peanut oil, so I rubbed it on my head. I rubbed and rubbed, but it didn't grow any hair.
"When I went to Japan I noticed the Japanese all had plenty of hair. I figured there had to be a reason, and I decided it had to be seaweed. They eat lots of it. So I brought seaweed home and ate it, but my hair kept disappearing. I was getting bald. I figured seaweed might help if I used it another way. Before going to bed I'd put seaweed on my head and put on my wife's shower cap to hold it in place. The seaweed made my head sweat, and in the morning the room stunk. When I took off the cap the seaweed was flaky and would fly all over the place. Worst of all, seaweed didn't keep my hair from disappearing. All it did was turn my scalp black."
Never one to desist, Salvino mentioned his dilemma to a friend who performs hair transplants, and for the past few years he has had free treatments. "You know I'm vain when I agree to take 300 needles in my scalp," he says, now displaying almost a full head of hair.
Salvino owes his rebirth as a bowler entirely to Lahr, whom he met in Chicago 20 years ago. "Hank was a college student and came to the lanes with an armload of books and a slide rule," Salvino recalls. "I challenged him to a game. He beat me. And then he beat me again. So I became his doubles partner, and we never lost.
"When I was going bad I remembered Hank and how scientific he was about bowling. I told him I needed help, and we met in Chicago. First thing he said was, I'm the teacher. You're my student.' My tremendous ego made this hard to accept. He saw this on my face and said, 'If you don't want it that way, if you know so much, then why are you here?' I thought a second and said, 'O.K., teach.'
"He's taught me so much more than bowling. He's opened my mind and made me a better human being. Hank gave 2½ years of his life to help me, and he still spends many hours at it.
"Hank Lahr made me the Human Equation. He's proved to me that too many athletes are finished too young. I'm bowling better than ever, and I feel, as I gain more mastery of the equation, that I will do things that have never been done with a bowling ball."
Salvino sometimes spends hours contemplating his newfound philosophy. "I jot down a lot of things," he says. "How's this one: 'A man without compassion does not cast a shadow'? What do I mean by that'? I mean that a man without compassion is not a man at all. It hasn't been easy for me to learn how to live. I made lots of enemies. Everything about me then was filled with arrogance."
Today no bowler captivates fans as Salvino does with his natural showmanship. On the PBA tour, men, women and children gather around him. His appearance at the Lincoln-Mercury Open last February was largely responsible for drawing 18 million television viewers, the highest number for any bowling event at that time. Following his victory Salvino was interviewed by Chris Schenkel. He paid tribute to Lahr and said, "I bowl according to a mathematical equation now." That was all. But, says Ned Steckel, producer of the program for ABC, "The network was deluged with mail from people wanting to know about the equation. We got more mail about that than any sports events we had broadcast aside from the Olympics."
Last year Salvino earned $38,302 on the tour, his highest figure ever. This year he is maintaining that pace, having won $13,592 in the first 14 PBA tournaments.
Even if he were not bowling well, Salvino would still hold one segment of his vast following: the Japanese. Only a handful of the top American bowlers compete against the Japanese in their annual Gold Cup, but the Japanese insist that even if Salvino does not qualify, he should be permitted to join the troupe anyway. Thus he is the only one to have competed in all 10 Gold Cups.
"Why do people want to be around me?" Salvino asks rhetorically. "Because I make 'em happy, that's why. I know my role and I have to be sensitive to the needs of people. If I'm going bad, they don't want to hear my troubles. They want to be entertained. I've thought about this, and I'm convinced the best clowns are the most sensitive people.
"So many young athletes are robots—all business, no emotion. They're Johnny Cools who are afraid to be themselves. If a man misses in any sport and smiles, I say, I can't trust this man. He's not honest with his emotions.' If you're a robot, how can you enjoy?"
Then, with a wink, Salvino adds, "One day I'm gonna go out on the lanes with a slide rule, and I'll fiddle with it, push it this way and that and think real deep. Then I'll snap my fingers so's everybody will know I have the answer. And then I'll role a strike and blow everybody's mind. They'll know the Human Equation has been there, but they'll also know he's not a robot and that life is for living and having fun. I'm always talking. Never shut up. Love to make people feel good. After all, why should I have all this happiness and not share it?"