This is the story of a superstar and his sport, though whether what he did for a living is a sport has been debated since the . . . activity . . . was invented. The fact that I spent quite a few evenings engaged in it when I was a young man makes it all the more unlikely that it requires enough athletic prowess to make it a sport.
The superstar, whom I’ll introduce in a little while, was a professional bowler. Settle down, you cricketers. We’re talking indoor bowling, the kind where participants roll a heavy — and I mean heavy: often 7-kilo (15½-pound) — plastic or resin ball. At first, when bowling balls were lighter, they were made of wood, then rubber.
Bowlers stick three fingers into the holes that have been drilled in the ball, hoist it upward and cradle it in their dominant hand, and shuffle forward on a slippery floor in soft bowling shoes or their stocking feet. Come on, what athlete competes in his Slipper Socks? Then they swing the arm that holds the ball backward while bending their knees, slide forward to a release line on the floor, and fling the ball down a long wooden row called a “lane,” 18.3 meters (60 feet) long.
It’s a lane, but the building that holds a bunch of them is called an “alley.” A bowling alley. Go figure.
Running along the sides of the lane are recessed “gutters” into which your ball is sure to wobble as you’re learning the game.
You get no points when it does, and it serves you right.
At the far end of the lane are 10 wooden pins at which you take aim. Each, in fact, is called a “tenpin.”
They’re funny-looking: chubby at the bottom, tucked in in the middle, and bulbous at the top — a little like those Russian nesting dolls, but less colorful.
What are thought to be among earth’s first bowling pins were discovered in a boy’s tomb in ancient Egypt. Lawn bowling, in which balls crack into each other rather than pins, and an indoor game with one or more heavy balls and nine small “skittle” pins were huge across the British Empire. And Australians borrowed the old German game of Kegel, rolling a ball at nine pins.
Even American bowlers are sometimes called “keglers.” I used the word a lot in headlines when I was a sportswriter:
Kegler Rolls 210 at Hilliard Lanes
How many times can you write “bowler,” after all?
The object of tenpin bowling sounds quite simple: propel the ball in such a way that it smashes into the 10 pins and knocks every one of them down. If you do, it’s called a strike. Strikes are good in bowling and fishing, bad in baseball and labor negotiations.
If by some miracle you do this 12 straight times — in the 10 “frames” or turns that you get in each game — you’ve bowled a “perfect game,” for which you earn 300 points. (It’s 12 in 10 because you must bowl three in the 10th frame to qualify for the perfect game.) You are then, according to custom, permitted to jump in the air, shriek like you’ve won the lottery, pump your fists, and accept high-fives from friends and nearby strangers.
Odds are, though, that you will never roll even one perfect game — I don’t remember ever doing it — because:
• you stink and send a lot of balls careening into the gutter
• you throw the ball like a girl, which is OK if you are a girl but will likely mean the ball is thrown weakly or in a bizarre direction (Allegations of sexism may be directed to my editor, Faith Lapidus, who happens to BE a, uh, woman… and not that bad a bowler, either, or so she tells me)
• you heave the ball as if it were a heavy stump that you’d just removed from a bog, causing it to land with a thud a couple of meters down the lane. This, too, will likely send it into the gutter, and it is certain to draw the ire of the alley’s manager, who wishes to see no dents in the carefully polished lanes
• or you roll the ball beautifully, fluidly, powerfully, with a lovely little hook into the sweet striking spot that you have identified, causing the pins to fly in all directions — only to see one or more still standing despite your good efforts
When that occurs, you wait for the big machine down by the pins to roll your ball back to you, so you can take aim at the remaining pin or pins, hoping to knock them down and score a “spare.”
This can be even more bedeviling than felling all 10 pins. Especially when one, the 7 pin, looms all the way over to the left, and another, the 10 pin, stands — and would be thumbing its nose at you if it had a nose — all the way to the right. The dreaded, gaping 7-10 split confronts you.
You’re left with but two options, neither of which you’re likely to execute:
• strike one of the pins head-on with such force that it flies about like a straw in a cyclone and smites the remaining pin, quite by accident
• or roll the ball deftly and delicately toward the outside edge of one pin, gently nudging it inward so that it slides over to the other side and knocks the second pin down. Most of the time when you try this, your ball thunks into the gutter.
Or, as happened in my bowling “career” after school and in an evening league or two, your ball will roll harmlessly down the middle, missing both pins by a wide margin. Whatever is the opposite of jumping up and down, high-fiving, and drinking free beers is what you do in this case.
Some Americans take bowling VERY seriously. They get duded up in a bowling shirt with their names and the team name — “The Bowling Stones,” “PinHeads,” “High Rollers,” clever stuff like that — stitched on the pocket. They choose a ball with the care that a bridegroom uses to pick a wedding ring, then engrave it with their own, ever-so-witty names: Jim “Strike Force” Palooka; Barby “Bowlicious” Bowinkle; Karl “King Pin” Kowalski.
They polish their bowling balls, carry them in cases fit for an art treasure, file their fingernails before bowling, then wave their cuticles in front of the little blower that’s attached to the ball rack lest a drop of perspiration interfere with the ball’s release.
Then, with a contortionist’s twist of the wrist and a carefully calculated knee-buckle and hip-wiggle, they waddle toward the line, then glide — not heave or throw but glide — the ball down the lane toward a predetermined spot precisely between the One and Three pins (the One and Two if they’re left-handed). It’s a danze la bowl that would make a trigonometrist giddy. If there were such a thing as a trigonometrist.
Bowling nerds study various grips, “rev rates” (ball rotations), and the drag effect of the finger holes on a rolling, spinning ball.
They watch professional bowling on television, though it’s harder to find than it was when bowling filled a lot of hours in TV’s black-and-white era of the 1940s and ’50s. They watch their kids bowl on the high-school team. There, and on the men’s and women’s pro circuits, bowling is definitely considered a sport.
It is not, however, an Olympic one, which prompts bowlers to write to sports blogs and demand to know why, then, curling — in which mostly Scandinavian and Canadian people gently nudge a polished stone forward across a sheet of ice while others run alongside, sweeping frantically with brooms — is in the Olympics.
Agreed, bowling has to be harder than sweeping the ice with a broom. But there is an irrefutable, one-word reason why everyday bowling cannot be a sport:
Beers. Three or four of them — and a plate of nachos with melted cheese — consumed right at your seat near the ball rack. When’s the last time you saw a beer cart beside a World Cup bench or a Super Bowl huddle?
In fact, I believe “beer belly” is found in the official glossary of bowling terms.
So bowling is “recreation” for most of us, but it’s the jewel of competition in another way: I’m convinced that bowling survived and grew because it was a fun, public, inexpensive activity that pubescent boys and girls could enjoy together without getting in trouble — in every sense of that word.
Bowling is the perfect “first date.”
Which brings us to that superstar, who died about a week ago at age 85. I would guess he had one of those first dates at the lanes.
His name was Don Carter. Not Don “Crusher” Carter or Don “Crazylegs” Carter or “Dandy Don” Carter.
Just plain Don Carter.
But others gave him a nickname. They called him “Mr. Bowling.”
Carter rolled 13 perfect 300-score games — and six 299s — in sanctioned, fiercely competed professional tournaments, plus probably hundreds more while messing around with friends or practicing on the makeshift lane he built in his basement as a young man, trying to break into the game.
Don Carter looked like the guy in the next office cubicle and even less ferocious on the lanes, stooping his shoulders, cocking his arm back toward his stomach rather than jerking it into a backswing, then gnarling his hand forward and down to release the ball in a motion that millions of hack bowlers tried to emulate.
Some came pretty close to matching his moves, as I did, only to (a) drop the ball on their feet, (b) direct it to an adjacent alley rather than their own, or (c) release it so delicately that it stopped dead before reaching the pins.
Before you bowlers write in to remind me that an object in motion tends to stay in motion (Newton, Isaac), and that a ball simply could not roll to a halt on a slippery lane, I will tell you that I have seen such with my own eyes. Admittedly, it was a cheap rental ball about as spherical as a cantaloupe, released by an 8-year-old at his birthday outing.
But enough about me.
Don Carter was in fact an athlete in the traditional, sinewy sense of the word. He was a star baseball player in high school and, between battles in the Pacific, in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Then he played minor-league ball before throwing his lot in with keglers.
He was in superb shape there, too, compared to a lot of his husky, cigarette-puffing opponents, having jumped around like a monkey, resetting heavy tenpins by hand at alleys in St. Louis so he could bowl for free at the other end of the lane. Before long, he was competing in six leagues and dominating them all.
Then came fame on TV, where he bowled with four other future stars on a team called the “Budweisers,” and smoothly obliterated individual foes on shows such as “Jackpot Bowling” and “Make That Spare.”
Not only did Carter go on to win five of the first six World Invitation tournaments, this charter member of the Pro Bowlers Association’s Hall of Fame also won what the New York Times, in its obituary, called “grueling 100-game tournaments that would test the mettle of any current star.”
“Don was the greatest bowler who ever lived,” wrote bowling historian Chuck Pezzano. “He was the master of any condition, great in the clutch and great coming from behind. He had all the attributes of a great athlete. He was there to bowl and to win. I often thought that if I could build a robot of the perfect bowler, I would take most of the parts from Don Carter.”
The robot comparison followed Carter, who appeared unemotional, clerk-like, cheerless and methodical. But so good, so intimidating, so quietly relentless that a bowling-ball manufacturer gave him a $1 million product-endorsement contract in the 1950s, when $1 million was a chunk of change.
This was a larger such deal than any athlete had ever received. Carter’s name alone sold a ton of Ebonite bowling balls.
Not bad for a fellow who grew up so poor in St. Louis, Missouri, that his only present on his 13th birthday was, coincidentally, 13 cents from his mother to pay for his first game of bowling. “That was the biggest birthday present of my life,” he later said.
Beset by bad knees toward the end of that life — you try bending low tens of thousands of times while grasping a 7-kilo object in your hand and see what happens — Carter retired to Florida, where he remained famous in bowling circles. He had married and divorced a champion woman bowler, then married another all-star, who survives him.
Carter’s obituary in the Washington Post mentions a series of television ads about retired sports heroes that included him. “I really don’t think anybody under the age of 65 remembers me,” Carter said of those commercials. “I’m really big with senior citizens. I’m famous because I’m the only guy to have two wives in the Hall of Fame.”
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Obliterate. To utterly destroy something — completely wipe it out.
Pubescent. About to reach, or having just reached, sexual maturity.
Resin. A sticky, flammable substance exuded by pine and fir trees. The word is usually pronounced “REZZ-in.” But the little white bag that is placed near the pitcher’s mound in baseball, which the pitcher rubs in his hand to improve his grip, is called the “ROZZ-in” bag.