When the late Francis Albertanti, public relations man extraordinary, lured Grantland Rice to the 1937 American Bowling Congress Tournament in New York City, bowling's officialdom rejoiced. Granny had resisted writing about the sport through the years, and ABC officers felt they had finally cracked the shell of his indifference. He was made comfortable in the official box with a fine view of 24 gleaming lanes in a flag-bedecked armory, and he was visibly impressed with 120 colorfully uniformed bowlers paraded to their places to martial music. But when the first game began, one bowler and then another threw balls into the "gutter," missing all 10 pins.
Rice turned to Albertanti and asked in surprise, "This is a championship?"
The PR man explained that many of the men bowling that night were beginners, others veterans far past their prime.
"Then what are they doing here?" Rice demanded, and he stalked out in disgust.
"What are they doing here?" is still being asked by spectators today in Syracuse, N.Y., host of the 55th annual ABC tournament. When the 72-day event ends June 8, some 27,000 bowlers will have competed for approximately $360,000 in prize money—America's largest sports participation tourney and one of its most spectacular. Of these, less than 1,000 appear to have even a remote chance to win a championship. What urged the more than 26,000 others to make the trek to Syracuse, a city with no particular tourist" attraction, from places as far off as California? What compels about 10,000 bowlers to follow the ABC to all sections of the U.S. year after year, often at great expense, despite the fact that they rarely share in the prize money?
"There is no single answer," Frank Baker, executive secretary of the ABC, said recently. "But I can tell you this. When the ABC bug bites you, you stay bitten."
Joe Meyers, who operates a gas station in University Heights, Ohio, was bitten in 1950.
"I entered because the tournament was near my home," Meyers said. "I didn't shoot well, but the feeling of being out there on the big floor...well, it did something to me. I wouldn't miss an ABC if they held it in Alaska." Thousands tell a similar story. At least 150 have competed in more than 25 tournaments.
On March 29, opening night at Syracuse, William Rydzewski and Art Series, captains, respectively, of the Romie's Alleys and Pinky's Alleys teams of Milwaukee, paid their entry fees for the 1959 tournament at St. Louis.
"We've been on most opening-night squads the past 18 years," Rydzewski, a post office employee, said. "We want to be sure of our spot again next year."