Earl Anthony made pocket money as a kid by setting up pins in a bowling alley. His knack for knocking them down as an adult made him the first bowler to earn $1 million during his career. Anthony, who was 63 when he died from head trauma on Aug. 14 after falling down the stairs at a friend's home in New Berlin, Wis., dominated bowling when bowling dominated Saturday-afternoon television. He won a PBA career-record 41 tournaments from 1970 to '83, including 10 titles in the majors. "Earl made our broadcasts," former ABC host Chris Schenkel said last week, recalling the 36-year stretch that made the Professional Bowlers Tour one of the longest-running and highest-rated sports series in television history. "In the early days of golf telecasts, I would pray that Arnold Palmer would make the cut because he'd make the ratings go up. Earl had that same appeal."
That appeal might seem hard to fathom today. With his nerdy hair and Poindexter glasses, Anthony would go over only in a hip-to-be-square sense. Nonetheless, even as bowling has all but disappeared from the airwaves, it has come back in vogue in other ways of late. Bowling shoes and bags have become fashion items, the sport is featured in the new Comedy Central series Let's Bowl and NBC's comedy Ed, and political scientist Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, implicitly urges us to restore our fraying sense of social cohesiveness by returning to beer leagues at the local bowl-o-rama. In the meantime a trio of Microsoft millionaires recently bought the PBA tour and is trying to make the sport cool again. They have paid down the tour's debt, raised its purses, granted stock options to the bowlers and raided Nike for marketing executives who are trying to reinvent pro bowling with more engaging personalities and a brisker format.
It's hard to imagine Anthony on this newfangled PBA tour. Square Earl liked to say, "You can't ever be too slow to the line." Taciturn, indistractibly focused, a junkballer who was always recalibrating speed and spin, he'd be the analog oddball at Digital City Lanes. The poky style that made Anthony an immortal only underscores how bowling's golden age belonged to another era entirely—and how daunting a task the PBA tour's new proprietors face.