The Count had come out of the Balkan states, tall and slender, with a fine mustache, and he was tough on the ocean liners. Out on the decks or downstairs, wherever the card game was, he would join it, pull a few aces out of a sleeve and then leave with everybody's money in his pockets. The suckers on the water eventually got wise to The Count, so he took his act onshore. In the big towns—New York, Chicago, Philly—and later out in the sticks he chose bowling alleys to make his mark. On a night in Schenectady he would come into the place with his opera cloak whirling around him, a black satin top hat on his head. Tapping the blond, shellacked floor with his cane, reaching down to rub his hands over it, concluding a thorough examination, The Count would look up and ask the local studs, "What is this for? Dancing?"
The studs would laugh out loud and start bowling him, beating him badly for a few games until The Count, claiming that the holes in the ball hurt his fingers, that he couldn't throw anything but palm shots and that the damnable game was a waste of time anyway, would politely ask for a glove. Then he would turn everything around and, suddenly learning the game, he would roll a few eight-baggers to clean out the house, the studs, their backers and all the cash registers, too, before sweeping off into the night.
It would not be accurate to say that bowling has come full cycle from the day of The Count, John Dengler, who flourished during the Depression of the '30s, to its current royalty, Dave Davis. Certainly Davis is not a true hustler. But he provides a touch of class, as Dengler did a long time before him, in a particular area of Americana that is not exactly surfeited with it. He also symbolizes the perplexing but inescapable anonymity of his sport, even at its highest level. John Dengler, understandably, loved secrecy; Dave Davis loathes it.
"Bowler of the year? Superstar?" asks Dave Davis. "Nobody knows me. No one knows who I am. How can I be called a superstar?"
Last year, in his fourth full season, Davis was named Bowler of the Year after winning six tournaments ( Las Vegas, Denver, Milwaukee, Green Bay, Omaha and the PBA National Championship in New York) and more than $54,000 in prize money, tops on the PBA tour. With his victory in Madison Square Garden he became the first man to win the National twice, and his six wins in one year also set a record. He is the only pro to finish among the top five money winners in each of the past three years, and this season, despite a long slump, he ranks second in earnings, thanks to a $25,000 first-place prize at the Tournament of Champions in Akron. At the age of 26, Davis is already recognized as one of the best in the sport's history and certainly the finest left-handed bowler of all time. But down the street from the Happy Bowl Lanes, who knows Dave Davis?
Among the pros, left-handed bowlers are considered fortunate. Because the right side of a bowling lane gets far more play than the left, righthanders are usually forced to bowl over a grooved track, which calls for adjustments in their target spots and changes in their approach angles several times during a block of games. Lefthanders, on the other hand, have far fewer adjustments to make; their surface is almost invariably flat.
"We do have an advantage on some lanes," Davis concedes, "but it all evens out. The Las Vegas tournament is made for lefthanders. A lefty has won there the last four years. But up at Garden City on Long Island now, we've had only two lefthanders make the finals in four tournaments. We just can't score there. When the track is real good on the right side, anywhere on the right side, the righthanders will bury the lefties. Even they will admit that."
"Right now I have something nice to say about all lefthanders," says Pat Patterson, a member of the famous Budweiser teams, "but just get me or any right-handed bowler drunk one night and you'll really learn what we think of them."
A more neutral observer is Chuck Pezzano, a bowling writer and PBA member who has followed Davis' career from the beginning. "It's true that most lefthanders, when they get their conditions, will destroy you," says Pezzano. "But this kid takes it a step farther. Even when he doesn't get his conditions he'll move deeper into the middle and de stroy you. There are a lot of places where he can't touch it, but Davis has passed the point of being just an exceptional left-handed bowler. He's a great bowler, period. Give everybody their conditions all the time—that is, let everybody, right or left, bowl the best he knows how on the ideal lanes for his type of ball each week—and Dave Davis might win every tournament out here."
Apart from the nuances of the right-to-left relationship, professional bowling is replete with intricate touches and abstruse how-to-do-its, making it as subtle a game as golf. "Not too many average bowlers really understand this game," says Davis. "They think it's easy. Even the 170-, 180-average local guy would never dare change his spot or change his approach. He doesn't know how! Well, we might do it every few frames. It takes a detailed study of the game to average 200 consistently-and even that score won't win anything for you on the tour."