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Flattop, Rags, Buckwheat, the Martian and the Sundance Kid were part of the 52-man mob that rode into Fairlawn, Ohio last week looking like so many oldtime thugs. They wore maroon suits, white suits and even suits of blue and green crushed velvet. Mobsters? Naw, just bowlers competing in the $129,500 Firestone Tournament of Champions, the most lucrative event in the history of the Professional Bowlers Association.
The gangsterish garb is the newest fad on the PBA tour. For some curious reason, bowlers have always been weird dressers. Back in the late '50s, when the PBA began, bib overalls, grease-rack dungarees and T shirts were standard. A bowler who brought an extra T shirt to a tournament was thought to have overpacked.
Nowadays the PBA has what is called, no kidding, the Image Committee, and it has a rule: "Neat, well-appearing attire should be worn both on the lanes and off; bowling outfits should be neat, clean and pressed, as well as coordinated." Boy, are they ever coordinated. Many competitors in the Firestone had bowling balls that matched the garish colors of the outfits they wore.
Alas, the bowler most responsible for starting the latest trend was not at the Firestone. He is Chuck (Bugs) Moran, who when fitted out in an ankle-length overcoat, brim-down fedora and cannon-sized cigar looks like Al Capone.
Bugs was absent because he has not won a PBA championship. Even being a titlist does not ensure a spot in the 52-man Firestone field, however. A complex point system is also involved. One big winner in recent years, Bill Allen, made it to the Firestone only as an alternate. Not the sort to take out a contract on a fellow bowler, he just hoped someone would come up ailing. Besides the shot at first-place prize money of $25,000, every Firestone contestant is guaranteed a minimum of $1,000. Allen got his when Butch (Count Dracula) Gearhart went to bed on Wednesday with what appeared to be food poisoning.
As the tournament progressed, many outstanding bowlers were eliminated, among them Wayne (Z-man) Zahn, Johnny (Gunner) Guenther and Jim (Tarzan) Godman, the only two-time winner of the Firestone. Only five made it to the finals on Saturday. Why five? Because five bowlers fit so snugly into 90 minutes of TV. Five men play four matches and the bowler unbeaten is the winner.
Larry (the Sundance Kid) Laub of Santa Rosa, Calif. was the fifth and last finalist. Laub grew up in San Francisco where he was, as he phrases it, "a real punk. I hung around with gangs, got into fights every day and almost got expelled from school. When I was 10 or 11 I felt so guilty about doing the wrong things that I couldn't sleep. So I went into a shell and became super-shy. When I first came on tour I was so shy I was afraid to bowl in public. But once I got over that I started bowling well."
This year Laub has bowled so well that he qualified for the finals of seven of the previous 12 tournaments. He won three of them and earned the February Hickok professional athlete award.
The first match of the finals pitted Laub against Curt Schmidt, who qualified for fourth place. Schmidt is nicknamed the Martian because he, well, looks like a Martian. Although the 5'6", 140-pound Schmidt does not appear athletic, his career has been dotted with sporting achievements—and misfortunes. He won the Indiana Class C horseshoe pitching title a few years ago, but his days as a baseball pitcher ended when he caught his fingers in a car door. Schmidt once won the table tennis championship of Allen County, Ind., a title he was unable to defend the next year because of measles. For the past two years his right arm has bothered him while bowling. "I hurt it playing golf," Schmidt said. "What happened was I hit a bad tee shot, got mad, threw down another ball, swung and hit the ground. My arm's hurt ever since."
Laub started off well in his match with Schmidt, but the latter got seven strikes in a row to win 259-244. Laub was eliminated, and Schmidt went up the ladder against the No. 3 man, Earl (Flattop) Anthony, a realtor from Tacoma who sports one of the rarest items on the tour: a crew cut. Anthony himself is a rare sort. He doesn't go in for mod clothing, he doesn't mix in card games on the road. He is a quiet family man who can't wait to get home. But like Laub, Anthony was a rambunctious youngster. "I got into fights every day and once some of us broke all the windows in the school," he said. Last year he won two PBA events and $45,812 and he was the state of Washington athlete of the year.