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Most of the time he has no idea where he is, and he doesn't really care. The locations do not matter anymore because they have all come to look alike to him. He is getting pretty close to being absolutely undistractible, which is what he wants to be. On practically any day of the year, the world's greatest bowling professional will be facing a 60-foot lane of polished maple and pine, ready to let fly with a bright orange, 16-pound plastic ball at 10 plastic-coated maple pins standing in a neat triangle at the far end. His concentration is so unrelenting that it is troubling to the spirit to watch him. As you read these words, Earl Anthony is most likely inside another cavelike, low-ceilinged room somewhere, and he is thinking: I have come here to bowl, only to bowl—and to win. He will win money, probably, but what has brought him to that room is the idea of winning, beating the others, being best. He has been like this since he was a kid.
Anthony is 38 now, a former wholesale-grocery worker who quit his job seven years ago to start bowling full time. Since then he has won a record 27 official tournaments on the Professional Bowlers Association tour.
In each of the past three years he has earned more money bowling than anybody else in the sport's history. Last year he entered 29 tournaments, finishing first in seven, and won $110,833. It was the second year in a row that he earned more than $100,000, and he is the only bowler to have ever reached or surpassed that figure. There are no secrets to winning all that money, he says. He says it over and over. Get it fixed in your head, he says, and you've got the game cornered. "So many things can go through your mind," he says. "You have to get rid of all of them when it's time to deliver the ball. Let nothing else in. Not problems at home, not applause or a television camera; do not think about bills that have to be paid. You have to concentrate on each particular shot until that shot becomes the most important thing in the world that you do."
In addition to prize money and trophies, Anthony also gets annual fees for using Ebonite bowling balls and allowing his name to be put on them, and for endorsing Munsingwear clothes and a wrist support. For these rewards and—more important—the recognition that he is No. 1, he gives his life to the game.
This one was called the Brunswick World Open, held at Brunswick Northern Bowl, a 36-lane house in a shopping center in a featureless Chicago suburb called Glen-dale Heights. One of the 192 bowlers competing for the $14,000 first prize was Earl Anthony. Despite being 6'1" and 195 pounds with moderately strong-looking shoulders, Anthony is not impressive physically—he has a straightaway body that hardly suggests special agility or power. He stands loosely while waiting to bowl his frame, left hand angled out over the hot-air blower in the ball-return fixture to dry off any perspiration. Then he picks up the ball, left thumb and middle and ring fingers fitting into their holes, and swings it up in front of his face as if he wants a good close look at it. He peers seriously over the top of the ball down the lane to 10 pins at the end, then takes five unspectacular steps forward with the ball swinging and then lets it go. The tumbling woody crash of another strike echoes amidst the clatter of pins falling on the adjacent alleys. Anthony turns back without changing expression, sits in a molded plastic chair and waits for the next frame.
He speaks to no one, nor do the other bowlers speak to him. The occasional cheers from the fans do not appear to reach him. Once in a while he lights a cigarette and holds it down at his side as he sits, appearing to forget he has lit it. His eyes are sharp but seemingly without curiosity as he glances through glasses with silvery plastic frames at a colleague sending off a ball. He is patient and he is relaxed, yet there is an aura of something busy about him, something going on in him that is using him all up, something that he cannot break out of to do something else, like wave to a friend or shout or dart out to the bar for a drink. He seems almost inert, yet altogether absorbed, and then, when he steps up to bowl again, he begins to come alive. There is no wasted movement, but an electric strength seems to course through him and he gets that magical bit of control that makes the ball do what he wants it to do.
What the ball has to do is roll down the left side of the lane to a crucial point a few feet from the pins. It must then hook sharply right and clip the front pin (the 1-pin) and the pin just behind it to the left (the 2-pin) in such a beautifully precise way that the front pin will knock down the three pins on the right-hand edge of the triangle and the 2-pin will knock down the other two pins on the left-hand side of the triangle, while the ball continues rolling with power into the three remaining pins—the center one and the two behind it—to topple them, too. If a bowler sends a ball straight down the alley to the 1-2 or 1-3 pocket, without a quick turn being incorporated into the trajectory, this neat order of domino-falling will happen only infrequently. No professional bowler rolls a straight ball; they all throw a hook like Anthony's, or at least some sort of a curve.
Wherever he is—sitting and waiting for his turn, dining at plastic-topped lunch counters in motel restaurants, flying in airplanes, driving in rental cars—Anthony is always thinking about ways to make the ball hook into that pocket and not to hook too soon or too late. He is always thinking about the last ball he sent down the alley, the way it acted, whether it might need a little more spin the next time to hook perfectly. You can almost hear his head clicking off a marvelous assortment of permutations: Lane condition (moist or dry, rough or oily, maybe grooved a bit by a hard day's use). Hardness or softness of the bowling ball (variable by the manufacturer's intent and the bowler's choice). Weighted balance of the ball (adjustable by drilling holes and filling them with weights). Placement of finger holes (which affect spin and speed). Wrist angle (controllable by means of leather and steel bowling gloves that keep the wrist stiff). Speed of the approach. And a multitude more.
There was a time when Anthony was a baseball pitcher, and not bad, but he says bowling is better. "I like an individual sport more than any team sport," he says. "Bowling is all offense and no defense. You're not playing against anyone, really, except yourself. In pro bowling, nobody can help you. Now, if you're a baseball player or a football player, you've got a contract and a guarantee of making a living no matter how badly you might play—at least for the season. In bowling you have to start all over again every day."
During a tournament professionals constantly change lanes and, because every lane is different, every game requires a different combination. Anthony regularly changes one ball for another; he travels with four, and others are always available. He has a garageful at home and he gives them all away after a couple of weeks' use. He is never satisfied with his bowling balls, constantly rejiggering angles and weights and spins.