Thumb mended, Roth began to blister the tournament circuit. In 1976 he led the pros with an average pinfall of 215.970 per game. In 1977 he was the PBA's Bowler of the Year and again led in average pinfall, with 218.174 per game. Roth also became the only bowler other than Earl Anthony to earn $100,000 in one year, finishing with $105,583. Most impressive of all was his feat of extending to 51 the number of consecutive tournaments in which he won cash—to bowlers, a record roughly comparable to Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. The previous high for "cashes" (only one-third of all bowlers at each event share in the prize money) was 32 by Wayne Zahn. When Roth's string was ended last fall it was by one pin. He immediately started a new streak, now up to 15.
Roth won four tournaments in 1977, three of them in a row to equal the mark held by Dick Weber and Petraglia. That streak also was broken when, by two pins, he lost his try for a record fourth in a row. Following that event, Roth left the tour for a few weeks, not because of new thumb trouble, as many suspected, but to escape the demands and pressures that had almost driven him to a frenzy.
At the first tournament this year, Roth's right ring finger became torn. The night before the TV finals, he went to a hospital for treatment. "When I started practicing before the finals, it hurt so bad that I saw stars," Roth says. "Then the pain went away."
Roth qualified second in a field of 144, and needed two wins to take the title. In the first match, he wiped out Joe Nuzzo 236-181. His sore finger held up through the next game as Roth broke open a tight struggle with Lee Taylor by rolling five strikes on his last six shots for a 212-192 triumph and the $15,000 top prize.
His healed thumb wasn't the only factor that enabled Roth to attain prominence. He also learned to control the hook on his ball, he polished his spare making and he mastered a shift in lane conditions.
"When Mark first came on the tour, all the big winners were strokers, guys like Dave Soutar and Dick Ritger," says Petraglia. "Since then the lane conditions have changed because they're using new finishes on the alleys. Now it's the crankers who are winning and the strokers who are having trouble. Another thing that's helped Mark is that he has learned how to be loose when he's on the lanes."
With his game sharpened, with the bowling lanes to his liking and with a more relaxed attitude. Roth has won 11 tournaments. Three of those victories came in his first four tries this season. He has already earned more than $80,000 this year, giving him a fine chance to surpass the $100,000 mark again.
Three months ago in Miami, Roth shared a motel room with Gil Hodges Jr., a childhood friend and the son of the late Dodger slugger and Met manager. When Roth tried to demonstrate his bowling form in the room, he said, "I can't do it without a ball. I don't know how I use my hand or feet unless I've got a ball."
"How can you not know how you bowl?" said Hodges. Most pros are deep into detailed analyses of bowling. Not Roth. He is an instinct bowler who makes minute changes in his delivery at the last instant and who is satisfied that he has perfected his own style. "The big thing for me is that I know what to do and when to do it," he says. "When we were in New Orleans early this year the lane conditions were bad for me. I had no shot at all. My ball hooked too early. So I called Simonelli and told him to send me a ball I knew would do better. I called him after the first block on Wednesday. Thursday at 10 a.m. I had the ball. It had a harder shell and went farther before it hooked. With that ball I did better and won $1,300.
"When I was a kid I saw Carmen Salvino on TV. He really cranked the ball. I liked his style and built mine after his. I'm really a self-styled bowler, though. Nobody taught me. They all told me to change. They said I'd never last."