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Exasperated by such near-misses and plagued by minor injuries, Schlegel later planned to skip a PBA tournament in Overland Park, Kans. Ernie said, "No." Cathy said, "Go." They went. It was at that event, on April 11, 1980, his 37th birthday, that Schlegel rolled three strikes in the 10th frame of his last qualifying game to earn the No. 1 berth in the finals.
Schlegel's opponent in the showdown match was Nelson Burton Jr., a 15-time champ and a member of the PBA Hall of Fame. Ernie was merely the most distinguished non-winner ever, having pocketed $235,000 while failing to win in more than 300 PBA events.
In that game against Burton, Schlegel made "a drastic switch" by firing his shots extra close to the gutter. The strategy worked; Schlegel won 246-214, his first PBA victory.
"It was nice," he says, "but the best feeling of all was I could start out '79 without needing a sponsor. For the first time ever, I was on my own."
Schlegel won again in June of 1980, his last-shot strike beating George Pap-pas 181-179 in the City of Roses Open at Portland, Ore. Last year he finished 25th on the tour, with winnings of $41,250, despite missing almost all of the fall circuit.
His progress off the lanes has been equally noteworthy. "Mazzio helped me go more than a year without losing my temper," says Schlegel. "But Catherine's the whip. When I'm bowling, she's boss. She's made me make my dreams come true. She also got me to eat snails. I love 'em."
During his first 10 years in the PBA. Schlegel listed some 15 places as home: at one point he was simply "Ernie Schlegel, U.S.A." Now, though, he is officially at home in Vancouver, Wash., having bought Heimbigner's former house. True to his word, Schlegel has sold a million of Heimbigner's grips, and then some.
What next? Well, Schlegel, who hasn't been allowed to don some of his more far-out threads for TV finals, would like to win a tournament someday while wearing his snazziest outfit. It's a white tuxedo, with blue vest and a shirt with red ruffles and glittering red trim. Fret not, Ernie. It has been decided by none other than your old nemesis, Frank Esposito, now the coordinator of ABC's bowling telecasts, that, "He can wear it as long as he keeps it formal and doesn't roll up the sleeves."
But hold the licorice neckties, Ernie. Please.