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For years, Ernie Schlegel's life was a series of one-way streets down which he defiantly drove in the wrong direction. Not getting caught was half the fun; the other half was weaseling free when cornered. Schlegel also had a flip lip, scraggly blond hair and, some say, a look in his eye that bespoke inner turmoil.
Lately, however, Schlegel's bellow has mellowed—perhaps because his career as a pro bowler has blossomed. Proof of his reform was his election in 1980 to the Professional Bowlers Association's prestigious tournament committee.
Still, not all has changed. Schlegel, 38, still has the fidgets; some part of his body is in motion at all times, especially his mouth. It isn't without cause that his wife, Cathy, frequently says, "Ernie, you talk too much."
Schlegel, who grew up in Manhattan, came to bowling via the back door, joining the Bronx Vocational High School bowling team only because the school insisted he take part in some extracurricular activity. He had difficulty adhering to other school regulations. "We were supposed to wear ties," Schlegel says. "I hate ties. So I'd buy shoestring licorice, knot it together and wear it around my neck. Then I'd eat my necktie in class."
Although he still dislikes neckties, Schlegel became obsessed by bowling. After graduation in 1960, he worked as a stock boy at the Benrus Watch Company in midtown Manhattan, with take-home pay of $42.50 a week. At night he would hustle at lanes around town for up to $500 a game.
"I'd bowl all weekend and get home just in time Monday to go to work," Schlegel says. "After about six weeks at Benrus, I was so tired I literally fell asleep on my feet one day. The boss tapped me on the shoulder, and before he could say anything I said, 'Forget it. I quit.' My mother worked there too and I told her, 'I'll explain when I get home.' I just showed her the dresser drawer where I kept my winnings. It was filled with stacks and stacks of money, thousands of dollars. I didn't trust banks. My parents let me quit the job as a stock boy."
It was probably just as well. Schlegel really didn't fit the stock-room image. He was fond of dressing in black stovepipe pants, a white silk shirt, an iridescent raincoat and high Roman heels. He also sported a Mohican haircut and carried an umbrella with its tip filed to a point. New York street life can be turbulent, and Schlegel thought, "With these freaky clothes, who'd bother you?" Well, one person did. A guy who, Schlegel says, owed him $150 shoved him through a plate-glass window. Schlegel got up and retaliated. He was indicted for attempted murder but was acquitted.
With that out of the way, Schlegel went on a two-and-a-half-year streak in which "I didn't lose on the lanes." According to his calculations, his best night was at Skytop Lanes in suburban Harts-dale, N.Y., when he won $7,800. Craft and cunning were a large part of his game. "Before I bowled, I had one drink and threw a shot of bourbon on my head or down my neck," Schlegel says. "That way, when I got to the bowling center, I smelled real good. Then I'd bowl guys who were sure I was drunk. I crushed 'em. After a while, though, everybody knew me, and my hustling ended."
Schlegel was deemed "unsavory" in some quarters, particularly at Paramus ( N.J.) Bowling, from which he was barred for almost a year by owner Frank Esposito. His best shot, Schlegel realized in 1964, was to join the PBA and go legit. But to do so, he needed the approval of the regional director, then one Frank Esposito. It wasn't until 1968 that Schlegel finally was allowed to join the PBA tour, at age 25. "I approved him then because he had straightened himself out," Esposito says.
As a hustler, Schlegel had worn a T shirt that said WORLD'S GREATEST BOWLER. On the PBA tour, those words really would have been inapt. No longer was he rolling on lanes he had practically memorized; now it was a different pair for each game.