Sometimes clown, often villain, ever a star performer, the indefatigable Andy Varipapa once again has taken center stage in the All-Star tournament, bowling's greatest annual drama. Varipapa, who was accorded top national billing before many of the 160 men and 64 women in the current cast were born, may fade out before the televised finale on Sunday, January 23rd. The All-Star is a body-punishing test of 100 games, and the chunky, explosive bowler from Hempstead, N.Y. is nudging 64. But on the eve of the spectacle, at least, he stood in the spotlight—not in his memorable role of braggadocio but as the sentimental choice of the public he has astounded, affronted and entertained for a lifetime.
This tournament, which means so much to so many, provides a natural setting for Varipapa's genius as a showman. U.S. championships representing a fortune in cash and prestige to the winners and their commercial sponsors are at stake in the vast, klieg-lighted Coliseum. No quarter is yielded—or sought—as old rivalries are renewed and new feuds provoked. Tension mounts daily and tempers fray thinner as one star after another falls, until, on the final day, only two or three are within reach of victory. The thousands of televiewers who saw the tears streaking down statuesque La Verne Carter's face as she watched her husband, Don, defeat Bill Lillard in last year's thrilling final know something of the emotion packed into the All-Star. It is during such electric moments that the irrepressible Varipapa is at his best. Sometimes he furnishes comic relief. Just as often, he is the dynamo creating the electricity.
BEST OR NOBODY
One Varipapa trait that makes him a dangerous opponent even today is his passionate will to win. He displayed it almost immediately when he arrived in the U.S. from Italy shortly after the turn of the century. At that time he says, "I realized second best was no good in this country. You are the best or a nobody." He became a fine shortstop but quit baseball when he failed in a tryout with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He turned to boxing, won five consecutive professional bouts, received a sound thrashing in the sixth and never put on gloves again. Then came bowling, and Andy found the lane to glory.
The lane so closely paralleled that of the late Joe Falcaro, another fine showman, that they thoroughly confused the public for more than two decades. Both were trick-shot artists. Both reached a vast audience through nationwide tours, movie shorts, radio and TV. Neither held a recognized title between 1933, when Falcaro lost the U.S. championship through forfeit, and 1946, when Varipapa amazed the sports world by winning it in the All-Star. But both talked so loudly and so long—Falcaro insisting he was "undefeated match game champion" and Varipapa dubbing himself "the world's greatest bowler"—that the public generally considered one or the other champion throughout the era.
Of the two, Andy proved the better bowler during the 10 or 15 years prior to Falcaro's death in 1951. And he took the talkathon hands down with his classic victory statement following the 1946 All-Star: "This has been long overdue. It's about time the world's greatest bowler was also world's champion." Then, to prove he was more than an orator, he won again in 1947 at the age of 56—the first man in history to defend the crown successfully. Carter was 26 when he turned the trick last year.
If, along the lane to glory, Varipapa sometimes used a frail alibi to quit a match he was losing or walked out on a heckling audience these were only the instinctive reactions of an egotist who could not bear to finish second. He suffered from them later, because he is essentially a warmhearted person who is genuinely fond of people and covets their affection. Old-timers, among whom he has become increasingly popular through the years, have long since forgiven such incidents. Varipapa's inability to take defeat graciously is his strength, and the sport is all the richer for it.
Asked the other day how long he thought he could continue rolling in championship events, Varipapa smiled his broad smile and said, "I will be the world's greatest bowler until my son steps into my shoes."