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Handled carefully, as if they were bombs or babies, 38 pine-and-maple lanes and approaches were laid this week across a network of beams in the vast Memorial Coliseum at Fort Wayne, Ind. (above). By weekend they would be level and lacquered, ready for the first waves of some 30,000 bowlers who will compete for glory and a prize fund of $428,333 in the 52nd American Bowling Congress championships, the largest participation event and one of the most spectacular in the sports world.
From Elmhurst, Ill. will come Harry Steers, 74, "the iron man of bowling," for his 50th annual appearance. Steve Nagy, 41 (see cover), will come from Cleveland, hoping to become the first man in history to win the national match game championship and an ABC title in the same year.
Arriving from almost every state and from abroad will be bankers and farm hands, doctors, priests and oilfield workers, pinboys and Alaskan schoolteachers, students of 17 and retired millionaires in their 80s.
Colorfully uniformed contestants comprising 5,826 five-man teams, 11,312 doubles and 22,620 singles entries will roll for 72 consecutive days and nights (March 26 through June 5) before approximately 100,000 spectators, more than half of whom will accompany them from out of town. Bowlers and their rooters will spend an estimated $8 million for hotel rooms, food and entertainment and hundreds of thousands more for transportation.
More than 100 newspapers, magazines, news agencies and radio and television stations will send representatives to the tournament and at least 700 dailies and weeklies throughout the U.S., Canada and Hawaii plan special coverage of local bowlers.
The tournament, known simply as "the ABC" to the game's 20 million adherents, is composed of four main events: team, doubles, singles (each a three-game series) and all-events (total pinfall for the nine games). A fifth title will be awarded the under-851-average "booster" team recording the highest three-game score.
Considering the number of participants and the relatively high entry fee of $10 a man for each event, with $3 extra for a chance at the all-events fund, the top prizes are small: $2,500 in the team competition, $1,000 doubles, $500 singles and $1,000 all-events. This follows the tradition set by the founders of the congress, who organized the modern tenpin game in 1895 and inaugurated the national tournament six years later. To them good fellowship was more important than high scores and prestige more desirable than profit. The carefree, carnival-like atmosphere they created in the first ABC in a dimly lighted Chicago hall in 1901 pervades the ABC today.
In the current tournament, as in the 51 which preceded it, the vast majority of participants are duffers who will have trekked hundreds of miles and spent hundreds of dollars to be able to say they competed against a few hundred stars whose livelihood is bowling. There are only two or three teams in the entire East and perhaps two in the West which appear to have even a remote chance to win, yet Pennsylvania will be represented by 304 teams, New York by 238, New Jersey by 131, Iowa by 91, California by 46, and Texas will send 32.
ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN
The popularity of the ABC may be explained partially by the fact that in a three-game series anything can happen. In 1923 a young man named Carl Baumgartner, of Cincinnati, rolled 482 in the team event, then came through with 724 to win the singles. Eugene Gagliardi of Mt. Vernon, N.Y., Ray Brown of Terre Haute, Ind. and many others won the singles championship in their first ABC—and never came close again.