A day before she lost the U.S. match championship she had held for five consecutive years, Marion Ladewig, the greatest woman bowler of all time, burst into tears and announced: "Win or lose, I will never bowl in the All-Star again." That was last January (SI, Jan. 31). This week the 41-year-old grandmother of Grand Rapids, Mich., along with most of the stars in the color gallery on the following pages, is rolling in the 15th annual All-Star Tournament at the Chicago Coliseum. The winners, to be crowned late Sunday night, December 18, after 10 days of bruising competition, will be U.S. champions through 1956.
Mrs. Ladewig meant it when she said she was finished with the All-Star. So did Bill Lillard of Chicago, who made the same pronouncement in 1954 yet came back for more last January and is on hand again now. Despite the punishment to mind, nerves and body—men finalists roll 64 games and women 32 in the last four days alone—the tournament has a magnetic attraction.
Charming little (4 feet 11 inches) Sylvia Wene of Philadelphia, who has proved a popular champion since her upset triumph last year, and Steve Nagy, the colorful Detroit star, will defend their titles against 63 women and 159 men who either were seeded by the sponsoring Bowling Proprietors' Association of America on the basis of past performances or who survived countrywide elimination rounds. Both face tough assignments. Miss Wene must measure up against a determined Mrs. Ladewig and several other topnotchers, including Stephanie Balogh of Cleveland, who has boosted her average above 200 this season. Nagy must contend not only with the country's best bowlers but with age and a game leg as well. At 42, he is the second oldest champion in history.
The All-Star, which draws capacity crowds to the Coliseum, is more than a championship event. It is a symbol of a new and shining era for bowling, both as a sport and as an industry. The era was ushered in by a vast migration of bowling establishments from city business districts to the suburbs. Many of these alleys are palaces which cost from $500,000 to $1.5 million. Almost overnight, bowling has been transformed from a small-time operation run by individuals into big business.
The concerted move from Main Street to Suburbia Boulevard has had a marked effect on the sport. The alleys, in ill repute little more than a generation ago, have become recreation centers for entire communities. Where only a few years ago the game was known chiefly as a pastime for the millions who participated (about 20 million persons will bowl this season), it is generally recognized today as a sport with high spectator interest as well, especially in the Midwest.
Nor is the sport confined to professionals. High schools in many sections of the country are awarding major letters to members of their bowling teams for the first time this season. The National Intercollegiate Bowling Championships, in which 31 college and university teams took part last spring, are assured of more than 50 entries this year.
Behind bowling's boom is a deceptively simple story. It is, largely, the story of one man, and it starts on a dismal night in January 1936.
Robert E. Kennedy, a square-jawed, stubborn Irishman who at that time was vice-president in charge of the New York Division of the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co., the largest manufacturer of bowling equipment for the past 110 years, sat in his office staring at a report he had written for his Chicago headquarters. It was a gloomy report and Kennedy hated to send it; for the sixth straight week he had repossessed more alleys than he had sold.
As Kennedy read, his eyes focused on one sentence: "You can't blame businessmen for not buying new alleys when they can get old ones for half the price..." That sentence not only epitomized the problem, but suggested one of the reasons for it: there had been no major change in bowling-equipment design in nearly 50 years. The sink-or-swim moment had come, Kennedy suddenly realized, to advocate a drastic solution that had been formulating in his mind for some time. The plan: streamline the alleys, add color, bring out an entire modern line which would, in one swoop, make every old alley in the country obsolete.
Brunswick's 20th Century line was introduced at the American Bowling Congress championships in the spring of 1936. The design of the newel post was changed and chrome was added. Color was used for the first time. Semicircular, leatherette-covered seats replaced the old benches. A colorful, curtained drop at the end of the alley all but hid the pin boy. The instantaneous success of the streamlined alley is perhaps best indicated by ABC figures: 11,655 alley beds approved for league play in 1936; 16,285 in 1937—the highest percentage increase in the history of bowling. Color attracted women to the new establishments. Membership in the Women's International Bowling Congress jumped from 13,409 in 1935 to 81,776 in 1940. Bowling, as an industry and pastime, was on the march. WIBC membership rose past 700,000 and there are more than 61,000 ABC-sanctioned alleys today.