There was so much noise at Riviera Lanes in Akron last week you could hear it clear out on Market Street. The Firestone company was staging its annual Tournament of Champions, worth $100,000 in prize money, and that alone was enough to make the left-handers insist that the lanes favored the righties, and vice versa. There was also the usual boast that, even though bowling is definitely not competing with golf, isn't it just wonderful that every time the two meet head to head on television, bowling comes out with a 2-to-1 edge in the Nielsens. But, of course, the loudest noise of all was that of pins crashing and, as has become the trend for the past several years, most of it was caused by a corps of new young faces that has many of the old pros scurrying for cover.
When the Firestone tournament was over late Saturday afternoon one of the newest and youngest faces of all, that of Jim Stefanich, 25, of Joliet, Ill., wore the biggest grin, while his swollen right hand gripped the winner's check of $25,000. Stefanich edged out Don Johnson, 26, in a special playoff after the two had tied 227-all in a one-game final for first place. Johnson won $12,500 for finishing second, while Jack Biondolillo, also 26, picked up a bonus $10,000 for a 300 game, plus $6,500 more for finishing third.
The Firestone is rapidly becoming the Masters of bowling, but its main contribution may be a mass exposition of the young talent that is flowing into professional bowling every year. Last year's tournament was won by Wayne Zahn, then only 25, who went on to become the pro circuit's leading money winner, with almost $55,000 in earnings. The year before it was a 23-year-old named Billy Hardwick. These youthful victories underline the fact that the old days of bowling are gone, those days when the game's meager pots were monopolized by a seasoned few. The fact that the pots are growing bigger each year ($47,000 in total prize money in 1959, $1.5 million in 1967) has more than a little to do with the fact that the nation's bowlers—all 40 million of them—are getting better younger. Now, instead of staying home to watch Don Carter or Dick Weber or Carmen Salvino on TV, the best are brashly stepping onto the next lane and, in many cases, matching the established pros strike for strike.
"I had to drop out of college a few years ago," admits Stefanich, who has already won $27,050 in 1967. "I just couldn't afford to let studying interfere with my bowling." Of the 48 contestants in the Firestone, many belonged in the same general category. Dressed in colorful Banlons, creased pants and shiny shoes, they are the bright, articulate young men who are driving the big cars, bowling in the big tournaments and, in general, having a ball from coast to coast. Of the top 20 money winners in the Professional Bowlers Association this year, 12 are 27 years of age or younger. Lean, left-handed Dave Davis of Phoenix, Ariz. is only 24, but he has had no difficulty at all supporting a wife and 7-month-old baby daughter; even though it's only April, he has already racked up $30,000. Zahn, from Atlanta, went into the Firestone as the PBA's fourth best money winner with $12,155, and Tim Harahan, only 20, of Encino, Calif., was right behind him with $11,960. Mike Durbin, 24, of Costa Mesa, Calif., was to hit his stride in Akron, finishing fourth and boosting his earnings to $14,075. Others, like Barry Asher, 20, of Los Angeles, and Nelson Burton Jr., 24, of St. Louis, were there, too, as was 21-year-old Jim Godman of Oakland.
This steady influx of new blood is not exactly cheered by the older, established pros—but there is little they can do about it. The newcomers are talented and smart, and they have benefited tremendously from the game's growing popularity. The junior league, a program for teen-agers, is now flourishing throughout the country. An increasing number of communities offer bowling as an alternate to Little League baseball. By the time a young player turns pro, he is already apt to understand the finer points of the game. The older pros shudder at the thought.
"The trouble is, you never really know what they're capable of," muttered one of them last week. "They're liable to shoot a flock of 180s and then, just when they get around to you, bust out with a 275 or something. At least with the older guys you pretty well know what to expect."
Davis, who is as typical of the new breed as any, recalls his reception when he broke in on the tour four years ago. "It was cold," he says, "very cold. Oh, the older guys were nice enough—they'd say, 'Good luck,' before a match and 'Nice bowling,' afterward, but that's usually as far as they went." Since then Davis has become an accepted member of the PBA, claiming $88,000 in earnings against the best of competition. Even so, he feels the tension before every major tournament and, he admits, that is exactly why he failed in the Firestone. "I just locked up, that's all," he said.
Pressure is the lone factor the older pros count on in big-money matches against the youngsters. Dick Weber, a superstar at 37 and twice runner-up in the Firestone, was hoping it would affect Stefanich before it was too late, and, indeed, late in the week Stefanich was showing the strain. A handsome man, with hazel eyes and white, even teeth, Stefanich had seen his streak of games with a score of 200 or better end at 37—a world record. His face drawn, he said, "I could really feel it out there today. My legs were getting weak and my hand seemed to be losing its snap. This is a long grind, and the pressure can be unbelievable at times. I still haven't committed myself to a lifetime of bowling, but the money is so good I've got to give it a shot."
Many of the young bowlers cut short what might have been successful careers in other sports—golf, baseball and basketball—to concentrate on bowling. Stefanich, for example, is a scratch golfer, and until last week he was seriously considering the sport as a livelihood if the bowling money didn't keep rolling in. Until Davis broke his arm in a high school basketball scrimmage, he was a promising pitcher who had drawn more than his share of major league scouts. All-round athletes such as these are scattered throughout this new clan, but, they all insist, bowling is a full-time job—one that demands full attention and hours upon hours of practice.
"You've got to keep an eye on the new guys coming in, too," warns Davis, "just like the older fellows watched us when we came in." At that, Davis, responding to a sudden roar from the crowd, leaped to a chair and quickly glanced at the scoreboard. Mike Durbin, playing his first year on the tour, needed one strike for a perfect 300 game. Durbin paused and sent the ball down the lane. He left the 5-8 standing. The crowd applauded the 298, and Durbin smiled weakly. Davis, stepping down from the chair, said, "See what happens? Durbin has a 185, 214 and 197 and then suddenly comes within two pins of a 300 game. Damn kids, anyway."
STEFANICH DISPLAYS HIS $25,000 FORM