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.
From 1968 to 1975, Schlegel's life, on and off the lanes, was filled with 7-10 splits. During those years he averaged only $11,830 in tour earnings, his first marriage, which had lasted five years, ended in 1973, and most of his five major auto accidents came during this unhappy period. Also in 1973, while bowling in Los Angeles, Schlegel let a friend borrow his car. The police stopped the friend for a minor traffic violation and later ran the serial number through a computer. Back came the news: stolen car.
"The police came to the lanes, said my car was stolen, slapped me in handcuffs and took me to jail," Schlegel says. He was freed only when the police learned that his car, a rebuilt junker, had mistakenly been left on the "hot list" by the insurance company.
Other woes weren't so easily dispatched. A pulled hamstring ruined '74 for Schlegel, and in '75 his game fell apart. The end of Schlegel's PBA career seemed imminent. Then in August of 1976 he met Cathy DePace in Detroit and his luck changed. Four months later they were married.
By then, Schlegel had been on the tour for eight years and had pretty well toned down his image as bowling's flashiest dresser and most flamboyant performer—but he was still one of its more notable losers. He had played in 202 tournaments and failed to win a single one.
But with Cathy on the tour to inspire him, Schlegel won $43,362 in 1976—almost as much as in the previous three years combined. That year also marked the birth of a notion: Ernie dubbed himself the Bicentennial Kid. During the five-man PBA TV finals in Baltimore, he wore a Bicentennial outfit Cathy had made—white shirt with long, billowing sleeves and red-and-blue sparkles, and white pants decorated with silver stars. Says Schlegel, "It was somethin'."
The patriotic costume notwithstanding, Schlegel lost the tournament, adding to his reputation as "the greatest non-champion in PBA history." The word on the tour was that he choked in big matches, outthought himself and looked for excuses for losing.
Late in 1976, John Mazzio, an avid bowler and a self-styled psychologist who had met Schlegel a few months earlier, offered a hand. "I told Ernie I had studied a lot of psychology," Mazzio says. "His temper was phenomenally bad. I said to Ernie, 'Let me help you.' "
Mazzio has worked intermittently with Schlegel ever since, as his "mental-game adviser." In 1977, Schlegel earned $28,426, though he still didn't win a tournament. "John told me to work on my weakest point, which I felt was my smoking, and to make it a strength. John said if I could do that, I could do anything. At 3 a.m. on March 21, 1978, I had my last cigarette."
Later that same day Schlegel called Don Heimbigner of Vancouver, Wash., a manufacturer of bowling grips (plastic inserts for the finger holes in a ball). The grips keep the fingers from getting sore and give a bowler more lift on his shots. Schlegel used the grips in '78, and when his game showed immediate improvement, he says, "I thought I was on to something big because they weren't being promoted right. So I called Don and said, 'I'll sell a million.' He laughed."
Cathy, Mazzio, the Heimbigner grips—they all helped. Schlegel won $36,583 in 1978 and $29,935 in 1979. But still no wins on the PBA tour. Then came 1980. After leading throughout four days of qualifying at a January tournament in Anaheim, Schlegel needed only one win on TV to notch his first title. He lost to Gary Dickinson 217-198.
Exasperated by such near-misses and plagued by minor injuries, Schlegel later planned to skip a PBA tournament in Overland Park, Kans. Ernie said, "No." Cathy said, "Go." They went. It was at that event, on April 11, 1980, his 37th birthday, that Schlegel rolled three strikes in the 10th frame of his last qualifying game to earn the No. 1 berth in the finals.
Schlegel's opponent in the showdown match was Nelson Burton Jr., a 15-time champ and a member of the PBA Hall of Fame. Ernie was merely the most distinguished non-winner ever, having pocketed $235,000 while failing to win in more than 300 PBA events.
In that game against Burton, Schlegel made "a drastic switch" by firing his shots extra close to the gutter. The strategy worked; Schlegel won 246-214, his first PBA victory.
"It was nice," he says, "but the best feeling of all was I could start out '79 without needing a sponsor. For the first time ever, I was on my own."
Schlegel won again in June of 1980, his last-shot strike beating George Pap-pas 181-179 in the City of Roses Open at Portland, Ore. Last year he finished 25th on the tour, with winnings of $41,250, despite missing almost all of the fall circuit.
His progress off the lanes has been equally noteworthy. "Mazzio helped me go more than a year without losing my temper," says Schlegel. "But Catherine's the whip. When I'm bowling, she's boss. She's made me make my dreams come true. She also got me to eat snails. I love 'em."
During his first 10 years in the PBA. Schlegel listed some 15 places as home: at one point he was simply "Ernie Schlegel, U.S.A." Now, though, he is officially at home in Vancouver, Wash., having bought Heimbigner's former house. True to his word, Schlegel has sold a million of Heimbigner's grips, and then some.
What next? Well, Schlegel, who hasn't been allowed to don some of his more far-out threads for TV finals, would like to win a tournament someday while wearing his snazziest outfit. It's a white tuxedo, with blue vest and a shirt with red ruffles and glittering red trim. Fret not, Ernie. It has been decided by none other than your old nemesis, Frank Esposito, now the coordinator of ABC's bowling telecasts, that, "He can wear it as long as he keeps it formal and doesn't roll up the sleeves."
But hold the licorice neckties, Ernie. Please.
The Bicentennial Kid is showing his stuff.
Ernie said no, but wife Cathy said go, and so they went.