In their ignorance, the young women on the Cheers II softball team probably believed they were being respectful when they asked Stasia Czernicki to join them one evening last spring. Softball is not Czernicki's sport and, local legend or not, she wouldn't have been asked at all except that Cheers II was one woman short and facing an automatic forfeit. So they went up into the stands and, after very little pleading, came back with a tall, solidly built and decidedly graying short fielder. And then they said it. "We don't expect a 65-year-old to actually play," they told her. "If the ball comes your way," they said, "just clear out and we'll handle it."
You tell Pete Rose to slide feetfirst. You suggest that Mother Nature lay off the hurricanes in September. But you never tell Stasia Czernicki (pronounced ZER-ni-key) not to compete.
So here was Czernicki in the outfield, and there, arcing into the Webster, Mass., sky, was a clean, white softball. The other players were screaming, "I've got it, I've got it," and you could, in all likelihood, see some of Czernicki's muscles twitching with adrenaline because it took all the willpower this grandmother could muster to politely back off and watch a woman in her 20's go for—and drop—the ball.
"I could have caught the damned ball," Czernicki fumed to herself. Outwardly she remained as gracious as ever, the same woman whose athletic ability has kept generations of New Englanders pinned to their TVs on Saturday afternoons and who has shown them how to win, and how to lose, with class.
The Cheers II players did not learn. When it was Czernicki's turn at bat, they said, "Don't swing at it. Just let it go by. If they walk you, O.K. If you get called out on strikes, no sweat." You can ask only so much of a grandmother, though, and by now Czernicki's reservoir of tolerance was empty. As soon as she had grown accustomed to the looping slo-pitch delivery, she smacked a solid single and then scored a run, which cleared the bench as her teammates ran to congratulate her.
Today she suffers grim flashbacks to that game and is convinced that the turning point in the 15-7 loss was the fly ball she knows she would have caught.
You see, it wasn't as if the Cheers II team had no clue as to who Czernicki was. They, like the rest of New England, knew Czernicki as the Queen of Candle-pin Bowling.
Candlepins—the dominant and native form of bowling north of the Connecticut border (although it was once played in that state as well)—is a big deal to thousands of television viewers in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. Candlepin Bowling, on Boston's Channel 5, is still, after 29 years, one of the top-rated television sports shows, sometimes outdrawing the Red Sox, Celtics or Bruins.
The game, played only in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine and in the Canadian Maritime Provinces, bears a grudging resemblance to tenpins, the sort of bowling that the rest of the U.S. either tolerates or embraces. There is a wooden lane. There are 10 pins. And there is a ball. Beyond that, there are more similarities between Gaddafi and Gandhi. In candlepins, the ball is about the size of a cantaloupe and has no finger holes. The pins are 16 inches high and look like skinny cylinders that taper toward the top and bottom. The pins are set once, and then the player is given three balls to knock them all down. Pins struck by the first or second ball remain where they fall. These fallen pins, called deadwood, can be used by the player to knock other pins down. They are also just as likely to deflect the ball into the gutter.
Historians of candlepins say the game was invented in 1881 in Worcester, Mass., by John J. Monsey, a billiards player. In the original game, the pins were inch-thick dowels, which from the foul line 60 feet away resembled candles. The name stuck. Today, the pins are two inches thick in the middle. Otherwise, the game is about the same and nearly as frustrating.
Indeed, that frustration may be the game's true appeal. On the one hand it mixes well in the dour, Calvinist blood of purebred Yankees. And on the other it is the perfect metaphor for life in a mill town or in any dead-end job. Where tenpin bowlers thrive on the hope of scoring a perfect 300, candlepinners take pride in the fact that no one has ever achieved perfection in their game. They know that to roll one of the two-plus-pound balls is to invite defeat. They know the game equalizes the sexes, the ages, the ethnic groups and economic classes, humiliating everyone uniformly.
And that may be why they love Stasia Czernicki, pound for pound perhaps the best—and certainly the most consistent—candlepin bowler ever. Consider her record:
•Eight-time world all-events (including singles, doubles, mixed doubles and team competitions) women's candlepin champion.
•Six-time world women's singles champion.
•Nine-time woman Bowler of the Year (named by two organizations).
•Current world-record holder for women for 10 strings (10 games in a row, the mark of consistency).
•World-record holder for women's doubles and mixed doubles.
She has won roll-offs to appear on Channel 5's televised games 54 times, more than any other man or woman. Age has stiffened her knees, and she can't get as low in her delivery now. But in a game in which a 115 average is excellent for women, she bowled a 353 for three strings last season in her most recent TV appearance.
She lost that game by 11 pins, and while Phillip Rubin, who produces and directs the show, says that Czernicki is in the twilight of her career, he describes her as "certainly the best woman candlepin bowler...and probably the best of either sex" in the history of the game.
Her dominance of the women's game was once so complete that irate fans wrote her demanding she play only against men. Her televised performances have made her a celebrity. As she is riding the subway in Boston, a man and his son recognize her and introduce themselves. In Springfield, fellow shoppers say hello. And as she got out of her car in Florida once during a vacation, a woman accosted her to ask, "You wouldn't be Stasia, would you?"
"When you say bowling, Stasia's is the first name you think of," says Sophie Adams, a New Hampshire homemaker, one of the thousands of television viewers who gather like moths at a porch light when Czernicki appears on the screen.
"She is perfection throwing that ball down the alley. So smooth. There's no extra motion," says Adams, also a grandmother, who admires Czernicki because "she's very...not shy but a little on the reserved side, I think. She doesn't let everyone know how she feels."
A nun is no more proper than Czernicki in public. The propriety shows up in her private world, a world of thoroughly dusted shelves and evenly folded bathroom towels, a world in which every picture of her three children is in its place inside the crisp, white ranch house, and every blade of grass outside is precisely clipped.
Tucked in the basement of the Czernicki home in Webster, about 60 miles southwest of Boston, a modest museum boasts of her accomplishments. There are gold and silver trophies, plaques and cups—some of the more than 300 awards she has won over the last 40 years. You ask Czernicki which one she likes best, and she flops down on the floor and, lying on her side, reaches under a clear acetate film that covers the face of the floor-to-ceiling trophy case along one wall. Her fingers find a statuette on a squat, black base, and she's like a little girl taking her favorite doll from its crib. She begins to reminisce. In her square, strong hands is the evidence of her very first victory, the first solid proof that there was something she could do right. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, she admires the fourth-place trophy she won when she was 25 as you might admire your first child.
A few minutes later she is sitting prim and upright on her living room couch. In her white-and-powder-blue polo shirt, her denims and her white leather Nikes, with her gray hair perfectly styled, she looks like your middle-aged neighbor, maybe one whose clean laundry is legendary, certainly one who bakes pies and keeps her home in order, but not one who would admit to a competitive instinct, which, she says uncomfortably, "I think I got from my mother."
Czernicki's mother, Agnes, was born in Wiewiorka, Poland, one of eight children. In 1912, when Agnes was 14, her parents decided that she, as the oldest child, would be the one sent to the New World to take advantage of the opportunities there. Along with her baggage, Agnes brought the expectations of those who did not come. And after she had married John Milas and given birth to a son and two daughters, Agnes let her children know something special was required of them.
"I could never do anything good enough for her," Czernicki recalls. Stasia, the child, would bring an accomplishment to her mother's attention, feeling quite proud. "She would always say, 'It could have been better.' " And the child would drift away, intent on discovering some endeavor through which she could win approval.
Stasia's childhood ended at 14 when she left school to join her older sister in one of Webster's shoe factories. (Her older brother completed high school and trade school because "we just thought it was more important for a man to go to school, to learn a trade.") In the heat and noise of rows and rows of women at sewing machines, Czernicki's natural coordination soon earned her the job of fancy stitcher, doing the toes of wing-tips. But in her off-time she had nothing to replace the games of her childhood and no way to exercise the athletic ability that stirred within.
One day, as she was gazing into the basement window of St. Joseph's grammar school, watching the men below on the four candlepin lanes, it struck her: "I think I'd like this game."
The mill town had factory leagues, and she joined a team, playing at St. Joseph's. At first her ball tended to stay airborne halfway down the alley. Still, the manager of the alley recognized her potential and worked with her to give her control. Soon her scores were tops on her team, and she joined a more competitive league at a commercial bowling lane. Stasia Milas's career, like that of most candlepin bowlers, could have continued in obscurity, limited by child-rearing and employment. But Anthony Czernicki had seen the tall, attractive Stasia bowling with his sister at St. Joseph's in 1940. They started dating, but the war took him to Europe from 1943 until 1946. When he returned, they married. As a husband he offered Stasia the kind of limitless encouragement that, even in the small arena of candlepins, she would need to become a star.
Tony was there in 1947 when Stasia was 25 and won fourth place in the Worcester Telegram & The Evening Gazette's Central Massachusetts Bowling Tournament. He stands beside her today as she cradles the little trophy. She coos, "I was so proud of this one. I guess it was meaningful because I accomplished something. I finally got there."
In 1949, their first child, Danny, was born; Stasia had played into her eighth month of pregnancy. After Danny's birth, Stasia went back to work part-time, but in 1950 she quit the shoe factory completely. Son Eddie was born in 1951, and John in 1955. "My husband didn't want me to work because at that time it wasn't my place to work. At that time, it was right to think that way," she says. "A lot of those things, you don't say today."
Tony did think it was Stasia's place to bowl, however. He babysat so Stasia could spend the evening practicing or competing. And it paid off. Tony saw Stasia win a record 18 consecutive championships on television—going undefeated from 1970 through 1976—and also bowl a personal high of 194.
Which is not to say Stasia didn't spend quality time with her boys at home and on the lanes. Sure, Danny opted out of candlepins early, deciding instead to become a mechanical engineer. But Eddie holds the record high game (197) for men on Boston television. And John holds the world's 10-string record of 1,475, having acquired his mother's ability to be consistent, a skill that depends, Stasia says, on concentration.
"When I got up to bowl, it was between me and the ball and the pins," she says, using the past tense even though she has no intention of retiring. "I saw nothing else. I heard nothing. If I didn't get a strike or a spare, it didn't bother me. I was determined to get the pins."
During a game her concentration is aided by the fact that she never knows the score. In one game she was down by 33 pins with only four frames to go, but all she knew was that she was bowling below her ability. When she was able to knock down only seven pins in the final frame, she turned and, as always, smiled and congratulated her opponent, who no doubt was baffled because Czernicki had won by one pin.
"I was a pin-picker," explains Czernicki. "A lot of bowlers don't put enough into it. It's not important enough to them. I tried as hard for a single pin as I would to get a spare. I could win by one. I could lose by one." Pin-picking, she insists, is a tactic, not a matter of pride.
Tactics alone cannot overcome some disadvantages women have when competing against men. A man's superior strength lets him roll the ball faster, improving his chances for a strike. But Czernicki says that if a man doesn't get a strike, he is on a more equal footing with a woman because candlepins then becomes a "spare" game, determined by the second and third balls—where accuracy prevails over speed and strength.
Another male advantage, Czernicki believes, is a greater familiarity with the geometry of billiards, a game in which women tend to lack experience. Because candlepins involves playing the "wood," an ability to analyze the probable angles of deflection is critical. Czernicki compensated for her ignorance of billiards by studying what happened when the men played the wood.
So in the battle of the sexes she has often been the winner. When Czernicki and men's champion Fran Onorato teamed up for the mixed doubles world championship in 1969, "he had the same feeling I did," she says. "We didn't care who got the pins as long as we got them." After 10 strings, Onorato had scored 1,288. Czernicki's score was 100 pins higher, a record that stands in mixed doubles.
Clearly, no male candlepin bowler enjoys Czernicki's name recognition. And Helen Sellew, who employs Czernicki as a part-time instructor at her Natick, Mass., bowling lanes, cites a very good reason for this. Sellew thinks the many good men bowlers knock each other off. But Czernicki, Sellew says, has "won the championship over and over again," and is thus easier to remember.
Despite her wide fame, albeit in a narrow sport, "she's the most humble person I ever saw," Sellew says. "She doesn't know she's tremendous."
Sellew is mistaken. The Queen of Candlepins, who was inducted into the Candlepin Bowling Hall of Fame on July 29, reflects on her struggle to be noticed, to gain approval, and says, "Let's face it. I wanted to be the best, and I guess I could say I got there."
As even Czernicki knows, candlepin perfection is perfectly impossible.
Stasia's stash of memorabilia is a tribute to her husband's 40 years of loving support.
Douglas Campbell, a "Philadelphia Inquirer" reporter, is a mediocre candlepin bowler.