When I was a little baby boomer back in the 1950s, bowling was a wholesome family sport. Several nights a week, my parents bowled in different leagues, wearing crisply ironed team shirts with their names stitched on the chests. Meanwhile, my brothers and I safely ran riot in the bowling alleys, cadging pretzels and coins for pinball and feeling as at home as we did in our living room.
More recently, bowling has served as a theme in The Big Lebowski and had something of a renaissance as an ironic sport of hipsters. But Gianmarc Manzione's new book reveals a whole other side of the game — one teeming with gamblers and hustlers and explosions of violence, as well as the feats of amazing athletes.
Pin Action: Small-Time Gangsters, High-Stakes Gambling, and the Teenage Hustler Who Became a Bowling Champion is the first book by Manzione, who lives near Tampa and teaches at the College of Central Florida in Ocala.
The book's overarching tone is nostalgia for a time gone by, although Manzione is too young to remember much of it himself. But he grew up in the territory that is the book's epicenter, "the kid who squandered his childhood in the bowling alleys of Brooklyn," where he first heard the stories that make up much of this book. As he writes in the preface, "Pin Action memorializes the world where you kept score by hand, an all-night match left you with a bloated and bleeding bowler's thumb by sunrise, and a combination of tobacco and lane oil smudged your calloused fingertips."
The book begins in 1962, in the heyday of "action bowling." These were the matches between highly skilled bowlers that took place in the wee hours in open-24-hour bowling alleys or in private lanes, games on which gamblers dropped hundreds or thousands of dollars and the bowlers themselves could walk away with a week's wages or more. On a bad night, when the guys who bet on them were disappointed, they could walk away with bodily injuries, or not walk away at all.
Manzione centers his book on a legendary action bowler named Ernie Schlegel. Raised at the northernmost end of Manhattan, Schlegel was an accomplished bowler — and hustler — while still in his teens. He had shaggy hair, unwashed clothes and bad teeth; sometimes he even dabbed a little bourbon behind his ears. "In short," Manzione writes, "Schlegel looked more like a hobo who lived in an abandoned taxi than a hustler. And that, of course, was how the hustle worked."
Manzione gathers scads of stories about the exploits of Schlegel and other action bowlers, stories laced with gambling, drugs and drink as well as guns, knives and fists. (Schlegel was famous for his hair-trigger temper; he was once arrested for stabbing another bowler over a debt.)
But action bowling itself and Schlegel's days as one of its stars were short-lived, and when Schlegel found himself in the mid-1960s down on his luck and toiling for an air-conditioning company, he began trying to work his way onto the Professional Bowlers Association tour. It wasn't easy — his sketchy reputation was well known — but he made it.
After six years in the PBA Tour, though, Schlegel's career was going nowhere. In a hotel room one night in 1975, stoned on "a well-rolled fatty," he had a vision of his future. Instead of wearing the "drab slacks and wooden hair" of most bowlers, he would transform himself into "a real-life comic book hero vanquishing enemies from coast to coast in his star-spangled get-up": the Bicentennial Kid.
His vision also included a beautiful red-haired woman — and soon he would meet and marry Catherine DePace, a stunning redhead. The rest of the vision worked out for him, too, launching Schlegel into a career that eventually landed him in both the PBA and United States Bowling Congress halls of fame.
Manzione also weaves into the book a history of bowling, which was banned in 1511 in England by Henry VIII because of its "appeal to society's underbelly." Those idyllic bowling alleys I remember were part of an explosion in the sport's popularity in the 1950s after the invention of automatic pin-setting machines. He covers the rise and fall of professional bowling as well as lots of technical details. Reading the book provides, for example, a short course on lane oil, the lubricant used on the wood, which, it turns out, can have a significant impact on a bowler's game — and can be manipulated in many ways.
But the biggest pleasure of Pin Action is those stories of glory days, which read as if you're listening to a bunch of slightly shady old guys spinning yarns in some neighborhood club in the least hip reaches of Brooklyn. Manzione tells them with the colorful language and larger-than-life tone they deserve.
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.