According to Major League Baseball, approximately 73 million people attended a game in 2016. The Bowlers Journal estimates 67 million knocked down a few pins last year. Coincidence? Ok, almost certainly. But one can’t deny the long, strong, proud historical connection between these two most American of leisure activities--a traditional ably continued today by, among others, the great Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts, who in addition to being one of the best players in baseball can also claim multiple 300 games on the lanes (Betts has competed in PBA-sanctioned bowling tournaments, making him the only two-sport star currently active on a major league roster. It might not be Bo Jackson tearing out of the backfield, but it's not nothin').
Dr. Jake chronicles the history of the Baseball-Bowling Connection below.
It was natural that ballplayers got involved in bowling. In the days before aerobics and professional training regimens, bowling was a good way to keep in shape during the off- season. Some players took things a step further and opened their own bowling alleys. Major league ball didn’t pay very well a century ago, and even the stars needed a second income.
Nobody knows who was the first big-time ballplayer to become a regular bowler. Among the players who became proprietors, the earliest to be widely publicized were John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson of the Baltimore Orioles. In 1897 they launched the Diamond Café in their home city. The two partners eventually went their separate ways, and neither returned to the bowling business.
One of the best bowlers among the early ballplayers was Frank Kafora. After two short hitches as a catcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Kafora turned his attention to tenpins. In 1915, at the Chicago City Championship, he shook the bowling world by becoming the first person ever to win three events in a single tournament. Seven years later, he was part of the select field of twenty-four invited to compete in the first World Classic. Kafora was only 39 when he died, cutting a distinguished bowling career way too short.
Kafora’s contemporary, Everett Scott, was an all- star shortstop with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, setting the consecutive game record that Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken eventually broke. Scott bought a Fort Wayne bowling alley after hanging up his spikes. In 1940 he became the first major leaguer to roll a sanctioned 300 game. However, his greatest claim to bowling fame came in 1931, when he whipped Hank Marino in a 20-game match.
Perfect games were once very rare. A few years after Scott turned to trick, old-time pitcher Kid Nichols rolled a 299 while bagging the Kansas City Singles championship. He was 64 at the time. The first sanctioned 300 by an active major leaguer was posted by A’s second baseman Cass Michaels in 1952.
In June 1935 Bowlers Journal ran its first cover displaying a ballplayer, White Sox third baseman (and Philadelphia proprietor) Jimmy Dykes. As bowling expanded over the next decades, more and more players went into the business, and every city on the major league circuit seemed to have at least one bowling center with a ballplayer-proprietor. Though it would be impossible to put together a comprehensive list, a few places come readily to mind.
Besides the Dykes establishment, Philadelphia had Del Ennis Lanes. In Boston there was Sammy White’s. Metro St. Louis had Stan Musial and Joe Garagiola’s Red Bird Lanes, and—across the river in Illinois— the famed Playdium, owned by outfielder Terry Moore. Brooklyn featured Freddie Fitzsimmons Recreation, immortalized in the film Desperate Characters. Also in Brooklyn was Gil Hodges Lanes. The beloved Dodger first baseman is long gone, but the bowling center bearing his name lives on [Editor's note: the facility has since been renamed Strike 10 Lanes].
For some reason, most of the Chicago proprietors were catchers. Kafora, Jimmy Archer, and Bob O’Farrell were the earliest. Later the city had two suburban showplaces, each run by a Hall of Fame backstop, which nicely mirrored the local baseball rivalry. Ex-Cub Gabby Hartnett owned Gabby Hartnett Recreation in Lincolnwood (north), while ex–Sox Ray Schalk operated Evergreen Towers Bowl in Evergreen Park (south). Schalk’s center was home to the well-regarded Ray Schalk Holiday Team Classic.
The boom times of the 1950s were the heyday of the ballplayer-proprietor. White Sox teammates Nellie Fox and Sherman Lollar had hometown lanes in Pennsylvania and Missouri, respectively. Yankees Yogi Berra and Phil Rizzuto were partners in a $1.2 million New Jersey showplace. Bobby Shantz and Joe Astroth, the star battery of the Philadelphia A’s, operated Pit-Catcher Lanes. Other major leaguers who owned lanes were Nelson Potter, Irv Noren, Hank Sauer, and Ralph Branca.
With the dawning of the 1970s, as free-agency brought megabucks into baseball, the number of players who doubled as bowling proprietors dropped sharply. Other ventures now offered greater cash return with less effort. Mickey Mantle, the biggest star of an earlier era, once owned a piece of a Dallas ten-pin palace. Somehow, I don’t think that I’ll be seeing Barry Bonds or A-Rod at the BPAA Convention any time soon.
When the Baseball Hall of Fame phoned Boudreau to tell him he’d been elected, his wife had to take the call—Lou was out bowling.
In 1962, to determine the top bowler among major leaguers, AMF teamed with The Sporting News in staging the BaseBowl Championship. The Tampa tournament was scheduled to coincide with spring training, and drew a large field. Cardinal outfielder Don Landrum won the first trophy with a two- game scratch set of 422. A popular event while it lasted, some of the later editions of the BaseBowl Championship were telecast.
Bill Stafford was a pitcher on the great Yankee teams of the early 1960s. He also carried a 208 league average, a lot of wood in that pre-chemical era. Stafford earned a PBA card when he retired from baseball. However, he never got around to bowling in a Tour event. “Those pins were a lot harder to carry,” he said. During the 1987–88 season, a bowling team called the Minnesota Twins earned national publicity for its St. Paul league when two of its bowlers, Kent Hrbek and Tim Laudner, missed two weeks of bowling while helping the baseball Minnesota Twins win the World Series. Business commitment or not, each man was fined $2 for being AWOL.
Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams, a top relief pitcher a few years back, was so serious about the tenpin sport that he carried several bowling balls along for practice when his team was on the road. Like Stafford, Williams talked about joining the Tour, but with no result. Tom Candiotti, another avid pitcher-kegler, did follow through with his post-baseball bowling plans, and has rolled in at least one PBA event.
In recent times, the most famous ballplayer-bowler has been John Burkett. Over the years he has competed in a number of PBA events. His most notable foray has been the 2004 Masters, where he finished 185th out of a field of 590.
To conclude, we should note that the baseball-bowling connection goes both ways. Many prominent bowlers spent time in organized baseball. Frank Brill, Joe Wilman, Don Carter, and Earl Anthony are four members of the bowling Hall of Fame who played professional baseball. All were pitchers. Only Brill made it to the major leagues, achieving an unremarkable 2–10 record with Detroit in 1884.
And then there is Ed Lubanski. Hall of Famer, Bowler of the Year, and four- time All American, he was also a minor league pitcher. In 1947 he posted a 22–8 record in the Class D Wisconsin State League. He moved up to Class C the following year, and already had sixteen wins by July. When the front office refused to promote him, Lubanski walked out. Ed Lubanski was only eighteen years old when he quit baseball. Would he have become the greatest combination of “basebowler?” There’s no way of knowing. But if I had to choose the one man who achieved the highest level of performance across both sports, I’d pick Everett Scott.