BY J.R. SCHMIDT
HE APPEARED FROM NOWHERE in 1963. He was built like a fireplug, had a face like a cherub, and talked like Jed Clampett. But wel-l-l-l-l, doggies! Could that guy bowl! That was Tommy Tuttle, the first great bowler from the Old South.
Tuttle was born in small-town North Carolina in 1929. A natural athlete despite his chunky build, he played a lot of baseball. By his late 20s he was working as an inspector at a cigarette factory in Winston-Salem.
Then one of the bowlers in the company league went on a fishing trip. Tuttle filled in. He didn’t immediately burn up the lanes. But he’d found a new sport to replace baseball.
Tuttle was completely self-taught. He practiced every weekend, and his average edged toward 200. Then, in 1962, he took the plunge; he bought an eight-lane bowling center in the town of Rural Hall.
Tuttle won his first tournament, a 48-game marathon at Atlanta, in the spring of 1963. He’d already taken out PBA membership and bowled a few pro events, with little success. Meanwhile, the sponsors of the World’s Invitational were trying to fill out their field. Looking for bowlers from remote tenpin outposts, they sent Tuttle an invitation.
The World’s was one of bowling’s Big Three events. Tuttle went to Chicago for tournament — and won the qualifying trophy. Tommy who? From where? He eventually finished fifth.
The bowling season continued, and 1963 became 1964. In January, Tuttle was at Dallas for the All-Star Tournament, another major. He jumped out in front early and led most of the way. In the last round of matches, he crushed another little-known rookie, 21-year-old Dave Davis.
Under the old rules, Tuttle would have been the All-Star champion. But that format had been junked to accommodate TV. Tuttle now had to face Bob Strampe for the title, and Strampe was too much for him. Strampe won the three-game rolloff by 99 pins.
Two months later, the TV format helped Tuttle win his first PBA title at Baltimore. After 40 games, he stood in fourth place. That put him on the Saturday afternoon broadcast. Tuttle won the three-game round robin, then defeated Sam Baca for the title, 236-172.
Tuttle closed the season by winning the qualifying trophy at another major event, the Masters. In the tournament itself, he finished down the list. A few months later, Bowlers Journal named him a first team All-American.
His game fit the era perfectly. The 1960s was the age of the stroker, and Tuttle was all stroke. If anything, he was more push than stroke. That’s what you did when the bowling balls were so hard they might’ve broken off the tip of a diamond drill.
The novelty of Tommy Tuttle eventually wore off, and he became a familiar figure on tour. He won two more PBA events, in 1969 and 1971. He always smiled, never appeared upset. “I never got angry and kicked a ball rack,” he said later. “I didn’t think it’d help knock down any more pins.”
And though you can take the boy out of North Carolina, you can’t take the North Carolina out of the boy. When AMF signed Tuttle, he was given a white uniform to wear. He didn’t want it to get dirty from his bowling hands, so whenever he had to hitch up the slacks, Tommy used his elbows.
Tuttle always bowled well in the ABC Tournament. As a pro, he competed in the Classic Division. He won an eagle as a member of the 1965 Classic Team champions, and had numerous top-10 finishes.
He left the tour after 10 years to open another bowling center in North Carolina. Except for the occasional senior event, he stayed there, surrounded by the company of family and friends.
Tommy Tuttle was elected to the ABC Hall of Fame in 1995. He died in 2004.