Bowling’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

by Bob Johnson 0

MARSHALL HOLMAN is a peculiar case. Among some bowling fans, he could have lost an election to Nixon. To them, he was bowling’s version of the lethal injection chamber. Bowling against him would have been like playing catch with hand grenades — with the pins out.

There are other fans that thought Holman was miscast as a professional bowler, that he should have been a surgeon. Who else, they argued, could perform a frontal lobotomy on a foul light? He could lance a ball return with a single kick. No “Punch and Judy” show could match Holman bowling for a title at Riviera Lanes. Some fans loved his antics, some hated them, but the PBA Image Committee took a dim view of them.

You might call him the terrible-tempered Mr. Holman. But his disposition would have had to improve 100% just for his temper to be considered “terrible.” Calling what Holman did “terrible” is like calling the sinking of the Titanic “unfortunate.”

Knowing all this, and considering the fact that his bowling ball hit harder than his foot could kick a foul light, you might expect Holman to look and act like a middle-aged delinquent — a guy who hides his switch-blade knife in his geography book, and who leads his home room in stolen hubcaps. Kind of a Medford, Ore., version of Raul Castro.

For a period of time, from the late 1970s through most of the ’80s, Holman was one of the best bowlers in the universe, even though there are those who would equate such a suggestion with the news that Paris was burning or that there had been a nuclear meltdown in Japan.

It wasn’t just the PBA hierarchy that had a problem with Holman. Among bowling writers, he was about as popular as a water spill on the approach. As one writer once put it, “Nobody is neutral about Marshall Holman; you either dislike him or you hate him.”

Holman dispatched opponents with the kind of impersonal contempt that was totally unexpected from someone barely 20 years old and looked as if he should still be collecting autographs rather than signing them.

Worse, to his detractors, he seemed to win on sheer cussedness. He wasn’t overpowering, just relentless. He was great for the same reasons Ty Cobb and Jimmy Connors were great. He was getting even with the world.

Holman had never let anything interfere with bowling. College didn’t take. His hobbies included beating anybody who managed to make the finals with him, and hitting a golf ball in his spare time. He treated most of the media as if they were his next opponent on his recap sheet. You might have described him, euphemistically, as “cocky.”

He seemed to flourish in an aura of antipathy. The more hostile a crowd got, the better he bowled. The redder he made the tournament director’s neck, the steadier his game became.

About the only bowler who could compete with Holman on a even basis during that time was the great Mark Roth. Some of their matches became legendary. So when the PBA decided to have a doubles tournament, it was only natural for the two to team up. It was like the United States and China joining forces to take on Denmark and Sweden. They won the tournament three times, and years later saw the tournament named after them.

So what was it that made Marshall Holman so great? After all, it takes more than attitude to win pro bowling titles.

Holman had one of the most beautiful and balanced deliveries in the history of the game. Straight armswing. Deep knee bend. Long slide. Even shoulders throughout the approach and release. Some may disagree, but even shoulders are a good thing for repeating shots and helping one keep the ball on its intended line down the lane.

There used to be a video for sale that was a continuous run of Marshall Holman repeating his approach and release, ball after ball. The purpose of the video was to create in the viewer’s subconscious mind the perfect way to bowl. Marshall Holman was the perfect bowler for that video.

Combine his beautiful game with the drive and cockiness of an efficient assassin, and you have the makings of a legend — and one of the 10 best players in PBA history.

But that was only part of the persona of the real Marshall Holman. The real Marshall Holman couldn’t even play a bad guy on television.

He dries dishes at home just like the rest of us, and is so personable that he could sell brushes door to door and afford a Cadillac. Off the lanes, he makes Santa Claus look like a cantankerous old rascal.

If there’s one thing a pro bowler hates more than a solid 10-pin, it’s an autograph pest. Yet Holman holds the all-time PBA record for autographs signed.

So, did Holman consciously cultivate the aura of hostility on the lanes? He once was asked that question, and simply shrugged. “They’re going to have to cheer for me sooner or later,” he replied.

Then was it all just an act?

“Everyone who bowls is an actor.”

The thing is, not everyone picks a part that’s tailor made for Lon Chaney.

Bob Johnson

Bob Johnson has received more national writing awards than any other bowling writer — close to 70 over the course of his 40-year career. He began at age 16 as a staff writer and then assistant editor for the weekly Pacific Bowler newspaper in his native California, and within three years was writing feature stories for Bowlers Journal. He has written for the magazine ever since, except for a five-year span when he was hired as the founding editor of another magazine. He moved to Chicago in 2000 and spent 13 years in the Windy City, including five as Bowlers Journal’s Editor. In 1975, Johnson received the Robert E. Kennedy Award as California’s top undergraduate high school journalist. Five years earlier, on the lanes, he had shared the Bantam Division Doubles championship in the Orange County Junior Bowling Association Championships. Today, he continues to work full-time for Bowlers Journal as its Senior Editor, to write his popular “Strikes Me” column, and to edit Luby Publishing Inc.’s weekly business-to-business Cyber Report.