BY J.R. SCHMIDT
Almost anyone with an interest in bowling history has heard of the National Bowling League. The NBL was an intercity league of five-man teams, based on the model of Major League Baseball, playing in purpose-built arenas on a six-month-long schedule.
Today, the whole concept seems outlandish. But to understand how the idea seemed plausible, you have to understand the temper of the times, more than a half-century ago.
In 1961, bowling was booming. In the previous five years, the number of bowling centers had increased by 25%. AMF and Brunswick were the hot stocks on the New York exchange. All-star athletic banquets always featured at least one bowler. During the bowling season, most newspapers ran bowling news several times a week. Some of the larger dailies even had a bowling editor.
Two statistics sum up bowling’s prosperity. In 1961, Therman Gibson won $75,000 for rolling six straight strikes on the “Jackpot Bowling” TV show, making more money in 20 minutes than Mickey Mantle earned playing an entire season in the Yankee outfield. Also in 1961, out of an adult population of 110 million Americans, 6.5 million bowled in sanctioned leagues — one out of every 17 men and women.
So, in 1961, the idea of a National Bowling League was not so outlandish at all.
Plans for an intercity bowling league had been floated as early as 1904, and there had already been a few such leagues on a limited, regional basis. But the man who succeeded in making the old dream a reality — at least for a while — was a Los Angeles proprietor named Leonard Homel.
In 1959, Homel put together a 54-page prospectus detailing plans for a national pro league, then ran a blind ad in The Wall Street Journal seeking investors for “a new and unusual bowling promotion.” He received more than 100 replies, most of them enthusiastic. Yet nobody was ready to put up any money.
Then, in January 1960, Bowlers Journal ran a story by Don Snyder about the proposed league. That got the bowling world talking. Perhaps Homel’s plan could succeed.
The next month, Homel held an organizational meeting in Chicago. After listening to his presentation and grilling him on details, seven investors forked over $5,000 each for NBL franchises. The initial roster of cities was Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Omaha, and Raleigh, N.C. Homel was elected league president.
The NBL planned to launch in September 1961. The next 18 months were a busy time. More meetings were held. New investors bought in, and some of the original members dropped out. Dick Charles, an Omaha sportscaster, was hired as league commissioner. As interest in the venture grew, the price of a franchise rose to $50,000.
The league held its first player draft at Omaha in July 1960. By then, there were 12 franchises. Miami went first, and picked Billy Welu. The process continued through 30 rounds. With 360 slots available, nearly every bowler of some reputation was selected. The draft closed with New York picking a bowling proprietor, Yankee catcher Yogi Berra.
The No. 1 pick surprised many people. In 1960, Don Carter was the most famous bowler in the world. Why wasn’t he picked first? This highlights one of the main problems facing the NBL.
In 1960, the Professional Bowlers Association was brand new, and operating a limited schedule of tournaments. Carter and the other elite bowlers had salaried positions on locally-sponsored five-man teams. Many had exhibition contracts with equipment manufacturers as well.
The NBL had advertised a minimum player salary of $6,000. Carter had security, and one writer speculated it would take at least $40,000 for the bowler to join the new league. Still, the Carter name had magic, and even though he had made no commitment to participate, Fort Worth made him the No. 2 pick.
THE STARS ALIGN… BUT NOT ALL OF THEM
The NBL signed its first player on Sept. 5, 1960. Fred Riccilli was a 39-year-old Californian whose main claim to fame was winning the 1952 Petersen Classic.
He’d also spent a year with the Stroh’s Beer team in Detroit, capturing the Michigan match-game championship during his hitch. His contract with Los Angeles was for $10,000. The NBL had a year to go until its planned September 1961 opener. Once Riccilli’s name was on a contract, other bowlers began to sign on.
Steve Nagy became the first “name” star to join the league, securing a $20,000 pact as captain of the L.A. team. Nagy’s crony, Buzz Fazio, did even better. Omaha gave Fazio $24,000 and a rent-free luxury apartment.
Bowler of the Year Ed Lubanski signed up for the league when Pfeiffer Beer dropped sponsorship of his team. Lubanski and Pfeiffer teammate Billy Golembiewski would now bowl for Detroit in the NBL. The other Pfeiffers — Joe Joseph, Bob Hitt and Bob Kwolek — quickly caught on with other NBL teams.
Still, Don Carter and most of the St. Louis stars remained outside the fold. They preferred to watch and wait. Fort Worth offered Carter a contract for $1,000 a week, a piece of ownership, a cut of the gate, and half-interest in a goat farm. Carter turned down the deal.
The NBL wanted to advertise its status as “big league.” Nothing could do that better than purpose-built arenas with ample spectator seating. In November, Commissioner Dick Charles announced that the 12 franchise holders would have sites ready and construction underway by the following March.
Different cities came up with different types of facilities. Kansas City and Omaha installed four lanes in shuttered theaters. Fort Worth and Fresno built stand-alone arenas. Dallas and Detroit constructed large commercial bowling centers, with the intimate NBL stadium as an annex. League President Leonard Homel tacked an arena onto his existing L.A. establishment. A plan to put New York’s lanes in Grand Central Station was vetoed by the city, and the team built in New Jersey instead.
The seating capacity of the arenas ranged from 1,800 to 3,200. The All-Star Tournament had attracted crowds of more than 5,000 spectators, so the NBL had reason to believe they might fill their stands. However, no matter how large the live gate, the new league was counting on the power of television.
Bowling was all over the tube in 1960. “Championship Bowling” was the most prominent of several syndicated series, and there was even a prime-time, national network program, “Jackpot Bowling.” In addition, every “bowling city” had its own local show.
The NBL hired a consultant to secure a TV contract. League officials talked of having a nationally televised “Game of the Week,” similar to baseball’s. The season would climax with the NBL World Series between the two divisional champions, followed by an individual tournament paying $100,000 to the winner.
But the NBL wasn’t the only one going after TV dollars. Professional Bowlers Association founder Eddie Elias had initially welcomed the new league. Now, there were reports that Elias was advising his members to steer clear of the NBL. In the end, the PBA got the vital network contract, and the NBL didn’t.
Meanwhile, the league came up with an innovative way of deciding matches. Traditional scoring was retained. However, teams would be awarded points based on individual matches, as well as five-man game totals. There would also be bonus points for high individual scores. At the end of the night, the team with the most points would get a “win” in the league standings.
In March 1961, the NBL dropped two franchises for failing to meet deadlines. There were now 10 teams — the Dallas Broncos, Detroit Thunderbirds, Fort Worth Panthers, Fresno Bombers, Kansas City Stars, Los Angeles Toros, New York Gladiators, Omaha Packers, San Antonio Cavaliers and Twin Cities Skippers.
Finally, it was time to bowl.
THE SEASON BEGINS
The NBL staged its first exhibition match at Meadowbrook Lanes in Fort Worth, Texas, on May 22, 1961. About 500 people turned out to watch Dallas beat Fort Worth. The three-game format seemed to drag, so all future matches would be two games.
A second exhibition was held at Kansas City on July 24. Rolling in their home arena at the Midland Theatre, the Kansas City Stars defeated an all-star squad drawn from the other nine teams. A pilot video was made to help sell the league to the TV networks.
The NBL also issued its official schedule. Opening day was pushed back to Oct. 13. After that, the teams would bowl five nights a week through the end of April, with breaks for the World’s Invitational and All-Star tournaments. The season would conclude with the Eastern and Western Division winners meeting in a World Series.
Now the league faced a major crisis. The San Antonio franchise lost its backer, leaving the team without a stadium. The rest of the owners chipped in to cover the players’ salaries, and all San Antonio matches were rescheduled as “away games.”
Bowlers Journal devoted 36 pages of its October 1961 issue to the NBL with the league’s founder/president, Leonard Homel, on the cover. Mort Luby Jr’s lead editorial was titled, “The NBL Can Succeed, So Give It a Chance!” Don Snyder wrote an article on the league’s “day of reckoning,” and Fresno captain Bill Bunetta sat for an interview. Dallas owner Curtis Sanford was profiled in a major feature. There were rosters, schedules, a primer on NBL scoring, and numerous photos.
The magazine also polled 11 bowling experts about the NBL’s chances. They hoped that the league would be a success, but most thought it would fail.
As it happened, the regular NBL season opened with a single match at Dallas on Oct. 12. The hometown Broncos trounced the visiting New York Gladiators, 22-3, before an announced crowd of 2,200. The rest of the league began play the following night. Rather ominously, that was Friday the 13th.
While fans had trouble getting used to the NBL’s point system, the league’s “wild card” proved popular. Under that rule, a team could bring in a sub to make a single shot — for instance, a lefty who might have a better chance at converting a particular split. When a sub came through in the clutch, there was no more dramatic moment.
The NBL said it was selling fun, so fans were encouraged to be lively, and heckle visiting teams. The bowlers didn’t appreciate that. Working on a string of strikes, Ed Lubanski refused to continue until some loudmouths were silenced. The men shut up, and Lubanski went on to roll a perfect game. In a famous incident, Carmen Salvino climbed into the stands to reason with an obnoxious spectator.
By mid-November, NBL officials knew they were in trouble. With construction costs, player salaries, travel expenses, and other incidentals, the investors had sunk close to $14 million into the venture. They still had no TV contract. And after the initial euphoria, attendance was way down.
Detroit had the top turnout, with an average attendance of 1,221. Yet most teams were attracting fewer than a thousand fans for a match. Fresno had the lowest attendance, with an average gate of only 404.
High ticket prices were partly to blame. The best NBL seats went for $3, about the same as a box seat at a Major League Baseball game. But bowling fans had never paid that much to watch their sport. For that matter, even the cheaper seats at NBL matches weren’t being filled.
Publicity was lacking, too. On the way in from an airport, Commissioner Dick Charles routinely asked his cab driver about the local NBL team. None of the cabbies had even heard of the league.
Barely two months into the schedule, a number of teams were ready to fold.
THUNDERBIRDS WIN… BUT THE NBL DOES NOT
NBL owners met to discuss the future of the struggling circuit on Dec. 9, 1961. Afterward, Commissioner Dick Charles denied the Fresno team would be dropped.
“We think we’re trudging along merrily,” Charles said. “We have every confidence we ultimately will be successful.”
Brave words. Just a week later, the NBL announced that the Omaha and San Antonio teams were being cut loose. Then Kansas City folded. But perhaps the greatest blow came on Jan. 15 of the new year, when Los Angeles surrendered.
L.A. was Leonard Homel’s team — Leonard Homel, founder and president of the league. His Toros were drawing fewer than 500 people a match, not nearly enough to sustain the franchise. There were tears in Homel’s eyes as he made his farewell.
Now there were six. Still, the remaining owners were determined to see things through to the finish of the season. Perhaps then a TV contract would pump in fresh cash.
With only six teams left, the league’s two divisions were consolidated into one. The NBL also adopted a split-season schedule. The Detroit team had the best win-loss record, so they were declared winners of the first half. At the end of the season, they’d meet the winners of the second half in the World Series.
The schedule also was streamlined. League play was cut to three matches over two nights — a double-header on Sunday, and a single match on Monday. Commissioner Charles said that the change would allow more PBA bowlers to join the NBL.
And the belt-tightening went on. Player salaries were trimmed to $100 a week, causing Johnny King of Fresno and other stars to quit. Some teams had to bring in local bowlers to fill out their rosters. On March 3, Charles himself was axed, with the league’s attorney taking on the dual job of commissioner.
Ticket prices had already been slashed. By now, the league was giving away tickets on the slightest pretext — anything to fill the empty seats. Some teams tried staging half-time shows between games. Dallas brought in a seven-piece jazz band. Another team featured a bowling chimp.
Nothing worked. Attendance continued to slide. At one match, Bowlers Journal Editor Mort Luby Jr. counted “ten lonely fans” in the entire arena. In those final weeks, many of the bowlers seemed to give up, too. The matches had the intensity of a pre-teen birthday party.
The NBL staggered on to the finish line. The Twin Cities Skippers won the second half-season, and faced off against the Detroit Thunderbirds on May 5-6. The entire best-of-five series was rolled in Detroit’s home arena. It was cheaper that way.
The Thunderbirds made quick work of the Skippers. They swept the first three two-game matches to become the 1961-62 NBL champions. The winners split a purse of $2,500, while the losers took home $1,500. A Detroit station televised the final match.
You may have noticed that bowling scores haven’t been mentioned much in this story. That’s because NBL statistics have been difficult to find. For one thing, Detroit newspapers were on strike during the league’s World Series, and different sources yield different information. So, the following stats are not necessarily the final word.
Three NBL bowlers rolled perfect games: Ed Lubanski (Detroit), Dale Seavoy (Detroit), and Jim St. John (Twin Cities). The highest two-game series was 276-290—566, registered by Earl Johnson (Twin Cities). Most sources credit St. John with the high individual average, 221 over 132 games.
In the aftermath of the World Series, league owners said they’d be back for a second season. The elusive TV contract would be signed any day. But on July 9, the NBL officially gave up the ghost.
Fifty-some years later, the most prominent relic of the National Bowling League is Thunderbowl Lanes and its arena, in the Detroit suburb of Allen Park. Drop in some time… and while you’re there, consider what might have been.
J.R. Schmidt is Bowlers Journal’s “Time Capsule” writer and resident historian. Check out his bowling history blog here.