‘A Fantastic Finale’: Mort Luby Jr.’s Original Account of ‘Perhaps the Best TV Show in PBA History’ Was as Lively as the Broadcast

by Gianmarc Manzione 0

The 1970 Firestone Tournament of Champions is an event that requires little, if any, introduction. That Don Johnson’s 299 in the title match was voted the #1 moment in the PBA’s 60 Greatest Moments in 2018 speaks for itself. Longtime and legendary BJI Editor Mort Luby Jr.’s account of the most famous telecast in PBA history, which ran in our May 1970 issue, sparkles with all the liveliness, humor and honesty for which his writing was known. With the passing on Aug. 27 of Dick Ritger, the last living competitor in that famed title match (Don Johnson died in 2003), we wanted to make Luby's brilliant rendering of that event available online for all who wish to enjoy it. You can find that below. And while you're at it, check out Ritger's late-2018 interview with BJI Editor Gianmarc Manzione in which Ritger reminisces about the moment and about Johnson's career. You can find that here.

BY MORT LUBY JR.

The $100,000 Firestone Tournament of Champions in Akron, Ohio, has been carefully cultivated over the years as the climax of the Professional Bowlers Association’s winter tour. All too often, however, the event has been marred by criticism and minor disaster. Once the show ran out of television time, the righthanders screamed on another occasion that the place had been “fixed” for southpaws and there has been frequent grousing in the press that the lanes were blatantly blocked with oil.

The tournament sponsor, who pours some $80,000 into the prize fund (plus much more in ancillary costs, including TV commercials for the winter tour and the expenses for more than 50 freeloading journalists) clearly deserved a better fate for bankrolling the richest PBA event. But the brass at the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. smilingly endured the beefs of the newsmen and contestants and the contract has been renewed almost automatically year after year.

Last month’s edition of the Tournament of Champions was almost picture-perfect, a just reward for the ever-patient sponsor.

First off, a local boy (sort of) won the $25,000 first prize. Don Johnson, who moved to Akron from Kokomo, Ind., after he married local girl Mary Ann Baker two years ago, finally won the title after two frustrating second place finishes in previous Firestone events.

He could have hardly done it more dramatically, ramming in 11 strikes before a No. 10 pin stuck and gave him a 299 in the title game. Runnerup Dick Ritger matched Johnson strike-for-strike during the first six frames before he was stopped by a No. 4 pin. He finished with 268 and did not seem the least bit disconsolate about the second prize of $12,500.

“That’s better than winning four $3,000 titles on the summer tour, he philosophized.

Finally, there was little or no carping from the bowlers or newsmen about lane conditions. Although the Johnson-Ritger finale was the highest-scoring TV match in PBA history, overall scoring was not ridiculous. Johnson held the 47-man field (Billy Welu missed the tournament because of the air controllers’ strike) for the first 48 games with a 232 average. He also shot the tournament’s sole 300 game.

Johnson’s victory surprised none of his peers. He had won the New Orleans Open just the week before and was obviously in top form.

The champion, however, professed profound amazement. A bony kid with an inelegant style, Johnson is modesty incarnate. Despite his impressive pro record (10 PBA titles, $187,426 in total earnings) he continues to protest that he is “too weak” to ever cut it as a great bowler. He muses almost reverently about ex-Firestone champion Jim Stefanich’s strength and picture-book form and the superiority of other PBA stalwarts.

But those disclaimers aren’t fooling anybody these days. Johnson very nearly won the T of C in 1967 and 1968. In both cases a sticky No. 7 pin cost him the crown. After running second in the qualifying at New Orleans, Don rapped top-seeded Earl Anthony, 216-214, to win the $6,000 title. And with $35,690 already tucked away so early this year, he stands a good chance of shattering the single season record of $67,375 set by Stefanich in 1968.

PBA and Firestone publicity experts managed to infuse the Tournament of Champions again with its traditional circus-like atmosphere. Two days before the competition began, reporters started pouring in from all over the country to savor the famous Firestone generosity.

The previously all-male pressroom was enlivened by the presence of the red-haired Jean Yockey, the first woman ever to cover the T of C for a daily newspaper. The pretty, young reporter for the Mansfield, Ohio., News Journal flounced about in miniskirts and tight pants suits and got reams of background information and advice from veteran newsmen who had never been known for their loquacity. Apparently, she listened well. Miss Yockey nearly won a contest among the scribes to predict the top finishers in the tournament. Both she and Sheldon Ocker of the Akron Beacon Journal picked the top five but Ocker broke the tie by more closely estimating the total score of the final game.

Johnson took charge early and was nursing a modest lead over Barry Asher as the contestants lunged through the first 24 games. He started to race away from the rest of the field in the round robin, building his advantage at one point to nearly 500 pins. But Mike Durbin won 19 and tied one game in the 24-game match play and closed the margin to a more respectable 161 pins for the 48-game route.

“I feel like I’m losing my momentum,” sighed Johnson. “I’m really worried about the TV finals.”

Durbin, who had been having a disastrous season (he won a little over $2,000 for the 12 previous tournaments), recently asked Bill Taylor, the self-styled pro bowler tutor, to analyze his game and suggest a remedy. Taylor converted Durbin to a three-step delivery, the first time that archaic style has been seen in pro circles since Lee Jouglard won the ABC singles in 1951.

“My arms are very short for my height,” the 6-1 Durbin explained. “As a result, I was getting to the line behind my swing. With three steps, my timing improved automatically.”

Ritger, who was dead last after the first two games of qualifying, rebounded smartly to third place. Barry Asher, a total flop during the first dozen tournaments, ran fourth. “Moms, baby,” he telephoned his mother in Costa Mesa, Calif., “We’re in business!”

Stefanich won out in a wild scramble for the fifth spot on the TV show, leaving veteran Carmen Salvino sitting in the sings as alternate.

Riviera Lanes, the host center, was sold out for the finals, just as it had been all week, and scalpers were asking $25 for a single ticket. Ed Freeman, proprietor of the place, was understandably annoyed during the qualifying when he couldn’t find a seat for his wife. PBA tournament director Harry Golden urged the crowd to “get more snugly.”

After the customary introductions, Johnson, Durbin and Ritger retired to the bar to watch the Asher-Stefanich skirmish on television. Stefanich, opening up with an eight-bagger, promptly whipped Asher, 269-217.

While Johnson washed down a basket of French fries with a glass of milk, Ritger dumped Stefanich, 263 to 215, and Durbin, 237 to 211. That set the scene for perhaps the best TV show in PBA history.

Ritger wore bright gold shoes and a knit jacket that made him look like a big game hunter from an old Stewart Granger movie. Johnson was at his flamboyant best with loud checked slacks and a striped turtle necked shirt.

The crowd shrieked encouragement as the two began to string strike after strike. One newsman, who boasted that he had covered the tournament for years without seeing a ball thrown, sprinted out to witness the excitement.

Ritger’s spare in the seventh frame cut the tension in the crowd like a sickle, but it began to swell again as Johnson’s string continued.

Now even Ritger was yelling encouragement and patting Johnson on the backside. Don began sprawling on the floor with each new strike. He hit the deck flat on the final toss but the No. 10 pin didn’t care. It just stood there, staring at him in defiance. The single pin cost Johnson $10,000 (ABC TV’s perfect game award) and a Cougar sports car (Lincoln Mercury’s reward for TV 300 games).

Marry Ann Johnson, devastatingly pretty in a yellow maternity dress (she’s expecting in July) stumbled out of the stands and embraced her husband. The champion and his wife clung to each other, sobbing and smooching like a pair of lovers from an X-rated film.

The customary post-tournament press conference was somehow less animated than usual. Johnson’s victory seemed almost pre-ordained after his qualifying performance and the 299 had drained everyone.

All of the finalists echoed Mike Durbin’s sentiment: “Don deserved to win; he led it all the way. After the 30th game, the rest of us were just shooting for a spot on the show.”

Ritger generated a few chuckles by recalling his encounters with the champ.

“I’m a soft touch for this guy,” he laughed. “He beat me 300-249 in the round robin and now 299-268.”

Johnson, regaling the newsmen as usual about his lack of ability and sundry weaknesses, credited his victory to some “lucky coins.”

“Before last week’s TV show,” he said, “somebody gave me some New Orleans Centennial coins. I had one in my pocket and Marry Ann had four in her purse. They pulled me through again today.”

“Bull,” muttered a pro who was standing near the fringe of newsmen. “You don’t win this tournament with lucky coins. You win it with talent and guts. Besides, Don has bowled in more than 200 straight PBA tournaments, more than any other pro. We all knew he’d get around to winning this one eventually.”

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