BJI History Part 10 — Bowlers Journal’s Secret Weapon

by Bob Johnson 0


WE HAD MANAGED to keep our little ship afloat for many years despite a pathetic sales force. I supposedly handled advertising sales in the Midwest and West, while an equally inept ad peddler from New York covered the East Coast. We were both miserable marketers, but Bowlers Journal’s cheap ad page rate made it impossible for me to lure decent sales people.

The typical ad rep works on a straight commission, meaning low ad rates equate to lousy pay. That’s why I was lucky that St. Louis publisher C.C. Johnson Spink fired Bob Inserra from the sales force of the Sporting Goods Dealer.

I’d met Bob several times at various sporting goods shows while he was working for Spink. Although we were competitors, we always got along just fine.

Art Serbo, Brunswick’s longtime public relations director (and a congenital matchmaker), called me one bright day and said that Inserra had been fired and was looking for a job. I knew that Bob was one of the highest earning ad reps in the sports industry (that’s why Spink fired him), and I was hesitant to call him. Although Bob was well aware of our low ad rate (to say nothing of my legendary frugality), he surprised me by coming aboard at Bowlers Journal. His first monthly pay check, he loved to remind me, was $246.

From then on, Inserra was our secret weapon. He ingratiated himself with most of our industry suppliers and promptly boosted our ad revenues. He also bolstered the editorial department by submitting a never-ending stream of handwritten reports and photos from the field. (He also sponsored numerous company bocce tournaments in his backyard, thereby improving employee morale.)

With the sales department in good hands, I began dreaming about starting another magazine. Building a huge publishing empire was about the last thing on my mind. I simply wanted to enlarge the business to the point that we could hire enough people to cover all the bases. Whenever a member of the staff quit or was fired, we had no replacements. We had no clout with our suppliers because we were so small.

Bowlers Journal’s nameplate had actually changed several times over the years. Grandpa Dave’s first masthead read, “Bowler’s Journal, Devoted to All Athletic Sports.” Then it became “Bowlers Journal, the National Bowling Magazine.” Then it was “National Bowlers Journal and Billiard Revue” (where did they get that spelling?).

Because bowling and billiards had grown up together, we had run quite a few billiard stories over the years. Despite the lean years of the mid-1960s, billiard advertising had actually saved our bacon. It meant only two or three additional pages of ads per issue, but that was enough to keep the wolf from the door.

The fact that we then served as the “official publication” of the Billiard and Bowling Institute of America was another impetus for covering pool. Besides, I personally enjoyed covering pool tournaments and relished the time I spent with pool players, certainly some of the more flamboyant characters in all of sport.

My fascination with pool was heightened in the early ’60s when I happened upon the fabled Jansco brothers’ tournament for hustlers in downstate Johnston City, Ill. After a trip to Memphis to arrange the 1963 Bowlers Journal Women’s Tournament, I drove north through the desolate flatlands of southern Illinois to try to locate this peculiar competition that had been featured in a Sports Illustrated story.

I was leaning against the side of my Buick Electra convertible outside of the infamous Cue Club, wondering if I dared to invade this questionable sanctuary, when a very fat man walked up to me and said, “Wanna see some pool?”

It was Rudolph Wanderone, better known as Minnesota Fats. He introduced me to Wimpy, Tugboat Whaley, The Butcher, Weenie Beanie, Cornbread Red, Peter Rabbit, Handsome Danny and all the rest. It was the first of my many adventures in Johnston City. I’d walk around the golf course with the players all afternoon (being nocturnal creatures, they slept until noon), taking notes and shooting pictures with my prized Leica on warm Indian summer days. Dozens of stories resulted.

Gradually, the notion of a separate billiard magazine began to percolate. My bowling readers resented the five or six pages we devoted to pool in Bowlers Journal. Our billiard readers resented the fact that we ran so little about their game. Creating a separate billiard magazine would satisfy both camps, I reasoned.

I began talking up the idea of a pool magazine at trade shows and conventions. I had an artist prepare a couple of dummy issues, one in standard-sized format, the other in a smaller version I dubbed “jumbo digest.” I traveled around the country, calling on potential billiard advertisers. Every single soul loved the idea. When I called on Delmo Billiards in a gritty industrial park in south Los Angeles, the owner pulled a bottle of bourbon out of his desk and said, “I’m going to buy you a drink. We’ve needed this magazine for a long time.”

As much as they cherished the concept of a national magazine, billiard suppliers hated the idea of a small format. After all those years in media seclusion, they felt their industry deserved the full treatment. Thus, Billiards Digest became a full-sized magazine despite its small-sounding nameplate.

I hired a former Professional Bowlers Assn. public relations man as the first editor. I knew him as a pleasant young man with a knack for words. Besides, he lived in Chicago, just a few miles from the office. He lasted two issues. Billiards Digest editors came and went like the No. 51 bus on Michigan Avenue. I wrote and called the placement bureaus at several universities. I stole some time from Bowlers Journal to put out a few issues by myself.

Finally, Mike Panozzo showed up at our doorstep. He had just graduated from Milwaukee’s Marquette University with a degree in journalism. After all the recent unsuccessful forays with editors, however, I decided to give him a test assignment. He accepted my request to do a freelance feature on woman pro bowler Patty Ann. His story was less than stellar, but we were able to fix it. I hired him.

Mike blossomed into a fine writer and editor, and now is half-owner of the company. His equal partner in Luby Publishing Inc. is Keith Hamilton, who started with us at an even more tender age.

During the company’s brief stay in Lincoln Park, we bought a townhouse around the corner from the office. We purchased it partly as an investment, partly as a guest house for visitors, and partly as a depository for all the excess stuff we couldn’t find room for in the office. I even lived there for a while. With little attention or maintenance, the place was soon a mess.

I complained about this to one of my neighbors in the Hancock Center, Patty McDaniel.

“No problem,” said this most ebullient soul. “I know this high school kid who needs some summer work. He’ll have that dump picked up in no time.”

She was talking about Keith Hamilton, who soon graduated from his role as trash compiler to a new role with the summer office staff. (In those days we’d hire a few students every July to handle the added burden created by our just-finished springtime tournaments.) Later, we helped finance Keith’s stint at Notre Dame and his eventual MBA.

After longtime business manager Ed Daugherty retired, my son-in-law, Grant Nyhammer, pitched in for a while. When Grant decided to resign because of an onerous commute, Keith segued into his job.

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.

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