BJI History Part 4 — The Depression and Pet Projects

by Bob Johnson 0


We probably fared much better than most middle-class people during the Depression because of the Bowlers Journal Press Service, the company’s longtime ace-in-the-hole. My father’s newspaper chums around the country knew that he would be present at almost every major tournament, so they’d call and ask him for results. At first, it was a pro-bono arrangement. Then he started charging for his service.

As tournaments grew, he convinced Western Union and Postal Telegraph to install an operator and teletypewriters. Then United Press and the Associated Press, the big news wholesalers, began to ask for coverage. Pretty soon, he was filing thousands of words a day from the ABC Championships, the Petersen Classic and a half-dozen other events. At one point, he was filing stories to more than 100 newspapers plus the big national wire services. The beauty of the system was that he didn’t have to charge his clients much because of the volume.

My father would literally move his magazine operation to a tiny, smelly pressroom in some auditorium, war memorial or arena for the entire length of the ABC Tournament. This meant several months or more cooped up in a hotel room in places like Detroit, Toledo, Buffalo and St. Paul. He’d bat out a report for the AP or UP and then turn to his typewriter and do a profile piece for Bowlers Journal. This went on seven days a week for months on end.

When ABC began to hit the 4,000-team mark in the late 1930s, it meant a big increase in his BJ Press Service income, and lessened fears that he might have to pull the plug on the ailing magazine. When the team entry nudged 5,000 at the 1938 tournament in Chicago, he built a yellow brick house on Leavitt Street in Beverly Hills, a rising middle-class neighborhood on Chicago’s south side.

Of course, after 60 or 70 straight days in the ABC pressroom, my father was exhausted. So he simply laid off the two-person staff in Chicago, closed down the magazine for the entire summer and went fishing in Wisconsin. (I’ve always said my father was a smarter businessman than I.)


The fact that he controlled the distribution of most of the nation’s bowling news gave my father an opportunity to promote his own pet projects. The creation of a national “Association of Bowling Proprietors” was first proposed in the April 1932 edition of the magazine. Luby kept hammering away at the concept and encouraged his many proprietor friends to get the ball rolling.

He also proffered the notion of a national Bowling Hall of Fame in the January 1937 issue. He suggested that it be patterned after the Baseball Hall. When ABC finally decided to embrace his idea in 1941, it followed nearly all of the suggestions outlined in his editorial.

He also started picking the All-American bowling teams in 1937. Thanks to his connections with the national wire services, he was able to get major space for his mythical quintets in daily newspapers across the country.

“His annual All-American selections... invariably gave him a lamentable case of 8-ball trouble,” said Steve Cruchon, the late editor of the Detroit Modern Bowler and, later, the Detroit Bowler’s Digest. “The teams rarely failed to strike up a deafening discord by fans whose favorites had been slighted. This always prompted the overly sensitive Luby to bristle about how hard it is to please the bowlers.”

It was around this time that Luby also formed the National Bowling Writers’ Association (later to be renamed the Bowling Writers Association of America). Many of the writers and broadcasters who covered bowling for various media outlets showed up for the ABC convention every spring. They’d descend on the pressroom at the tournament where, of course, Luby had the key to the beer cooler. After years of impromptu bull sessions at the ABC, it finally was decided to elevate these laid-back gatherings to a bona-fide organization.

Officers were elected, awards were devised and campaigns were launched to help the journalists do a better job of ballyhooing bowling. The fact that ABC and other major tournament operators published only last names when they issued scores and standings was a major headache for the media. Writers were forced to hunt down bowlers or officials to get first names before they could write their stories. Luby and his now-organized pals finally convinced the ABC to publish full names; other organizations soon fell in line.

During the late 1930s, my father wrote all sorts of editorials decrying the coming war in Europe, pleading with our government leaders not to intervene. (As if they were paying attention to a Chicago-based bowling publisher.) It may seem a bit peculiar to contemporary media buffs that a bowling writer would get involved in such political musings, but that was Mort Sr. After Pearl Harbor, however, he was as gung-ho patriotic as anyone.

I can still remember attending the first day of the All-Star tournament in the elegant Chicago Auditorium on Dec. 7, 1941, “the day that will live in infamy.” Jack Ripple, a mellow-voiced radio commentator, announced over the P.A. system that Japanese airplanes had sunk our fleet in Hawaii. But the tournament went on anyway, and my father headed to the press box to file his stuff.

Everyone worried that the war would decimate the bowling business. Instead, bowling boomed as newly enriched production workers sought a release from the pressures of the war. Of course, there were terrible shortages everywhere. Although the government supported recreation, nearly all production of bowling equipment ceased. No new centers were built, and many existing places were replaced by war-effort industries.

The ABC Tournament was cancelled in 1943, 1944 and 1945 because of the war, but resumed with a vengeance in 1946 at Buffalo as 25,000 competition-starved bowlers flocked to the 74th Regent Armory.

American Machine & Foundry Company, which had been quietly working on a pinsetting machine during the war years, decided to unveil its contraption at the Buffalo tournament. But Brunswick, which had made every single installation since the first ABC in 1901, objected. It was grossly unfair, the company argued, to allow a potential competitor to tout its wares at a venue that had been supported by Brunswick for so many years.

Undeterred, AMF publicist Bill McDonald rented a garage down the street and put his company’s machine on display. Thousands of proprietors came by to ogle the device, hoping that AMF would solve their ongoing pinboy problems.

McDonald, a salty former newsman from New York, was to become one of bowling’s greatest promoters and one of my father’s best friends. He ingratiated himself to the bowling press by organizing an elegant dinner for writers attending the BWAA convention in Buffalo. The previously ignored writers were suddenly besieged by invitations for dinners and lunches from other organizations hoping to curry favor. Once sparsely attended, BWAA conventions suddenly became wildly popular.

AMF’s introduction of a fully viable pinsetter was delayed for several years, but in the interim, the company became a major advertiser.

“At one point, we became very discouraged,” Bob Kennedy, AMF’s then sales manager, told me many years ago. “We just couldn’t get the machine to operate properly. The stockholders were angry and the banks wouldn’t give us enough money. We actually considered dumping the pinsetter.

“But then your father came to our office and pleaded with our chairman (Morehead Patterson) to persevere. He convinced the boss to stay the course.”

About five years after AMF’s first commercial installation, Brunswick unveiled a machine of its own. The fierce competition between the two companies was fueled by an advertising war, which, of course, meant a big jump in revenues for Bowlers Journal.

Next month: Under the palm trees, a dream is born.

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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