BJI History Part 5 — The Birth of the Bowlers Journal Tournament

by Bob Johnson 0


After Buffalo in 1946, the American Bowling Congress Championships Tournament made its first journey to the West Coast. Predictably, the 1947 event in Los Angeles, then considered a distant outpost in the bowling world, produced a smaller-than-average entry — just 3,356 teams.

But my dad, Mort Luby Sr., had one of his greatest brainstorms under all those California palm trees: He invented the Bowlers Journal Championships.

Up until that time, BJ’s circulation was a dicey proposition. My father would run a subscription booth at all major tournaments, but there was no sustained marketing effort to pump up the readership. So it was a pivotal moment in the history of the company when he came up with the concept of including a subscription in every entry fee in his new tournament.

His plan was to run a five-game singles sweeper at a nearby commercial center during the ABC Tournament. He advertised the event in his own magazine and made extravagant promises in the editorial columns. He hired a nationally celebrated bowler, former ABC all-events titlist Max Stein, to run the show. He chose the famed 52-lane Sunset Bowling Center — situated on the Warner Brothers lot on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood — as the venue. And he worked harder than ever before.

“I’ll never forget seeing your father walking up and down the ABC concourse, handing out flyers and chatting up every soul he saw,” Joe Norris, who worked the tournament for Brunswick, told me years later. “He really worked the floor.”

While the tournament was a great idea, it triggered one of the worst crises in Luby’s career. Stein attempted to cook the books, and line his own pockets, by inserting fake names and scores.

But he made a serious error when he listed the hometown of some of those bogus entries as Detroit. Norris, who knew virtually everyone in the Motor City bowling community, was puzzled. Who were these guys bowling these big scores? And why hadn’t he ever heard of them?

Joe reported his suspicions to Luby, and the plot soon was uncovered. Rather than attempt to cover up the malfeasance in his tournament, Luby put the story on the Associated Press and United Press national wires. And he disclosed every detail of Stein’s attempted deception in Bowlers Journal.

His courage in reporting the attempted theft was rewarded in many ways. His fellow bowling writers gave him a special award. And the first tournament proved to be a mighty success, drawing 1,700 entries and paying out $24,270 in prizes, remarkable numbers for those days.

Luby also used his expose on the BJ tournament to boost some of his other agendas.

“Perhaps the national publicity which has been attached to the expose of the ‘BJ’ tourney will help to protect other prize lists from fraudulent acts,” he wrote in an editorial in the June 1947 issue. “It is surely a strong argument for the American Bowling Congress’ suggestion of sanctioning for all tournaments and sweepstakes. Such a sanction would make unethical tournament managers think twice before attempting to embezzle prize money.”

The ABC eventually suspended Stein. Many years later, after he finally was reinstated, Stein walked into the ABC pressroom, introduced himself to me and said, “Someday, I’m going to tell you what really happened at Sunset Bowl.”

Joe Norris happened to overhear the exchange. “Forget it,” he said. “That guy was guilty as sin.”

Sixty-odd years later, the BJ tournament was still going strong. Although the format and management were altered over the years, it remains one of the country’s largest and most prestigious tournaments.

Next month: an education in the trenches.

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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