BJI History Part 6 — An Education in the Trenches

by Bob Johnson 0


MORT LUBY SR. was a rabid Notre Dame football fan, a devout member of the famed Subway Alumni. When the subject of my own education came up at the dinner table, I’d slyly suggest colleges, which I imagined to be teeming with gorgeous co-eds. For me, the exclusively male campus of Notre Dame in a hick town in Indiana had limited appeal.

But my father made it clear that if I wished to earn a college diploma at his expense, Notre Dame was my only option. So off I went to South Bend in the fall of 1949. After barely surviving the first two years, I found my true niche when journalism classes began in my junior year. Before long, I was writing a satirical column (called “The Week”) in Notre Dame’s only student periodical, the weekly Scholastic magazine.

Meanwhile, my father’s health began to fail. Although he had suffered a minor stroke, he still came to the office, wrote his column, and made the obligatory calls on advertisers. Despite warnings from his doctors, however, he continued to drink and smoke. His only concession was to switch from Camels to English Ovals, which he considered a less lethal smoke.

The record-shattering 1953 American Bowling Congress Tournament (8,180 teams) at the Chicago Coliseum might have been a financial bonanza for the Bowlers Journal Press Service, but my father just wasn’t up to nearly 100 straight days of back-breaking toil. So he handed over all of his wire service accounts (plus more than 100 contracts with individual newspapers) to Jim Fitzgerald, a young reporter for the Chicago Tribune. My father’s idea was that Fitzgerald would return the accounts when I finally segued into the business after graduation from Notre Dame.

Alas, my full-time debut into Bowlers Journal affairs was detoured by a letter from my local draft board. My father had discouraged me from attending Officers Training School at Notre Dame, hinting that he had an excellent connection at the Selective Service (draft) office. Also, he theorized that the Army would be disinclined to draft me because of his illness.

Wrong. I was drafted into the Army in the fall of 1953 and served 18 months in various outposts in Missouri and Kansas. Oddly, I learned more about journalism during my stint in the Army than I had at Notre Dame. I talked myself into a job as executive editor of the weekly camp newspaper at Fort Riley, Kan. As such, I single-handedly edited an 8-page tabloid that was printed by the daily newspaper, the Mercury, in nearby Manhattan. The experience of dealing first-hand with typesetters and layout technicians would pay off in later years.

The Gavel Passes Again

My father hired a quiet, taciturn editor named Ernest Ahlborn while I was away in the service. Upon my return to the little office on Wabash Avenue, Ernie and I were anointed “co-editors.”

Although advertising revenues had picked up because of the introduction of the AMF pinspotter, there was trouble afoot at Bowlers Journal. The Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America had decided to publish its own magazine, called Bowling Proprietor. And the American Bowling Congress periodical, Bowling magazine, was gaining strength under ABC’s new public relations director, Bruce Pluckhahn.

Bowlers Journal had served as the “official magazine” for both BPAA and ABC in the early years. As the chase for advertising dollars heated up, our relations with both outfits soured.

As if he wasn’t burdened with enough business problems, my father’s sister sued him for a share of the company. Auntie Grace’s suit argued that my father had simply segued into to ownership of the company back in the roaring twenties without a single scrap of legal document. As another legitimate offspring of old Dave Luby, she felt entitled to a piece of the action.

The case was in court for weeks, and you could practically see my father weakening by the day. His breathing grew more labored and he suffered yet another minor stroke. The trail ended with a small financial settlement, and Auntie Grace was never heard from again.

Meanwhile, I had settled into the business and entered into matrimony. The bride was Barbara Short, a beautiful girl from the north side of Chicago. We had met on the campus of Notre Dame several years earlier on a blind date arranged by the daughter of one of my professors.

I had planned to cover the 1956 ABC Tournament in Rochester, N.Y., for the wire services and the usual list of Bowlers Journal Press Service clients. Alas, Jim Fitzgerald, who’d been handed our portfolio three years earlier, refused to surrender it.

Denied the Associated Press and United Press accounts, I shopped around for another major client. I finally had to settle for International News Service, which was running a weak third among national news wholesalers. I also managed to sign up 40 daily newspapers, largely because of my father’s clout with sports editors around the country.

My new bride and I headed off to Rochester in the dead of winter and spent nearly three freezing months in the Rochester War Memorial. Between dispatches to my newspaper accounts, I batted out stories for Bowlers Journal and mailed them back to my “co-editor” in Chicago. Meanwhile, Fitzgerald glowered at me from across the pressroom; he was highly annoyed that I had managed to corral some of my father’s old newspaper accounts.

Mort Sr. came to visit us in Rochester on his way to Buffalo, N.Y., to pick up the Billiard and Bowling Institute of America Industry Service Award, the last of many kudos recognizing his huge contributions to the sport. It was obvious that he was failing fast.

A few months after the ABC, I was back in the Chicago office when I got a call from my mother. My father had died in his sleep in a berth on a Pullman car on his way back from a party for ABC President Clarence Leonard in Houston. He was only 60.

The funeral was huge. Hundreds of his business and journalism pals came from all over the country. I’m sure a lot of them glanced over the casket at this skinny, pale lad of 25 and wondered if I was going to be able to fill my old man’s shoes.

Thankfully, I had plenty of help. One of my father’s hard-drinking chums, Byron Schoeman, an editor for the Daily Racing Form, came to our office during his lunch break every afternoon and showed me the niceties of layout and editing. Ernie Ahlborn, who’d been on staff for three years, handled most of the advertising. My mother, who in the past had been involved only in the periphery of the business, took charge of bookkeeping and circulation duties.

With all this backing, I was able to go off to the ABC Tournament every February and continue my BJ Press Service chores. Fitzgerald gave up his ABC reporting and went to work full-time with the Chicago Tribune, enabling me to build up our wire service and daily newspaper network.

In addition to the ABC, we covered many other events, including the BPAA All-Star and the World’s Invitational. The volume at these events was so enormous that I would hire three or four additional writers to help handle the load.

In writing these early segments in the history of the company, I worry sometimes that I put too much stress on our Press Service. In addition to providing a reliable stream of income, however, the Press Service bolstered the company in many ways. Back in the days when ABC was bowling’s biggest and best showcase, it put us in the heart of the action. It also enabled us to wield considerable clout with the all-important news services.

I knew most of the most important editors at Associated Press and United Press headquarters. When I’d call and suggest a bowling story, they’d listen. At least, most of the time.

Ted Smits, the legendary general sports editor of the Associated Press, once turned down my suggestion that I cover an important international event in Sweden. ABC Public Relations Director Bruce Pluckhahn and I went to New York, and invited Smits to lunch at Toots Shor’s After numerous dry martinis, Ted finally agreed.

But Bowlers Journal magazine, now as well as in the past, has always been the heart and soul of this company. The BJ Press Service helped sustain our flagship periodical for many years but, in the end, it proved vulnerable to the changing culture of the media and the public at large. We covered the ABC for the wire services for the last time in 1972. The magazine, however, has soldiered on through thick and thin.

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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