BJI History Part 8 — A Forum for Bowling Writers

by Bob Johnson 0


IT BOTHERED ME FOR YEARS that there was so little contact among the writers who covered bowling’s burgeoning schedule of overseas tournaments. The Asian writers would congregate in one corner of the pressroom, the Europeans in another, the Americans in still another.

That’s the main reason Keith Hale and I decided to launch something called the World Bowling Writers. In addition to fostering a friendlier forum, we also hoped to create a better working environment for journalists covering major events: ample communications gear, quick and accurate score reporting and, most importantly, a few more upscale bottles in the beer cooler.

Our annual WBW meetings were small but lively. Like most bowling organizations, we handed out a lot of awards. In later years, Hale issued an e-mail newsletter called Worldletter at least once a month, alerting WBWers worldwide to the results of nearly every international event of any consequence, and all members received the Bowlers Journal regularly. But the most rewarding aspect of our little experiment in journalistic togetherness was the cross-border friendships that blossomed.

It may have been exciting, but the addition of all these time-consuming global jaunts to my already over-burdened travel schedule raised havoc at home. Barbara and I were divorced in 1968. The day I left my three beautiful daughters and the nice house in Wilmette was the saddest of my life.

It was also around this time that our star bookkeeper/circulation director — my mother — decided that it was time to hang it up. Frieda had run the office for a decade but, at 70, was tired of driving her Oldsmobile convertible from the house on Leavitt Street to our shabby little downtown office.

For a management-challenged person like myself, this was a time of deep crisis. Frieda’s firm hand on the financial tiller of the company was one reason I was able to spend so much time on the road, chasing stories and advertising.

After all, publishing is a very complicated business. Creating the right editorial product is a constant challenge. You have to orchestrate a group of unruly editors, correspondents and graphics folks so that they produce fresh and constantly entertaining content — on deadline. Most magazines require that at least 50 percent of their pages be filled with advertising; in times of industry downturns, this can be daunting.

Circulation is an ongoing headache. Getting and keeping readers is a never-ending struggle. Production (dealing with the printer and other vendors), delivery (the Post Office, newsstand distributors, etc.) and other publishing issues can give you an ongoing migraine.

Obviously, if you don’t have a solid financial structure, all of the other elements tend to fall apart. I’ve often said that I should have tried for a degree in management instead of journalism at Notre Dame.

Mom went off to retirement and I suffered through a string of inept and dishonest office managers and bookkeepers. One guy nicked me for a quarter of a million dollars. I was so focused on the editorial side of the business (because it was the most fun, I suppose) that I neglected almost everything else.

It was also around this time that Willie Mosconi — probably the best pool player that ever lived — sued me, the company and one of our correspondents for more than $3 million. He claimed that a story written by an award-winning writer, Tom Fox, had libeled him. The case bounced around various courts for months and was finally thrown out.

It took about 10 years, but Willie and I finally became friends again. We even joked about our outrageous attorney fees.

Miraculously, the business survived the onslaughts of the late 1960s. After my divorce, I moved downtown to a new residential high rise about four blocks from our old office at 506 S. Wabash Avenue, all the better to spend most of my waking hours at my desk.

The company had been located in the old Congress Bank Building on the corner of Wabash Avenue and Congress Boulevard in downtown Chicago for many decades. It may not have been fashionable, but it was convenient.

Directly across the street was Johnnie’s Steak House, the de facto epicenter of the bowling industry. Brunswick headquarters was two block away, the Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America was a 10-minute walk, and Sam Weinstein’s Universal Bowling Supply was next door.

Out-of-town visitors from New York (AMF) and Milwaukee (ABC/WIBC) made Johnnie’s their automatic first stop when they came to town. You could walk in the door almost any day at noon, order the 60-cent luncheon special, and chat with half of the movers and shakers in the tenpin industry. At night, the place buzzed with salesmen making deals with soon-to-be bowling center owners.

Brunswick finally moved into a swanky high rise building in the center of The Loop, the BPAA segued to even fancier quarters in suburban Hoffman Estates, Universal was forced to relocate a block away, and the building that housed Johnnie’s was demolished because of an urban renewal project. With our lease running out, I decided to move our office to a new building in Chicago’s tony Lincoln Park district.

But we missed the action and convenience of Chicago’s vibrant downtown. After a few years, we were on the move again, this time to the 100-story John Hancock Center. We spent many years in the Hancock, moving three times within the building as the business grew.

I bought a condo in the same building (the bottom half of the Hancock is mostly commercial space, the top half is residences) and commuted to work for many years by elevator.

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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