Last year, Bowlers Journal International’s associate editor Thomas Madrecki received a prestigious $3,000 research grant from the University of Virginia to explore the forgotten life and times of bowling's most infamous hustler, John “Count” Gengler. For this online exclusive interview, we sat down with one of our own to learn more about this mysterious figure out of bowling’s shadowy past...
How did you get so interested in Gengler of all subjects? Not many kids these days know much about turn-of-the-century bowling and match game championships.
When I started bowling in high school, my coach Bruce Tres of Loyola Academy – one of BJI’s 100 Top Coaches – showed me an article about the Count. He thought I’d get a kick out of it, and I of course did. He’s like nothing else in bowling – the one-step approach, the notorious hustling, the fancy dress. Gengler has the whole shebang: unmatched style on the lanes, a smooth stroke, and he’s ruthless, just ruthless.
We hear you’ve taken up one-step bowling. Is that true?
I confess, I’ve even used the one-step approach during a tournament. In all seriousness, though, it’s one of the best drills for your physical game. And I would be lying if I told you that I didn’t think it would be possible to average at least 200 on most house conditions with the one-step and the right equipment. The consistency and rotation you can get doing it is fantastic.
No hustling. At least I wouldn’t tell you.
Okay, we won’t push you. After all, you don’t want the USBC on your case, like the Count had…
Gengler and the old ABC, no doubt, had a strange relationship. On the one hand, Abraham Langtry and the like detested his behavior – taking strangers’ hard-earned money, competing in unsanctioned competition, etc. But on the other hand, officials were slightly upset when he didn’t show up to bowl the ABC one year. I’m sure somewhere along the way, they realized he was the best thing going in a growing sport. Together with Jimmy Smith, Gengler helped put bowling on the map across the United States, touring the country and taking on all comers.
So why isn’t Gengler in the Hall of Fame, like Smith?
The fact that Gengler isn’t in the Hall of Fame is one of the sport’s many travesties. Smith himself once said Gengler should be in. But because most of Gengler’s accomplishments were done outside of ABC-sanctioned competition, and because some of his more famous qualifications are perhaps somewhat dubious, those in charge discredit him, I think to an unfair degree. Everybody in those days bowled in unsanctioned match games for money. The difference is that the other bowlers, like Smith, Jimmy Blouin, and Frank Caruana, have ABC titles to their credit or something like that.
You mention Frank Caruana. Didn’t Gengler beat Caruana in unprecedented fashion? Doesn’t that count for something? Apologies about the pun.
Caruana had a better chance of beating Norm Duke than beating Gengler in 1919 – you get what I’m saying? In their match, Gengler bowled 2491 for 10 games – a record that would have stood for many years had it been official. What made that portion of the match even more interesting, though, is that it was scheduled to take place at Gengler’s alleys in Chicago Heights, which he owned at the time. But a few days before the Chicago segment, the Chicago Heights alleys burned to the ground in a fire, forcing the pair to use Randolph Recreation instead. The Count knew those alleys well, too, however, and actually elected to bowl not on a pair of lanes, but on adjacent lanes. It’s that kind of ingenuity and lane-play knowledge that Gengler regularly displayed, and it’s something that I think speaks volumes about his ability as a bowler to adjust to and plan for the invisible hurdles we all face. Not that the voting members for the Hall of Fame agree – though the match against Caruana was recorded in dozens of newspapers, I know that at least some folks think the whole thing – Gengler's life, that is – is mostly a tall tale blown out of proportion. That, and some people find Gengler’s reputation as a less than ideal role model to be a turn-off.
So, I take it you don’t think it’s a tall tale. What about that 300 in the dark?
Alright, so there’s no actual evidence that it happened. Nobody took a video of it and posted it to YouTube. But stranger things have happened. You think about it – 12 shots, with a one-step approach, in the dark mind you, not literally blind. I honestly can see it happening, and I don’t even think it’s his finest accomplishment. Hell, it’s only in my book toward the end.
You mention your book, which the University of Virginia gave you $3,000 to write. Tell us a little about it. Is it going to be published?
It’s a historical fiction novel. All the facts are true – I did some revelatory research, digging through musty copies of Bowlers Journals and newspapers across the country. There are not many people alive who met the man – with the rare exception of [Pulitizer Prize-winning journalist] Jimmy Breslin – but I really think I had enough to form a complete picture of Gengler’s life. And that’s what it was all about – to translate that myth and legend into something real, without losing those mythical aspects. I’ve tried to preserve while enhancing, bringing to life bowling’s most colorful and exciting character. Beyond the bowling, beyond the hustling, he’s a man torn between lives and ideals, with a surprising knack for philosophy and introspection. To a greater degree than any bowler of his time, or perhaps any bowler since, he’s a true intellectual – if a hustler can be called an intellectual. There’s references to him knowing as many as seven or so languages. He took up bridge and horse racing, and he absolutely wanted to live the life of European luxury, so to speak. He was in Paris when he was getting started, meeting a few Americans and bowling on American alleys for the first time, and they were drinking Champagne. That chapter plays a significant role in the book – it sets up a few themes that are returned to in later chapters, dealing with the Faustian, the Nietzschean, and just a nagging sense of the absurd.
One might say that’s a bit over-the-top.
The Count was over-the-top. And besides, I think he’d read Nietzsche.
So do you have any plans to publish the whole book? It’s done, isn’t it?
Oh, yeah, it’s done. But for publishers? [Laughs]. Not yet – unless you know anyone?
No, not really.
It has just taken a back seat recently. I’m still in college, you know!
The Count’s arrogance must be rubbing off. What would you say your most important finds were during the research process?
There actually were two big ones. The first is the real story behind the Count’s disappearance and poor performance against Jimmy Smith in their 1926 match. You see, in 1920, Gengler made an appearance at the ABC tournament. He never finished – he pulled something in his back, and he collapsed in pain. After that tournament, there’s hardly a reference to him bowling – a few horse racing records, a few immigration forms, etc., etc. But then a few years later, he starts getting the itch again. I mean, he’s still one of the greatest bowlers of all time, and he beats up a little on lesser European and American competitors. But he loses here or there, surprisingly, and then faces Smith – then doesn’t even finish more than a few games. Why’d he come back? Pride, I think, and confidence. It’s a tale of hubris, of striving. He can’t tell himself it’s over.
And the second?
When he died. Nobody knew the exact day. April 10, 1957. He was listed as a horse trainer on his New York death certificate.
Good information to know. You never know when you might need some obscure bowling history knowledge.
I kind of resent that. [Laughs]. Kids – I feel funny saying that, because of my age – but kids, they don’t understand what they’re missing these days. They don’t understand where the sport has come from, and so there’s no context in terms of where it’s going. The whole thing, the lack of knowledge, is honestly pathetic. You ask any aspiring star in a major revenue sport to list a few idols and their accomplishments, and he can do it. I’m not even talking about Babe Ruth – that’s assumed, that they’ll know about those kind of players. But a lot of young baseball players have been to Cooperstown and know about Walter Johnson and Honus Wagner and Ty Cobb and can tell you what they’re famous for. I’ve done a few informal interviews of kids on top college teams, on Junior Team USA. Do you think they know who the hell Count Gengler is? Jimmy Smith? God, even Andy Varippapa… they just know his name and his trick shots. They don’t know that he won back-to-back All-Stars at a ridiculous age, and they don’t know the All-Star was a hundred games, either. Like I said, it’s really just pathetic.
Got any suggestions on how to improve that apparent lack of knowledge?
I think kids should take it upon themselves to read and learn about the sport they’re investing so much time in. And I think at the same time, there needs to be at least one initiative aimed at making that knowledge and the Hall of Fame accessible in some way. Even the PBA to some extent bears responsibility, because it hasn’t always done the best job remembering its forgotten stars.
It certainly would help if every bowler’s story was as exciting and mysterious as the Count’s, right?
Right. The whole thing deserves a movie. Maybe him and Titanic Thompson. We don’t have to stick entirely to the facts, you know.
I wonder where you picked that habit up. Who’d play the main character?
Is that even a real question?
I think so.
Well, unless Brad Pitt wants to headline, I think I’m the only logical choice. And really, even if Brad Pitt wants the role, what’s he got on me? I’ve bowled a tournament dressed in a vest and tie already. And I know the one-step. Don’t get the wrong impression – I just really think I’ve become Gengler. I’ve had to become Gengler.
So that’s it, huh? There’s no one else who could do the one-step?
Not as well as me. [Laughs].
Want to bet on it?