BY J.R. SCHMIDT
THEY USED TO SELL a bowler’s towel with the wording, “I survived the Petersen Classic.” That’s appropriate. With its 100th edition set to launch this spring, the tournament itself is a survivor.
Louis P. Petersen was one of Chicago’s pioneer bowling promoters. He was founder of the first local proprietors’ association, and the driving force behind the largest-ever bowling event, the 1918 National Patriotic Tournament. Petersen moved to Los Angeles in 1919 to enter the oil business. But two years later he was back in Chicago with another grand idea.
Petersen planned the richest bowling tournament in history, with a first-place payoff of $1,000. That was a gigantic prize for a sporting event in 1921. Earlier in the year, the winner of golf’s U.S. Open had collected only $500.
To put together his big pot, Louie had to charge a hefty entry fee of $28 — a week’s pay for many men. Scoffers said he would never recruit enough bowlers to finance his prize list, and Louie did have to hustle to get the 64 entries he needed. When he finally reached his goal of $1,600, he deposited the money with Bowlers Journal Publisher Dave Luby.
The first Petersen Classic stepped off at Archer-35th Recreation in Chicago on Oct. 2, 1921. Two squads of thirty-two bowlers each rolled eight games. There were just three prizes — $1,000 for first place, $500 for second and $100 for the high single game.
The tournament turned out to be a thriller. Going into the final game of the second squad, at least five men had a shot at the top prize. Then Harry Steers broke out of the pack with a closing 245 for a winning total of 1629. Matty Williams placed second at 1594, and Larry Dunn took the high-game award with 257.
Louie’s Classic was a roaring success. Bowler demand was so great that the next year he staged two tournaments, one in the spring and a second in the fall. As the entries poured in, the prize list also was expanded to more places. By 1926, the spring Classic was attracting more than 600 bowlers.
The tournament went on the road for the first time that year, when the fall event was held in St. Louis. The main Petersen Classic remained in Chicago, but some years a second tournament was bowled in places like Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland or Buffalo. That’s why the 2010 Classic counts as No. 100.
The road Classic was only one of the experiments Louie tried during the event’s first decade. One year there were three divisions, based on entering average. Another time the bowlers rolled five games, instead of the usual eight. The top prize also fluctuated, going as high as $3,000 and, in the three-division year, dipping to $500 per division.
Most of the early champions were well-established stars. Besides Harry Steers, the big check was taken home by such future hall of famers as Jimmy Smith, Hank Marino, Frank Kartheiser, Sykes Thoma, Charley Daw and Mort Lindsey. The master of the Classic was Dom DeVito, with three victories in six years. In 1927, DeVito won with a record 1924 series — that’s a 240-plus average with a hard rubber ball against solid maple pins.
Then the Depression hit. By 1934, the entry list was down to 82. Regretfully, Louie suspended the tournament.
Four years later, the Petersen Classic resumed. Once more, it offered the richest prize in bowling. Once more, the finest bowlers of the era earned the right to have their portraits hung in the gallery of champions — Ned Day, Adolph Carlson, Tony Sparando, Russ Gersonde, Nelson Burton Sr.
Then, as the 1940s ended, the Classic began to change. Maybe Louie got the idea in 1947 when Buddy Bomar won both the spring and fall events. The better bowlers, with their high scores, had always dominated the Classic. But what if conditions were toughened up? If the winning score were low, then anyone might be tempted to take a crack at the tournament.
The 1951 event was the watershed. Out of nearly 2,000 bowlers, not one person could break 1600 over eight games. The champion was John Quinzi, a good bowler from Rochester, but hardly a household name. He had averaged 199.
The pattern was set. A few famous stars continued to compete — Ned Day always showed up, and always took home a good check — but others were scared away by the thought of rolling 120s in front of a packed house. Dick Weber gave up after bowling 15 years and never cracking 1450. It was about this time that the management began selling those “I survived...” towels.
Now came all the folklore. The tournament pins were stored in the open on the roof, to make them water-logged. The first pair of lanes went uphill at a 6% grade. At the other end of the house, the last pair was 6 feet longer than standard. The approaches were cured with shellac, causing bowlers to stick. Louie Petersen had a special button behind the counter, so he could order an equipment breakdown when someone was bowling well. And so on.
If anything, the legends grew more outrageous after Petersen died in 1958. He was succeeded by his son-in-law, Mark Collor, who seemed to glory in the bowlers’ complaints. But Collor knew how to read the bottom line. As the Petersen Classic got tougher, and the grumbling grew louder, the bowlers kept returning.
In Collor’s first year at the helm, entries passed 10,000 for the first time. That number kept rising steadily over the next two decades. By 1981, more than 36,000 bowlers were climbing the rickety stairs at Archer-35th to take their shot at the Petersen “Pot of Gold.” The event stretched over 10 months, from October to July.
More bowlers meant more money. Now a contestant could collect $1,000 by finishing in 100th place. New features were added, like the optional doubles. First prize passed $10,000, then $20,000, then $30,000. The peak was reached in 1987, when one man earned $55,000.
The names changed each year, yet the story was usually the same: Some unknown bowler would grind out eight games, and triple his yearly income in a few hours. The 1968 champ, Mike Berlin, did go on to a hall of fame career. But during the Collor era, the winner of the Petersen was almost always a one-year wonder.
Buddy DeLuca of Pittsburgh was a special case. He earned first prize in the 1976 event with a towering 1731, the highest score in the Petersen since Buddy Bomar in 1947. Eleven years later, DeLuca topped the standings again. That made him the first Petersen repeater since Bomar. (The lesson may be this: If you want to do really well at the Petersen, call yourself “Buddy.”)
The tournament had become a bowling tradition. Then, in 1993, the Petersen Classic died.
The reasons were simple. The 90-year-old building on 35th Street was falling apart. Collor was ready to retire. For the bowlers of America, all that would be left would be the nightmares.
The Petersen had been buried in 1934, only to rise again after four years. This time, the resurrection came more quickly. A group of private investors purchased the tournament and its assorted physical properties. They moved the site 30 miles northwest, to Hoffman Lanes in suburban Hoffman Estates, Ill. In the summer of 1994, the latest version of the venerable Classic made its debut.
As much as possible, the new owners tried to recreate the feel of old Archer-35th. The giant posters of past champions and all the other hokey decor were retained. Lane conditions were still tough and scores still low. When AMF took over the event in 1998, it continued the time-honored Petersen formula.
Like most of the bowling business, the Petersen has faced challenging times lately. Entries have declined and the prize list is down from the flush days of the 1980s. The 1645 total rolled by 2009 champ Gregg Zicha earned him a total of $26,600.
Still, the Petersen has built its own rough loyalty. Year after year, the hardcore returns. The 99th Classic attracted 4,515 bowlers from 42 states. When all the optional side events are figured in, the entry total was 12,419.
Typical of the Petersen regular is Don Witt of Oak Park, Ill. He bowled in his first Classic in 1969. He has been a squad sponsor for the last 32 years, the first 16 at Archer-35th, and now for 16 more at Hoffman Lanes.
“When they first moved, I wondered if it would be the same,” Witt says. “But they’ve done a fantastic job making Hoffman look like the old place. It’s still the Petersen. They ring that bell, and they open that golden door, and it’s like stepping back in time.”
But for Witt, like most others, the Petersen is more than just nostalgia. “It’s the fairest tournament around — because the conditions are so bad,” he laughs. “Nobody has an advantage. I can do just as well as any past winner. That’s why I keep coming back. That’s why my bowlers keep coming back.”
Somewhere, Louie Petersen and Mark Collor are smiling.