When ‘The ABC’ was Classic

by Bob Johnson 0


ANOTHER USBC OPEN Championships is under way. Let’s take a look back 50 years, when the event was called the ABC Tournament, and the pros were given the Classic Division.

Early ABC leaders had tried to discourage professional bowling. Long-time Secretary A.L. Langtry often complained about those bowlers he called “pot hunters.” The 1922 World Classic Tournament was never repeated because of Langtry’s opposition.

The ABC Tournament also had something called the Alleyman Rule. That meant a team could have only one player who earned the majority of his income from bowling. The rule included adult pinboys, and even bartenders who worked in a bowling center.

Bowling leaders finally dropped the Alleyman Rule. By the 1950s, there was a growing number of “super teams” around the country. Some of them, like the Budweisers of St. Louis, were paid sizeable salaries just to bowl.

The Professional Bowlers Assn. was formed in 1958. Professionalism had become established. At the 1960 ABC Convention, delegates approved a new Classic Division for the annual tournament. Teams with two or more pros would now be required to bowl in the Classic.

A “pro” was precisely defined. The first part of the definition said you had to average over 190 for the past two seasons — remember, scoring was tougher then. The second part listed six categories, spelling out various ways you might earn money through your bowling skill. If you carried that 190-plus average, and fell into one of the six categories, you were a pro.

The Classic Division format was new. After rolling the traditional three games each in Team, Doubles and Singles, the bowlers would return for a second Team series. The six-game total would decide the Classic Team championship. Classic All-Events would thus be based on the 12 games.

ABC Secretary Frank K. Baker said the longer format was a truer test for the better bowler. He also admitted that the extra Team squad would bring in more spectator revenue.

Bowlers greeted the Classic Division with great enthusiasm. Besides the pros, the division was open to any team that thought they were good enough. Out of 6,300 teams signing up for the 1961 ABC, 80 entered the Classic Division. Each Classic team was treated to an extensive write-up in the tournament program, complete with pictures.

The 1961 ABC was held in Detroit, at the sparkling, new Cobo Hall. The Classic bowlers did not have separate squads, but were part of the regular tournament schedule. On March 8, the first two Classic teams bowled: Amster-Kirtz of Akron, and Sullivan Furniture of Detroit.

The Sullivans were the former Pfeiffer team, 1959 ABC champs. They took the early Classic lead. A few days later, the Budweisers arrived, still looking for their first ABC Team title. The Buds moved into first place.

The Buds’ two appearances drew large crowds. But something was wrong with the Classic Division. The scores were too low. The Buds shot only 5887 for their six games. The Detroit Strohs later took the lead, but still couldn’t crack 200 per man.

The tournament moved on. Veterans Don Ellis and Joe Kristof won the first Classic Doubles championship with 1331. Earl Johnson’s 733 took the Classic Singles. Detroit’s own Bob Brayman, a member of the 1960 Team champs, won the Classic All Events with 1963.

Late in the schedule, Brentwood Bowl of San Francisco edged past the Strohs when anchorman Joe Jacques carried two Brooklyn strikes in the final frame. The Brentwoods won with 5983 — still under 200 per man.

The ABC pronounced the Classic Division a success. But the next year, only 58 teams entered it. The initial euphoria had worn off. Many of the borderline teams had also decided they just didn’t belong with the big dogs.

Later editions of the Classic Division featured some exciting bowling. However, the move away from big team bowling doomed the division. The ABC junked the Classic Division after the 1979 tournament.

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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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