When Team Bowling Was Mighty
continues presenting Editorial articles with this spotlight feature on team bowling. Team bowling has been an integral part of the sport, of the game, for decades.
Let’s revisit years past when team bowling had a Classic Team Event in association with the ABC (now USBC) Open Championship. Back in the days of the Classic Team night competition, team bowling was in its “heyday.”
By paraphrasing an article once drafted by J.R. Schmidt appearing in a "Bowlers Journal International" post, I would like to share the history of the ABC Classic Team Event by adding my own comments for any of you interested in reading about this once exciting event.
The evolution of the Classic Team Event followed the emergence of the PBA. 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 as a member who would have to have an entering average over 190 for the previous two seasons. Although this level of average seems commonplace by today’s standard, scoring was tougher then.
The second part of being designated a “pro” listed in several categories spelling out various ways the given bowler could earn money by virtue of the bowler’s considerable skills.
If you carried that 190-plus average, and fell into one of the six categories, you were a identified as 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.
At the time, 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. Having bowled in several Classic Team Events myself, I can attest to the thrill of performing in an auditorium in front of a filled spectator capacity, literally thousands of people.
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.
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, and in my opinion, adversely affected team bowling for many years to come . The ABC junked the Classic Division after the 1979 tournament.
In my humble opinion, the ABC made a huge mistake by not refreshing the Classic Team Event. During the 1970’s, 40 teams filled the auditorium each year regardless of where the Tournament was contested.
In those days, the Tournament moved from city to city and the pure excitement generated by 40 teams containing the PBA Tour pros (seen on TV or whose names routinely appeared in the sport sections of newspapers around the country) teaming up and bowling together brought a full house of spectators at each event.
After all, when and where else could an interested spectator watch his or her favorite professionals compete all at the same time and on glamorous teams.
Many of the 40 teams had commercial sponsors and the bowlers were donned in matching team attire. The term “Classic” was appropriate.
The teams wearing uniforms, marching down the center aisle of the auditorium, their names posted above the lanes in clear sight for anyone to watch the scoring as it progressed certainly brought an element of grandeur, style, and class to the event.
Once the top six team scores were determined, the final teams rolled off another series of three games the following night to determine the Classic Team Champions.
No team bowling events, before or since, consistently brought the professionals together and generated so much excitement as did the Classic Team Event. It was an event that every pro from the National PBA Tour was honored to be a part of even though the prize monies were not as lucrative as individual tournaments routinely provided.
It was not entirely about money, it was about pride and professionalism and about bowling as a team against other “loaded with talent” teams to find out which team was the “boss of the bosses” each year.
When the Classic Team Event died in 1079, a part of me did as well.
That was a signal that tournament promoters were more interested in the individual competitions due to the popularity of the PBA than the stoic and historic Classic Team Events associated with the ABC Open Championships.
Concurrently, team bowling was on a path to becoming of lesser value to proprietors and focus shifted to recreational bowling.
The once mighty 10 plus million sanctioned league bowlers in this country is now only 2 million bowlers, give or take. The days of every bowling center in town having scratch leagues on Friday nights attracting a full bevy of spectators to watch the city’s best bowlers compete each week disappeared.
The true glory days of team bowling in this game we love has been, in my words, reduced from a virtual Lion of Terror to an Ant of Equanimity.
For myself, I miss the Classic Team Event. I miss the scratch leagues with the best bowlers in the area competing each week and knowing that every kid in town who loved bowling couldn’t wait to get good enough to join those leagues.
Long live team bowling and long live our great game.