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MR BOWLING: The Bowling World Lost Its First Rock Star When Don Carter Passed Away

Debate over where Don Carter ranks in the mythical list of greatest bowlers ever may not yield a unanimous conclusion. There is no question, however, that Carter, who passed away in early January at the age of 85, was the first bowler to truly transcend the bowling center and work his way into the national consciousness.

As bowling historians often claim, Carter did for bowling what Arnold Palmer did for golf. He dominated the game with an engagingly unorthodox style and built an army of fans both in and out of the sport with a sincere smile, a dogged competitive spirit and a surprisingly keen understanding of business and marketing.

Along the way he transformed sport. In an 11-year stretch (1952-1962), Carter collected five World Invitational titles, four Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America All Star titles and bowled leadoff for arguably the greatest squad in team bowling history, the mighty Budweisers. And when Eddie Elias organized the Professional Bowlers Association in 1958, Carter’s impact and influence as the face of bowling was never more important. His notoriety helped the PBA bring true professionalism and national exposure to the sport.

In addition to appearing on television shows like “Make That Spare,” “Jackpot Bowling” and “Championship Bowling,” Carter became a spokesman in TV commercial for products like Viceroy cigarettes, Palmolive Rapid Shave and Wonder Bread. In 1964, Carter leveraged that popularity into bowling’s first $1 million endorsement contract, a deal he signed with Ebonite that included a Don Carter-branded line of bowling balls.

Carter amassed 10 PBA titles, but chronic knee problems cut his pro career short, and his participation and effectiveness on the lanes was only sporadic after 1965. Still, Carter’s impact as a champion and ambassador has never been questioned. He was voted Greatest Bowler of All Time by Bowling Magazine and Bowler of the Century by Bowlers Journal International, and is honored in the USBC Hall of Fame, the PBA Hall of Fame.

THE CARTER LEGACY
While Don Carter retired from bowling in 1972, his impact on the sport is not lost on today’s top bowlers.

Walter Ray Williams Jr.: Don Carter was one of the greatest players ever in our sport. I never got a chance to watch Don compete, but I did bowl with him in a Pro Am at one of his tournaments. One of the funnest experiences I had with Don was bowling in a doubles tournament with his wife, Paula. He was behind us cheering us on, so that was pretty cool.

Mike Fagan: When I hear Don’s name I think about the founding fathers of the professional side of bowling. He helped create a name for himself that will live on forever in bowling. I did get to meet him once at the Cream of the Crop Tournament in Florida. I can’t say I knew him, but his name will always have my respect.

Jason Belmonte: I’m not that familiar with the history of American bowling, but I talk to a lot of players and listen to all the old stories, and you gain a familiarity with the names. It’s almost like you knew them. Don was one of those guys. I’m always conscious of who has gone before me. I know he was one of the originals, a Hall of Famer who helped pave the way for all of us out here on tour. And I think that means a lot out here. Hearing what he did on and off the lanes is something bowlers should strive to be like. I don’t think I ever heard a bad story about him. I can’t say I really knew him, but I bowled in a few tournaments with his name on them and was lucky enough to shake his hand a few times.

Chris Barnes: Don was probably the first superstar of the sport. All the pros know that he signed the first $1 million contract. I always think of him, Dick Weber and Don Johnson as the pioneers who set in motion the things we get to bowl for now.

Bill O’Neill: To me you think “legend.” He was done bowling when I grew up, so I never watched him, but I always knew who he was and what he accomplished.

Kelly Kulick: The one word that comes to mind immediately is “legend.” When you talk about the greatest players of all time, he’s right up there. He took his success on the lanes and turned it into a major
business.