Many bowling alleys today are places where the martinis cost you at least as much as the bowling and a mirror ball twirls over neon lanes while a D.J. shouts in the booming dark. But those who roamed them between dusk and dawn in 1960s New York City recall places where kids too young to shave made more money in a night than their parents made in a year, con men faked heart attacks to evade the gangsters they swindled, and no one went home before sunrise.
It was a time “when America had a prince for a president and they called it Camelot, when Arnold Palmer was reinventing the golf tour and an arrogant kid from New York’s West Side was becoming bowling’s equivalent of ‘Fast Eddie’ Felson,” the bowling writer Dennis Bergendorf wrote in 1980 for Bowlers Journal, a monthly magazine founded in 1913.
That arrogant kid from the West Side, Ernie Schlegel, is now 69. A Professional Bowlers Association Hall of Famer, Schlegel was one of the most notorious practitioners of “action bowling,” a high-stakes form of gambling in which bowlers faced off for thousands of dollars.
“You’d go at 1 in the morning, and there were 50 lanes and the place was packed,” Schlegel said in a telephone interview. “The action was huge back then, like poker is today.”
The carpet soaked up the reek of gamblers’ cigars as handlers penciled their debts on the score table.
“Back then there was a lot of street money,” the action bowling great Richie Hornreich of Brooklyn said by telephone in 2009. “And if you didn’t have it, there were shylocks to make sure you did.”
If you did have it but preferred to keep to yourself, well, a good hustler found a way to change your mind.
“Before I bowled, I had one drink and threw a shot of bourbon on my head or down my neck,” Schlegel told Herm Weiskopf for a 1982 article in Sports Illustrated. “That way, when I got to the bowling alley, I smelled real good. Then I’d bowl guys who were sure I was drunk. I crushed ’em.”
In a 2002 article about Schlegel, Tom Clark, then a sports editor with USA Today and now the P.B.A. Tour commissioner, wrote: “It was in the dark bowling alleys nestled in the boroughs of 1960s New York City where Ernie Schlegel built his legend as an ‘action’ bowler, perfecting the art of the hustle.”
Action bowling lore rode Schlegel’s coattails into other mainstream publications over the years. One 1976 article John S. Radosta wrote for The New York Times, with the headline “Gimmicks Brighten Pro Bowling Image,” hailed Schlegel as the eccentric who brought the action to the P.B.A. Tour. That year, Schlegel toured the nation as the Bicentennial Kid, sporting patriotic regalia that included a white jumpsuit decked with blue sequins, red-white-and-blue shoes and aviator sunglasses. Weiskopf’s Sports Illustrated article described the night Schlegel entered Skytop Lanes in Hartsdale, N.Y., looking for action, and left hours later with $7,800 in cash.
That sum may seem large for an era when Schlegel took home about $42 a week working at a watch store. But for those who were there, it was not.
“If you could beat any of the top guys in their home alley, you could leave the place with your pockets stuffed with hundred-dollar bills,” the P.B.A. Hall of Famer Larry Lichstein said in 2009 at his pro shop in Cape Coral, Fla. “We had 900 bucks one night, my friends and I, and my friend said to Kenny Barber, one of the best around back then, ‘Would you like to bowl Larry?’ Kenny asked, ‘How much?’ My friend said, ‘Two hundred dollars a game.’ ”
Barber, Lichstein said, laughed and said, “I don’t pick up a ball for less than a grand a game.”
“Now Max, a bookmaker, saw me beat someone else, and he put up the money for me to bowl Kenny,” Lichstein added. “We bet $1,000 and we won, then $2,000 and we won, then $4,000 and we won that game. We kept winning, and Kenny and his guys quit. I had just turned 17; I was 145 pounds. That night we left with six grand between us; I had $2,000 in my pocket, and I knew that was how I would make my living for the rest of my life.”
The dark bowling alleys Clark recalled bred their share of con men and clowns with nicknames like Goldfinger, Tony Side Weight and One Finger Benny. And if the tales of the former action bowler Jim Byrnes are to be believed, the names might have been funny, but some of the situations they faced were not.
Byrnes, a Connecticut native who retired to Port St. Lucie, Fla., before his death at 76 in 2010, described Goldfinger as a “good bowler, but a little on the shaky side.”
Like Tony Side Weight, Goldfinger earned a reputation for lodging lead in his bowling ball to give it more “side weight.” According to the crooks whose livelihoods depended on the extent of their mastery over various measures of deception, extra side weight turned the ball so sharply toward the headpin that it obliterated the pocket with an authority no ordinary ball could muster.
Steve Harris, a former pro shop owner from Neshanic Station, N.J., said he would drill a hole in a ball, pour mercury into it, then plug the hole with a liquid that hardened overnight.
“As the ball rolled, the mercury would shift in the ball and it would go sideways and kill the pins,” Harris, 71, said. “I would also get lead sinkers from the fishing store and do that. But you could not control them. You just played with them.”
Somebody forgot to tell that to Goldfinger, who won four consecutive matches with his loaded ball before the gangsters got a clue.
“He’s throwin’ a loaded ball,” one of the gangsters growled behind Goldfinger’s lane as he pulled a five-foot cigar out of his face.
Byrnes recalled: “One of the guys took it to the pro shop to weigh it, and the ball had 9 ounces of extra side weight. So they took him out on the approach, laid him down, held the bowling ball up over their heads, and smashed his hand in a million pieces with it. I don’t think he ever bowled again.”
Tales of smashing hands and luring suckers with a stench of bourbon invite their share of skeptics. But if corroboration counts, then Harris, Byrnes and many other graduates of this male-dominated underworld have that much going for them. The stories they tell, and the details with which they tell them, are the same.
That is particularly true of the story of the infamous hustler Iggy Russo. If you wanted to bowl Iggy for any amount of money, you played by Iggy’s rules.
“He was another big con guy,” Dewey Blair, a former action bowler who now lives in Hopewell Junction, N.Y., said by telephone in 2009. “He couldn’t beat most bowlers with regular wood pins, so he had his own heavier pins in his car. If you could average a 190 on Iggy’s pins, you were doing pretty good.”
Harris said: “Iggy was older than us. We were in our teens, but he was 40-something. The guys who were older had two lives. But we were all kids; none of us had established families or lifelong pursuits.”
Those who witnessed the most spectacular incident in Iggy’s life as bowling’s pre-eminent escape artist would talk about it for the rest of their lives.
“I was there when he faked a heart attack,” Byrnes said. “He was in the 10th frame of a match against a guy named Stoop.”
Each man had bet on himself to lose, Byrnes said, “so they were dumping, bowling bad on purpose.” He continued, “Iggy didn’t know the other guy had bet against himself, too, and there were these big guys with guns betting on the match.”
The “big guys with guns” were known in the action as backers, humorless troglodytes who financed bowlers in big-money matches. Iggy had his backer just as Stoop had his.
“Dewey used to come in with a backer named Dobber who looked like he had sausage for fingers,” Schlegel said. “And there was this other shylock everybody called Max who would come in with a wad of cash that could choke two horses.”
Schlegel was no big fan of Iggy’s.
“Iggy was one of those guys who made the action bad,” he said. “He was the kind of guy who wanted to bet on one horse when there was only one horse in the race. He would rather bet the other way than win.”
Iggy liked to think his deliberately unremarkable appearance — glasses, crew cut, plain clothes and average height and weight — cut the image of a no-talent noodle begging to be fleeced of his lunch money. But those in the action knew he was one of the most accurate bowlers in the city.
“We would play a game called low ball,” Schlegel said. “You bowled to see who could end up with the lowest score, but you had to hit at least one pin every shot. So the lowest score you could get was 20, one pin on every shot with two shots per frame. Iggy Russo almost always shot a 20. He would take out the corner pins one at a time without hitting any other pin on the deck. He was phenomenal.”
If only Iggy had not blown his cover on a few games of low ball. But he had; and now, stepping up in the final frame to face a spare that almost everyone in the house had seen him make many times before, Iggy assessed the situation with the cunning acuity of a born thief. He could make the spare for a win and be shot by his own backer, or miss the spare for a loss and be shot by his opponent’s backer.
“Iggy heard he had some unsavory characters betting on him, and he couldn’t take the chance of losing because he didn’t know what would happen to him,” Mike Limongello, a Long Island action bowling star and P.B.A. Hall of Famer, said in a 2009 telephone interview. “So he got up to throw the next ball, and he just dropped the ball and grabbed his chest and faked that he was having a heart attack. They called the ambulance and everything.”
Byrnes said Iggy had good reason to take the possibility of death that night so seriously as to escape by pretending to be dying.
“We went down to Long Island one night with Bill Spigner and this guy Brian Hayes,” Byrnes said. “We bowled Tom Delutz Sr. We won a match and lost one, lost one and won one, etc. So Brian says, ‘All right, we’ll go for $700 this game.’ I say O.K. So now in the second frame I’m sitting at the score table. Billy comes up to me and says: ‘If ya lose the match, run to the lot! We don’t have money to pay them.’ ”
“So of course I am down the whole game,” Byrnes continued, adding: “There were about 50 or 60 huge guys in the back, and they were all betting on Tom. If I lose and can’t pay up, I’m a dead man. These guys will kill you. So I get up in the 10th and I need 29 pins to tie, 30 to win.
“Now, as nervous as I was, there was no way the ball would come off my hand smooth, so I move into the second arrow and fire it at the pins. Bill said it took two revs down the lane. It went rump, rump into pocket for a strike. Same thing for the second ball. And on the last shot I am saying, ‘Please, God, give me nine! Let us tie so I can get the hell out of here!’ I throw a strike, and Bill says, ‘Those were the three greatest shots you ever threw!’ I say: ‘Yeah, $700 and our lives? That ain’t bad!’ ”
For all the times they might have gone out looking to bowl for money and instead found themselves bowling for their lives, most veterans of the action bowling scene remember the glory more vividly than they remember the guns.
“It was good days,” said Limongello, 68, who now deals cards in Atlantic City but escaped the worst of Hurricane Sandy. “Good times. I wouldn’t give those days back for nothing.”
The former action bowlers agree on another point: those times would be impossible to replicate today. But everyone seems to have his own explanation.
Red Bassett, 71, a former action bowler now living in the Houston area, put it this way: “That’s easy. We don’t accept credit cards.”