Mike Lemongello had Ice Water In His Veins
Without question, one of the coolest performers that I ever saw was a player
from New York who bowled in the 60's and 70's, Mike Lemongello. He must have had
"Ice water in his veins". It is no wonder that he is in the PBA Hall Of Fame. He
was a great bowler and one of the true characters in the history of all sports.
We were at the old Showboat in Las Vegas in the early '70's and the PBA Tournament Director, Mr. Harry Golden, came to me before the practice session (on Sunday, as this was a long format) and asked me if I could go to the airport to pick Mike up. I knew Mike, and I said, "Sure". I arrived at the airport and there he was standing at the curb. All he had was a small, vinyl, carry-on clothes bag over his shoulder. I said, "Where is all your stuff?" He said, "This is it, I like to travel light." I assumed that he had transported his bowling equipment and his other luggage on the Tour truck with Larry Lichstein, who at the time was the PBA Player Services Director.
On the ride back to the Showboat Hotel, Casino and Bowling Center, Mike asked me to stop at Sears so he could pick something up. We went in and he asked a clerk where the men's clothing was. He then proceeded to buy: seven tee-shirts, seven pairs of socks and seven sets of underwear. When we got to the hotel lobby, he stood in line and attempted to check-in. They said they were sorry, but they were sold out. He hadn't bothered to make a reservation. He asked me if I had a roommate and I said no. He said, "OK, I'll room with you." I said, "OK." We went to my room and he unpacked his stuff (a few pair of pants, a few nice shirts, two pair of dress shoes and his shaving kit) along with the new stuff that he had just bought at Sears.
I told him that practice session was getting ready to start and he should go to the truck to get his equipment. He told me that he didn't have any bowling balls on the truck, that he would just use somebody else's. I thought that he was joking. We went down to the bowling center and I took my usual seat in the stands to watch ball reaction, which was part of my job as laneman. I noticed him wandering up and down in the settee areas, talking to a lot of the guys. This was the first tournament of the year that Mike was bowling (he had passed up the 1st 2-stops on the West Coast) and he was renewing old acquaintances. As he was talking with all of his old friends, I saw him continually picking-up their bowling balls and putting his hand in them. He was (as I found out later), going to use someone else's ball. One that "they" were not going to use, and one that felt half way decent to Mike.
In the past, I had heard a lot of stories about him, and now I was witnessing some of them first-hand. I knew right then that I was in for a real experience, but what I was about to witness was one of the most memorable weeks of my entire life. I have known and hung around with lot of characters in my day, but he is perhaps the most unforgettable one that I have ever met.
After the practice session was over (by the way, he didn't practice), I went up to the room to get some sleep. About 2-hours later, Mike came back to the room with one of his New York buddies, Jimmy McHugh. Jimmy was a brash, young PBA player with a reputation as an "action" bowler; one who would bowl anybody, for any amount of money, at any time. I was trying to sleep because I had been up all night doing the lanes. I didn't know Jimmy, but had watched him bowl a little on the Tour. In his N.Y. accent, he asked me if I wanted to play Gin Rummy. Before I could answer, Mike told him to leave me alone because I was a nice guy. Jimmy just looked down and never said another word, as if Al Capone had told him to shut up. They left to go down to the Casino to play "craps". I went back to sleep.
I got up around 10:00pm., had dinner and fooled around with the quarter slots for a while. At about 1:00am., I went into the bowl (which adjoins the Casino) to make sure that everything was ready for my nightly chores. The Pro-Am was finishing up and I overheard some guys talking about what had happened earlier that night at the dice table. They went into detail about how some PBA bowler was winning all kinds of money. I had to know who it was, but, they didn't know his name. They did say that the "guy" was very calm and never smiled or frowned the entire time he was rolling the dice. At that point, I just knew that it had to be Mike.
I went into the Casino to snoop around and heard a lot of noise at the main crap table. It was the only table in operation and it was packed with participants. I walked over closer to get a better look, and sure enough, Mike & Jimmy were still in the crap game. Jimmy looked a little bedraggled, but Mike still looked as fresh he did when I picked him up at the airport yesterday. I watched until 3:00am, and then went to work on the lanes.
I finished at 8:00am and waited for A-Squad to start. After watching the first two or three games, I wanted to go back to the room to get cleaned up. On my way to the room, I had to go through the Casino. You guessed itů.they were still rolling the dice. They were now there for about 17-hours. I caught Mike's eye and motioned for him to let me know how he was doing by putting my thumb "up" and "down" in one motion. He waved his hand with the palm "up" and then the palm "down", meaning: "so-so". I watched for about an hour. On almost every roll, every player would yell and holler. Every player that is, except for Mike. Nothing fazed him. I left and went to the room to shower and get cleaned up. When I went back down to see how A-Squad was wrapping-up, I once again had to pass through the Casino. They were still there. Jimmy was just about out on his feet. Mike looked as though he had just stepped out of GQ magazine. Not a hair out of place.
This guy was something else.
I reminded him that he was on B-Squad and he had to bowl in about an hour. He thanked me and said he would be there. I said, "What about sleep?" He said, "Oh, I'm ok, I got a couple of hours on the plane."
At the completion of bowling that day, with 360-bowlers in the field, Mike was in 5th place.
At the completion of his round, he left immediately for The Fremont Hotel to play cards.
He was too much.
On day two of the tournament (Tuesday) I finished the lanes at
about 8:00a.m. I hadn't seen Mike since the day before and figured I had better
go up to the room to wake him up. He had to bowl on the 1st squad today and it
started at 9:00a.m. I got to the room and he wasn't there. In fact, there was no
sign that he had even been there, as his bed hadn't been slept in. I took a
shower and went down to watch the morning squad get started, hoping that he
would be at the lanes.
Where was this guy?
After the ritualistic PBA roll-call, the players filed out of the locker room and headed for their starting lane assignments. I had checked the sheet to see where Mike would be starting and went to that pair, 49 & 50. At 8:50a.m., the players started to practice. Mike wasn't there. He finally showed up at exactly 9:00a.m., just in time to bowl, but didn't get any practice shots. I went down and asked him where the heck he had been. He said he played cards all night at The Fremont and had a little trouble getting a cab back to The Showboat. He said that he was "up" about 2-grand, so far, for the week.
He then proceeded to shoot 240 "over" (a 230 average) for the block of 8-games and by the end of the day he had moved up from 5th to 3rd place.
The next day (Wednesday) was the 3rd day of qualifying. This was: "cut-day". I didn't see him all day until 6:00p.m., when he was scheduled to bowl on C-squad. Once again, I asked him where he had been? He told me that there was a good $5.00 Pan game (again at The Fremont) with a lot of "action". Again, I asked him how he was doing so far with his gambling for the week. He said that he was "down" about 3-grand, but that it was "early". He never even "batted" an eye.
For the 3rd day in a row, on 3-different squads across the 70-lane house, he averaged 230. At the end of qualifying that day, he was the tournament leader.
At 3:00a.m. on Thursday morning, I was on my way down from my room to do the lanes. As I was about to get on the elevator, he was getting off. I asked him where he had been and he said that he had been playing dice with no luck. He said he had better get some sleep. I just shook my head in disbelief. This guy was too much.
He held his lead on Thursday morning and increased it Thursday night during match play. After bowling that night, he went back to The Fremont for some more Pan action. It was a big game with 7-players, including; Ernie Schlegel, McHugh, Golden and a few locals. I watched for a while then went back to The Showboat to get a couple of hours rest. I didn't have to go to work until 5:00a.m. on Friday because the finals didn't start until 11:00a.m. We always did the lanes in relation to what time the bowling started. This was to allow the oil to sit on the lanes the same length of time. This was a theory that we strictly adhered to.
In my opinion, Fridays (finals day) was always the most exciting portion of the tournaments. The "Leader-Boards" were always up-to-date, and everybody always knew exactly where they were. The great players liked that pressure. Some players would come on strong during match-play, and others would "squeeze" a little and drop back. The Bowling Centers were always jam-packed on Friday nights to see who would survive and "make-the-show".
"Mikey" or "Lemon" (as he was affectionately called), went 17 & 7 in the 24-games of match-play to lead the tournament. He bowled 7-blocks of 8-games each and averaged 230 in each one. He was in that enviable position of "waiting-in-the-wings" and bowling just one game on Saturday for the championship.
In Las Vegas, the T.V. Show would start at Noon, so I had to do the lanes at 9:00a.m. I got a wake-up call for 8:00a.m., and when the phone rang, I jumped up. As usual, Mike wasn't there. I got cleaned-up and went down to the lanes. At about 11:00a.m., Mike came in to the bowling center with his entourage. He came over to me and asked me if I could take him to the airport after the show. I said, "OK." I asked him where he was all night, and he told me about the "great" card game that he had been in at The Fremont. He said he was "only" down about $3000.00 for the week, but he was getting a good check in this tournament.
First place in this big event was: $11,111.11, (neat numbers for this particular Las Vegas tournament). I watched him as he went over to the practice pair to warm up. I noticed that he was using a different ball, and I went down and asked him about it. He said that the guy who let him use the ball that he had used all week had left town, so he had to borrow somebody else's. He said that "this" one felt OK.
He never ceased to amaze me.
In the championship match, Mike hit the pocket solidly on every shot, in every frame. He left a 4-9, two 4-pins and two ringing 10's on the left lane. He struck every time on the right lane and ended up losing the match. He looked the same on each and every shot; no grimaces, no smiles, no complaints. (In fact, he was probably the only guy who never (ever) complained about lanes). He earned: $7,777.77 for 2nd place (also a neat number).
I asked him what time his flight was, and he said, "3:30p.m." (which was in about an hour and a half). It was going to be about a half hour drive to the airport, so I said we better go. He said, "OK, I have to cash my check and I'll meet you at Valet." I waited at Valet for about 10-minutes, and then went back in to look for him in the casino. There he was, playing craps. I said, "Let's go man, we gotta go." "Just a minute", he said. Well, he proceeded to lose the entire check that he just earned. No emotion. He then proceeded to go to the cage and write a check for a $1000.00. I said, "What about your flight?" He said that he would get a later one.
I remember just shaking my head as I went back outside to move the car.
When I got back to the casino, he had caught a "roll". He had chips stacked-up on every number. I had never seen anything like it. ALL of the people at the crap table were in an absolute frenzy. Everybody that is, but Mike. He was calm and cool the entire time. When he finally crapped-out, he had $1200.00 on every number! He had a boat-load of chips in front of him and he asked the crap dealer for some racks. When he cashed in at the cage, he had: $11,000.00. I'll never forget what he said to me when he stuck that big roll of hundred dollar bills in his pocket. He said, "Now I think I'm even for the week."
On the way to the airport, I asked him if he ever slept? He said that he'd usually catch an hour or so here and there, and that he didn't need much sleep. He said that sleep was really a "waste-of- time". Then he asked me if we could forget about the airport for now, and if I could drop him off at The Fremont, because he heard that there was a great game going on there.
I wanted to say no, but just couldn't.
I dropped him off and went back to the room to pack-up and get ready to leave for the next Tour stop. In the corner of the room, I noticed that there were some dirty clothes lying on the floor. There was: seven tee shirts, seven pair of socks and seven pairs of underwear. I knew that hey were his, so I gathered them up, put them in a pillow case and took them down to The Fremont. I found him sitting at the Pan game and told him that I had some of his stuff. He smiled and told me to just throw it all away. He told me that it was just a waste of time to do laundry; there were more important things to do.
I just shook my head and left.
What a guy. What a week. What an experience.
He truly was, unbelievable.
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