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Action Bowlers

JIM DRESSEL INTERVIEWS BUTCH

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Up Close: Meet the Man Who Has Brought the Action Scene to the 'Net With Jim Dressel

BOWLING'S "ACTION" STORY could be told from several different perspectives, but as the main thread, we zeroed in on "AC Butch" , who had such love and reverence for the action scene that he actually came up with his own website, ActionBowlers.Com, a tribute to the bowlers and to the magic of that era. During the '60s, and then in a brief comeback in the '70s, he was heavily involved in the action scene himself. But he never had the intention of starting a website until he did a segment on the subject on his cable TV show. The segment was so well-received that he started a thread on the subject on one of the internet message boards. One thing led to another, and ActionBowlers.com evolved into a reality. BJI's Jim Dressel talked to butch about his website and his recollections of the action days.

Jim: What was the thinking behind the website?

Butch: The feel of the old days was something special, but when I went to all the major search engines to read more about the subject, I came up with nothing. I was totally amazed because this was big. In the whole tri-state area (New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania), there probably were somewhere around a thousand legitimate action bowlers. I just couldn’t believe there wasn't anything. So I started a message thread and a guest book, and somehow, the subject got the number one ranking on Yahoo. Suddenly a lot of the old action bowlers — along with the newer guys, of course — started to post their stories. I even heard from some PBA bowlers and some famous people.

Jim: Lots of prominent bowlers got their start in action. That's true even today, though it's not as big as it used to be.

Butch: Exactly. Like, even if they weren’t in an area where there was much head-to-head action, there were always pot games. Today, the brackets are big. Regardless, I just couldn’t believe the phenomenal stories that were posted, and really great comments and thank you's, including some from very well known people. Well, one day, the company that was hosting the message board went under. So I lost all of the original material. It was priceless. I just about gave up on the whole concept, but then I found out the ActionBowlers [domain] was available. That surprised me, so I bought it.

Jim: When was that?

Butch: Probably around the late '90s. I learned a lot about doing websites, and built ActionBowlers. I just wish I had all the original stuff, but I still get a lot of visitors to the website, although I haven't gotten anywhere near as many people coming in and writing things on the message board as I used to.

Jim: Well, a lot of those original bowlers are either getting long in the tooth, or frankly, have passed on.

Butch: True. But the action scene these days just isn’t as copious as it was back then. Back then, it was so big, it was like going to fantasy land. You would have to be there just to know how big it was... bigger than you could possibly believe it could have been. I was only exposed to a little of it, relatively speaking, into the late '60s and through the mid-'70s when it was starting to peter out a bit.

Jim: By the same token, you got enough of a flavor of it that it was like a Damon Runyon story unfolding every week.

Butch: Absolutely. The '60s was a fabled and colorful time period the likes of which you won’t see again. I mean, you could walk into one of 40 different bowling alleys and find big-time action. And at a few of them — even if you walked in late at night, or 2 or 3 in the morning — just about every lane in the house would be going with some kind of action, not to mention those who were betting on the side.

Jim: Well, many folks do have a gambling bug in their system, so enough of them were willing to either put up their own money, or somebody else's, to keep those lanes full.

Butch: Especially late at night when the [horse] tracks weren’t open, and there weren't that many card games. These were primarily the pre-casino days. In fact, the beginning of casinos — especially in Atlantic City — is what really what put the damper on the action scene.

Jim: Pot games were pretty much everywhere, but the magic was in those one-on-one matches, right?

Butch: Yes, they had a magic feel about them. These were people who, in their own way, lived in the fast lane of life and of gambling, and that got the juices of a lot of people flowing. Especially that one-on-one stuff, as you say. But 90% of the matches — at least in our area — were head-to-head, and the big money matches were huge, especially when you’re dealing with characters who get in your face. That’s where the PBA really went wrong at the beginning — they didn’t allow it.

Jim: They do now, of course.

Butch: They realized what a value it was in the late '90s when they tried to push Rudy Revs hard. Unfortunately, he didn’t do well on Tour. Otherwise, he might have become the biggest star in the world because of his in-your-face style.

Jim: What was it about the action scene that appealed to you?

Butch: I loved just walking in, not knowing what was going to happen or who I was going to bowl, getting a match, and getting up there and going head to head. It made you feel alive.

Jim: What was the best match you've ever seen?

Butch: Best money match was probably Richie Hornreich against Jim Godman. This was back in the '60s. At the time, Godman had just won the Firestone. But Richie took him. The scores were really high for the time. They weren't bowling on modern-day lanes with the modern equipment, yet they were throwing 250s at each other, which was unbelievable considering the conditions back then.

Jim: Where was it?

Butch: Central Lanes. The Tour was in the area, and they'd stop by Central because they knew they could find action there on a Saturday night. They'd probably come there thinking they'd find a guy like "Horn," or one of the other great bowlers like Ralph Engan or Lemon [Mike Lemongello]. But whoever it was, they didn't care because they were the best in the world and didn’t fear anybody.

Jim: Was it a freeze-out match?

Butch: No. You had very few freeze-out matches back then. However, these guys usually kept bowling until somebody went broke, almost like a freeze-out. There was no such thing as quitting if you were two games down, or whatever. That goes on a lot these days. But back then, ego was everything. I don't think they were worried about going broke.

Jim: You hear about some outrageous sums being bet. These guys couldn't all have been betting their own money.

Butch: Some did. Richie, for example, was often well-staked even though he came from a wealthy family. But he was a big bettor himself. This guy would bet $1,000, $1,500 in many of his matches without blinking an eye.

Jim: A lot of money for the time.

Butch: Sure was. The thing is, Richie was someone who also liked to play the horses as well as a few hands of poker. In fact, that was Richie’s downfall. As great as he was on the lanes, it may have come too easy to him. I think he needed the challenge of the track because he couldn't beat the ponies like he beat the lanes.

Jim: Yet most readers today probably never heard the name.

Butch: It’s a shame in a way. I mean, whether you're thinking of the PBA or just talking action, he may have been the best in the world, period.

Jim: Of course, I see that claim quite a bit about a lot of different bowlers on your website.

Butch: Everybody had their own favorites, you know, such as Jeff Kidder, and on and on and on. But as good as Jeff was in his time period — from the mid-'70s to about '81 or '82, I don’t think too many people felt he was better than Richie.

Richie did try the Tour, but his talents never seemed to translate well there.

Jim: Why do you think that was?

Butch: I don’t think he had the discipline to come in and go through the grind of what you have to do to be successful on the Tour. Besides, it didn’t give him the type of action he needed. You know, each week just bowling all of those games to qualify, and the focus needed to do that? It just wasn't Richie. He was probably thinking, 'Why can't I be at the track right now?'

Jim: This is turning into a Hornreich tribute. Not that he would mind, but looking through your website, there've been plenty of other stories like that about a bunch of other action shooters.

Butch: There sure are. Rudy Revs is someone who a lot of people know about today who had talent, plenty of bravado and lots of flare as an action bowler, and for big money. He wasn’t quite able to put it together on the Tour, just like Richie. Yet, you go back, and you’ve got guys like Mark Roth, Joey Berardi and Johnny Petraglia who were able to make the transition. And let's not forget Mike

Lemongello, plus players like Ralph Engan and others from the earlier eras.

Jim: You look at the four guys you mention, and they're not the in-your-face type of bowler; they're more disciplined, and even laid-back. In that respect, the guy who really surprised me is Ernie Schlegel, although it took him a few years to put it all together.

Butch: Ernie was the consummate action bowler who’s been out there longer than anybody. He never lost the love of the game, but he also never lost the characteristic of an action bowler. In other words, when you think of Ernie, you always remember where his roots are. He loved the action of the game, be it in a head-to-head match or on the Tour. He actually did have a problem winning on Tour for a while, but when he finally learned to do that, he did real well there, too.

Jim: Just because they're on Tour doesn't mean they won't try to hook up for matches when they can find takers.

Butch: Exactly. They still need that head-to-head action on the side. Even highly successful guys like Chris Barnes. He just loves to bowl for money. Norm Duke also has a good reputation for taking on all comers when the Tour goes into a new city.

Jim: The list of big names like that could go on and on, from Bo Burton to David Ozio, etc., right?

Butch: True. In fact, one of the greatest action bowlers of all time — and also one of the greatest PBA bowlers of all time — was Dick Weber. He actually goes back to the '50s.

Jim: It makes sense. In fact, there are some who say the action scene essentially led to the PBA.

Butch: Yes, that would be the case. Just look at the early PBA bowlers and the Tour pioneers... almost to a man, none was a stranger to the action scene. And since the Tour is a completely different animal, from the format to the type of different lanes that these bowlers are constantly going up against, the ones who met these new challenges on the Tour have to be great. Especially because the conditions are really tough.

Jim: What was the biggest money match you heard of, but didn't necessarily see?

Butch: That's tough to say. But it probably had to be one involving Rudy Revs, which started for over $10,000 a game.

Jim: Started?!?

Butch: Right, but it didn't actually go up from there. That was just the first game, then it leveled off for about $7,000 or $8,000 a game after that.


Jim: How much of that money was put up by the bowlers themselves and how much by the backer(s)?

Butch: Usually, the backers put up most of it. The really big gamblers like to be on their own. I'm sure the list is not limited to the guys I'll mention here, but I know guys like Jeff [Kidder], Richie [Hornreich] and Lemon [Mike Lemongello] really liked to bet it up on their own. Not that a lot of the other guys who I failed to mention didn't bet it up good, but their backers and the [guys in the] back end usually put up a good portion of the bets. Like Rudy; he usually didn’t put up big money on his own. He had two main backers at different times: Billy Red, and the number one backer in the world, Bill Daley. They loved the action. They were gamblers.

Jim: Did Daley also participate in the action scene as a bowler, or was he just a money man?

Butch: He was actually a very good bowler. He wasn’t in the class of the guys that he backed, but he was one notch under them. He was a legitimate 205, maybe 210, depending on the time period.

Jim: You mentioned Bill Daley before. What was it about him that you admired so much?

Butch: Well, I wouldn’t say I admired the person so much; it’s what he was to the world of action bowling, what he brought to the table. He created more matches, and kept that scene going more than anybody else who’s ever been in the game. He’s what action bowling is all about. That’s why he’s got the nickname, 'Mr. Action.' He was fearless. Nobody knows for sure where his money came from. We just know that when he went into the service, he did not have this kind of money.

Jim: One reason the action story is so fascinating to us here at the BJ is because Mort Luby Sr. used to get involved in that scene, setting up all kinds of matches during the All-Star, etc.

Butch: The action scene has been around for ages. It was alive and well in Chicago and Detroit, et al, in the '30, '40s and '50s, but it really just went through the roof in the '60s, especially on the East Coast.

Jim: Why do you think New York became such a hot bed? Was it the amount of money, or just the type of personalities and characters it attracted?

Butch: It all seemed to start when the big houses were finally built here. Prior to the late '50s, we really had no great bowling alleys to speak of. Oh, we had the Strand and the Biltmore, but most of the places were very small, and usually underground. Then in the late '50s, the business people came in and started building the modern establishments, and this just seemed to feed the action scene tremendously.

Jim: Did the proprietors play any kind of role in stimulating the action on the East Coast?

Butch: Some catered to it, but I'll cite the case of Howie Nobel, who was a big contributor to that scene when he opened up Avenue M in the late '50s or thereabouts in Brooklyn. Howie was a character in his own right. Anyway, in the early '60s, Mac and Stoop...

Jim: Mac and Stoop?

Butch: That's what they called them. A lot of the bowlers had nicknames like that, and in some cases, we didn't even know their names. Anyway, Mac and Stoop used to come to his place to bowl doubles. People started to come down to bowl them — they knew they could win a decent amount if they won because Howie backed them — and it wasn't too long before Avenue M became a big action house. You could walk in about 2 a.m. on a Wednesday, and have both sides filled with the biggest-name action bowlers around, with a few hundred people betting on the side. I wouldn't say Howie made a lot of money on the matches, but he had to be pulling it in just from the linage when most bowling alleys might not even be open. Other houses had big action once or twice a week, but his place was going seven nights a week for a few years.

Jim: On your website, you rated the top action bowlers, essentially by era, or at least the best of each decade. It was interesting to see that evolution.

Butch: They were all great in their time period. It would have been hard to rank them in order apart from that [chronological] listing, but I can tell you that a guy like Richie really does stick out more than any other bowler I can think of. You hear a lot of knocks against different guys, but Hornreich and Lemon are the two guys who just about had no knocks against them. And Richie was a small notch above Lemon.

Jim: Sounds like you knew Richie for a while.

Butch: It was a Wednesday night, and this skinny little kid walks in with these backers. You knew they were the money people because they just had that look — the clothes they wore, the way they carried themselves — and Richie walks in and challenges the house. This kid doesn’t look like he’s strong enough to pick up a ball, yet he went on to wipe out the house for the next four weeks. I mean, he came back every Wednesday night, bowled the top bowlers from all over and destroyed them.

Jim: Fascinating. If you had a time machine, who would be in a dream match that you could design?

Butch: A dream match for me would be seeing Iggy Russo bowl Rudy Revs. It would be at Central Lanes, and if I didn't have that time machine, we would have to bring Rudy in before he was even born.

Jim: Why those two?

Butch: Well, Iggy was one of the biggest characters in bowling, and Rudy was probably the most in-your-face action bowler of all times, not that Iggy didn't have that same characteristic. But Rudy was louder and more vocal. Iggy had a high-pitched voice that was very strange and, at the same time, very annoying. He would walk in with three bowling balls at a time when nobody had more than one. He used one crazy-looking bag to carry his equipment, and his pants would be tucked up over his socks, and he was just a total character. When he really wanted to bowl, he was one hell of an action bowler. Revs has a completely different style. He was a big guy with big, strong arms like logs, a big neck, and at 240 pounds and 5-foot-7 — or whatever he is — he was like a bulldog, and very vocal, very in-your-face, very expressive, much more than Iggy.


Jim: I've seen Revs in action, and while I never saw Iggy Russo, the stories surrounding this guy were quite intriguing.

Butch: That's probably because nobody really knew for sure how good Iggy was. He could do things nobody else could do. You didn't want to challenge him at picking off the 10-pin or the 7-pin. He was really accurate when he wanted to be.

Jim: So there were times when he didn't want to be?

Butch: I guess that means you heard he might be a big dumper.

Well, there was that one classic story when he faked a heart attack.

That was one of the strangest matches I heard about. He was bowling against Stoop.
Jim: So that's who he was bowling? Anything else we don't know about that match?
Butch: Well, Iggy had a brand new car at the time, and sometime after the match they just torched it. But, contrary to that story, there wasn't really a lot of dumping going on. The good dumpers never get caught.
Jim: Since you went to all the trouble of starting your own website — almost a shrine to action bowling — I take it you miss the action scene... at least a little.

Butch: I absolutely do. I miss it so much I couldn’t even begin to explain it. I’m so angry at myself for basically getting out of it in 1966. At the time, I was very young, and I quit to join the Air Force. But I regret that I didn’t stay with it for at least another 10 years. There’s nothing in my life that even comes close to the enjoyment and the pleasure that I got out of those years. I wish I could go back in time and re-live the whole thing and get involved in it even more than I was... and do it better, of course.

WHEN THE WILD< WILD WEST WAS LOCATED IN THE EAST COAST


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