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Action Bowlers

ACTION BY GIANMARC MANZIONE



NY Times Action Bowling By Gianmarc Manzione

The Most Prized Email I Ever Received... AC butch


GianmarcManzione-240 -
AC! So great to hear from you, and what a coincidence to get an email from you on the same morning that I found a letter from Kenny Barber in my mailbox!


Thanks so much for your kind words about my work, and for the amazing effort you put in to displaying them on the Action Bowling website the way you did. Everything looks wonderful.

I have actually been watching the videos you have posted about yourself on youtube. You really convey a sense of the awe you felt back then, and even now looking back. What a moment in history for you to have experienced first-hand! Your experience is enviable to say the least. I loved the one video in which you remembered the time your dad showed up at the bowling alley and stared a hole through your skull while you bowled, and how it scared the crap out of you.

What I regret more than anything is that I myself will never be able to visit the bowling alleys that were around back then. So many of them are gone. I have memories of bowling at places like Leemark Lanes (bowled there a ton when I was a little kid) Maple Lanes and Rainbow Lanes, among other places. But Ave. M Bowl, Bay Ridge Lanes, Central, oh, SO many others, I'll never get to see. It kills me. Few things have broken my heart in my life than the day a couple years ago when I took my wife to Brooklyn in 2008 and drove to 88th Street to show her Leemark Lanes, and found instead the vacant lot left behind after it was torn down to put up a parking garage. I think I almost threw up.

To be in the Action Bowling Hall of Fame would be an extraordinary honor and the very thought of it got me emotional this morning. Whatever role I have played is miniscule compared to the giants I write about. I love these guys so much, and if anything I do helps keep the flames of their legends burning, man, that means absolutely everything to me. I just don't want people to forget the great stories that came out of that time and the characters that made them possible.

As for what to include in the video, well, here's how I fell in love with Action Bowling history: I grew up in Brooklyn, and by the time I got into bowling there I started to hear stories about the legends that still lingered in bowling alleys all over the area--names like Johnny Petraglia, Richie Hornreich and Mark Roth would get tossed around now and then, and I could tell from the looks in the eyes of people who talked about them that there was a lot more to those guys than a name. In pro shops around town I would see memorabilia like bowling balls with Mark Roth's signature on them, and I would stand and stare at it as if I had just discovered the signature of God. I was just in awe, and I didn't even entirely know why back then. I was just a kid, but I got the impression that something very big had happened there long before I came around, and the more time went on the more I wanted to know about it.

Later on bowling took a back seat to a love of reading/writing, but my love of the game stayed with me, and one day it occurred to me that I could combine these two passions by going back and finding these guys I used to hear stories about back when I was a kid and telling their tales. In 2009 I embarked on a furious search for as many of these legends as I could track down. Thanks to the internet, rumors of their whereabouts on ActionBowlers.com, and the White Pages, I was able to find them all over the place. I found and spoke with Dewey Blair by calling the bowling alley where I'd read he still bowled league, I met and struck up a friendship with Ernie Schlegel and he put me in touch with guys like Mike Limongello and Kenny Barber, both of whom I interviewed for several hours. And I talk to Kenny fairly regularly to this day; he and I have become friends. I interviewed Johnny Petraglia, and later tracked down Richie Hornreich in Bensonhurst (where I was born) and listened to his amazing stories over the phone. Later spoke to Mike McGrath, Barry Asher--the list goes on and on.

Then I found Jeff Kitter in North Carolina. I had seen something on your site about him now living there, so I looked him up in the white pages and called, and to my astonishment he answered the phone and I interviewed him for several hours. When I lived in Tampa I made the trip down to Larry Lichstein's pro shop in Cape Coral, FL and listened to his stories for hours. I just sat there and listened in complete awe of the man. What a character! I also tracked down lesser-known guys like Red Bassett, Steve Harris and others who played bit roles in the scene but who have amazing stories to tell. Steve Harris in particular has an incredible memory and unbelievable stories. I talk to him regularly as well; he is just great. And I thank God that I was able to interview Jim Byrnes before he passed away last year. And then, of course, I called YOU!

So now I am working on a book that will have many action stories in it. I've been slaving over it for two years, and my ardent hope is that somehow I will be able to tell these stories well enough for them to appeal to a main stream publisher who can help these stories finally get the attention they so richly deserve. I don't want to just sell the book to any fly-by-night publisher; I want these stories to really see the light of day with a main stream pub, because I think that's the least I can do to preserve these memories. That is very important to me, and I will never give up.

And that's basically it. I'm just a kid from Brooklyn who grew up in the distant aftermath of the Action Bowling history that preceded him, and took up the challenge of piecing that history together again as much as I could.

Again, really great to hear from you, AC, and please, if ever there is anything more I can do to help spread the Action Bowling gospel, I am always just an email or phone call away. And of course, we're both on Facebook!

Much Respect,
Gianmarc Manzione

Features Writer
Bowling News Manager



GianmarcManzione-RedBassett
Action Stories by Gianmarc Manzione

Memory Lane: Back in Central with Jeff Kitter
By Gianmarc Manzione
8/31/2009

Long before the World Series of Poker attracted legions of fans to their television sets to watch gamblers crowd a casino card table with millions of dollars in prize money on the line, a place called Central Lanes just a short drive north of New York City swarmed with money and matches whose legends no main event in Vegas will ever outlive, a place where Jeff Kitter bowled future Hall of Famer Johnny Petraglia for $2,000 a game equipped with nothing but a 10-pound ball and two fingers as Johnny used only his thumb, a place where you always knew you could find a black jack game out back whenever you had no match inside.

"You still weren't there at 5:30 in the morning with your date," Kitter explains. "This was gambling."

Welcome to Jeff Kitter's 1960s, a time warp in which Richie Hornreich gathers friends by a rainy window in Brooklyn's Bay Ridge Lanes and places bets on which rain drop will make it down the window the fastest, where a young Mike Limongello borrows enough from Max the Shylock to make it through one more match as long as he agrees to let Max bet on him, and the action at Central Lanes in Yonkers is far too real to be outdone by the manufactured thrill of jackpot sirens and neon lights thousands of miles away.

"There were very few avenues to gamble back then," action bowling legend Jeff Kitter explains. "There was no sports betting to speak of, the Meadowlands race track hadn't even been built, Atlantic City wouldn't become a gambling venue for another fifteen years, there were no lotteries, people didn't even talk about going to Las Vegas because it was so far away. Just as the place to gamble was the pool hall in the '30s and '40s, the bowling alley became the place to go and gamble in the '50s and '60s."

In the time warp of Jeff Kitter's memory the pharmacies close at five, cell phones are the stuff of sci-fi jokes and the neighborhood turns desolate after dark. But if you're looking for action after hours, you can find it any night of the week at places like Leemark Lanes in Brooklyn where Richie Hornreich is battling Mike Limongello for enough money to pay the rent for several years, or Central Lanes where Larry Lichstein glimpses Ernie Schlegel for the first time in his life and finds him "pounding his chest like a gorilla, saying he is the greatest bowler in the world."

"Everything was closed on Sunday, so when you went to Central Lanes on Saturday night or early Sunday morning, the town was desolate. You would drive up Central Avenue-the bowling alley would be on it-nothing was open. There wasn't a delicatessen open, there were no supermarkets. You were living in an era where there were four or five TV stations and only a handful of people had color TVs and cars didn't have air conditioning," Kitter recalls. "But the first time I went to Central Lanes it was five o'clock on a Sunday morning, I took the first bus up Central Avenue and the whole town was desolate, but I got off the bus and the whole parking lot of Central Lanes was packed, and right away I had this strange feeling, like 'What are all these people doing at five o'clock in the morning at a bowling alley?'"

Now that a parking garage stands on the plot of land in Brooklyn where Leemark Lanes once stood and the 42nd anniversary of the day two tricksters started a fire in a utility closet of Central Lanes and inadvertently burned it to the ground is upon us, many of the bowling alleys Jeff Kitter speaks of endure only in the memories of those who were there. They are the places that Kitter describes as "theaters" in which names like Dirty Bruce, The Hawk and Billy the Kid were as common as names like Joe and John and even "Benny Cigar" the beer delivery man and his 160 average could find a match for hundreds of dollars a game.

"What made the atmosphere almost carnival-like was that you could find a match between two 165 bowlers for a lot of money. Benny Cigar bowled Joe Bera the bookmaker I don't know how many times, and it wasn't unusual for them to bowl for four or five-hundred a game, and they were horrible."

It was a carnival in which Kitter happily indulged, where Iggy Russo, perhaps the most mythical character to emerge from the action bowling scene of the 1960s, drove up to every match with a collection of loaded balls and lead pins which, if you wanted to bowl Iggy for any amount of money, you accepted as part of the deal. It was a carnival in which you bowled for as much money blindfolded as you did throwing the ball between your legs, a carnival in which anything-from the rain in the window to black jack out back-was a chance at getting a taste of the action.

"One of the things I never see written about are novelty games, but there was a lot of gambling done on bowling in all sorts of different manners-low ball which involved trying to pick off the corner pins but if you threw it in the gutter you got 10 plus whatever you got on the next ball, then there were matches bowling palm ball, blindfolded, house ball, between your legs, between chairs, with the other guy's ball, I'm not even thinking of them all."

But as Jeff Kitter says, a place like Central Lanes was as much a theater as it was a bowling alley, a theater whose audience arrived from "as far south as Philadelphia and as far north as Boston," a theater whose participants-however far removed from "the action" as they may be these days-tell their stories as vividly now as they did the day after they happened.



Bo Burton: The Interview
Well, Bo, legend has it that in addition to your tour success you were one heck of an action bowler and actually put yourself through school as a kid with money you made in bowling matches. How much truth is there to that?

BB: Well, yeah. I bowled anybody, anyplace, anytime. And there was action on tour when I started on tour. Limongello and I used to bowl action when he was around. The action on the PBA tour quit when they started doing lane conditions and tricks. Once you started getting unequal oil and trick balls it ruined the action.

When I was in the Army I bowled in every state. When I was stationed in Denver I won a ton of money bowling action there. I bowled a ton of home and home matches, I bowled a lot of games for a lot of money – more than these guys today, trust me. And I put up my own money. How come none of these guys showed up for that big-money sweeper the PBA was trying to put on? You know, all these big blowhards. I guarantee you Bo Burton would have showed up. But I don't think they would have been bowling with their own money. If they had to come up with $20,000 out of their checkbook, not from anyone else, that's a different story, and that's how I bowled. I bowled for my own money.

So what's the most amount of money you every won bowling a night of action?

BB: In 1962 I won $17,000 one night and that was in between going to St. Louis University and whatnot, but I won $17,000 one night. Basically by 1962 they had barred me from every place in St. Louis, then I started bowling on tour. I used to go to Chicago to a Place called Marzano's. I got on the microphone and I said 'Anybody who wants to bowl action I'll bowl you.' And the guys who were going to bowl action from New York were all sitting around watching me bowl. I bowled everybody all the time, you just couldn't get anymore action on tour.

That's how I got back into bowling at Stuart Lanes here in Florida. My oldest son was bowling league and he came home one night saying he just lost all his money. So I went down there and it was some regional guys that were just better than him. So I started practicing and then one night sometime back in 2003 I was in pretty good shape and they said 'Hey Nelson you gonna bowl?' and I said 'Yeah, Nelson's gonna bowl, but this one is." So I bowled and just whacked them all that night. They figure old guys like me they can wear me out but I just kept getting better. Nobody could last the length with me. If you're going to bowl me 30 games you're going to lose. I was the best conditioned athlete on tour, everyone knows that. Nobody was close. I was closing in on under a five-minute mile running. Look at my record in the All-Stars. I bowled endurance tournaments, 100 games. I bowled another guy in a 100-game match and won, that's 100 games in a row. It takes 24 hours. So, I did my fair share of bowling but the only reason I stayed in the bowling business full time was the telecasts. I enjoyed doing it and it was my profession.


The Legend Of Kenny Barber
by Gianmarc Manzione


The fat and soggy stump of a cigar between his fingers, Kenny Barber explodes out of his brand new, jet-black Hyundai to greet me with a sparkling smile and a glowing pair of jade-colored eyes.

"I bet you didn't expect me to look this good!" he says.

A doo-wop station blasts from the car's open windows as he tells me about the eight grand he just won at a poker tournament last weekend, one of many card games he travels to throughout the state in pursuit of the kind of dream any action bowling legend harbors: an appearance in the World Series of Poker. With his silvered mop of slicked-back hair, polyester jump suit, and the rope of gold chains glittering down the front of an exposed chest bushed with black hairs, he looks like an extra from last week's Sopranos rerun.

I find him in the parking lot of a bowling center in South Florida, where, his life as an action bowling great long-ago terminated by a bad back, he moved from New York decades ago to escape a bitter nostalgia that aches more sorely with each passing year. A lot of things ache in Kenny Barber's life these days: the cirrhotic liver which, according to the doctor paramedics delivered him to when he blacked out behind the wheel of his car and impaled the neighbor's front door, "is about 90% dead." The new knees he needs.The carpal tunnel in the right wrist of his bowling hand that, as anyone who knew Kenny all those years ago understands, is the ache that has some stories to tell.

"The number one guys back then were Ralph Engan, Johnny Petraglia, Ernie Schlegel, Kenny Barber, Mike Limongello, Mike Chuchillo," PBA Hall of Famer Larry Lichstein recalls of his younger days in the action. "Now what happened was if you could beat any of these guys in their house, you could leave the place with your pockets stuffed with hundred-dollar bills. We had 900 bucks one night, my friends and I, and my friend said to Kenny Barber 'Would you like to bowl Larry?' Kenny asked 'How much?' My friend said '200 a game.' Kenny laughed, then looked at my friend and said 'I don't pick up a ball for less than a grand a game.' Now Max, a book maker, saw me beat someone else, and he put up the money for me to bowl Kenny. 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. That night we left with six grand between us, I had $2,000 in my pocket, and I knew that that was how I would make my living for the rest of my life."

If you think nearly 50 years is enough time for Kenny Barber to have gotten over that one, you don't know Kenny Barber.

"He averaged 240 that night for five or six games, he shot lights out!" Kenny recalls in a fleeting burst of anger. "I was the guy to beat, and he did it. He was the only guy to beat me like that."

That was then-a long-gone era when bowling centers in the Tri-State area were places where the carpet clung to the reek of a gangster's cigar as gamblers penciled their debts into the score table, days when some cities enacted ordinances to ban anyone under the age of 16 from entering bowling allies and billiard halls.

Those were also days when Kenny Barber's name made the cover of Bowlers Journal in April, 1963 for a three-page feature called "The Restless One" with an apt sub-title of "Kenny Barber hated everything until he found bowling." While the personality of a guy who earned nicknames such as "The Joker" and "The Rego Park Flash" inevitably factors into the piece-the feature describes a teenage Barber who gets thrills by "hanging around street corners, racing around in hot-rods and having a good time at society's expense"-Kenny Barber's bowling was the real story.

The youngest player to bowl in the All-Star Tournament in 1963-arguably the most prestigious and grueling bowling tournament in the world, which became known as the U.S. Open in 1971-a 17-year-old Barber competed alongside names like Don Carter and Dick Weber, carrying a 204 average for 52 games. A month after bowling the All-Star at 17, he shot a nine-game total of 1940 at the ABC tournament (now the USBC Open), shooting 671, 615 and 654 and ultimately placed 9th in All-Events. Before busting his back while running out the final shot of a 299 game one day, Barber recorded a high series of 876 with a rubber ball, shooting scores of 300, 299 and 277 in an action match at Jamaica Arena-"where 50 Cent is from," Kenny adds. Kenny averaged 258 for ten games that night.

"Kenny Barber was the Joe Frazier of my Ali. I always felt he was a hell of a bowler," PBA Hall of Famer Ernie Schlegel recalls. "We used to bowl in Emil Lence's Ridgewood Lanes. He would curl up into a little ball and explode at the foul line. So one night Kenny bowled me singles and the first game I beat him 300 to 279. That is first time I ever met him, and it was the first 300 I ever bowled-it was for a lot of money."

But bowling is hardly the only game in Kenny Barber's life, making his living over the years as the proprietor of pro shops from coast to coast, a stand-up comedian, a manufacturer of the "Strike K" bowling glove worn by touring pros such as Jim Pencak in the early 1990s, and, of course, a card player. His father Charlie, a great bowler in his own right as well as a brilliant musician who played bass and tuba with the likes of Arthur Godfrey, Tommy Dorsey and Fred Waring, also struggled to settle for any one life in particular. Every family has a way of doing things; the Barber family, however, has a way of doing everything.

Kenny turns the dial on the car stereo and stops on CCR's "Fortunate Son."

"This is all we listened to in 'Nam," he tells me before locating the piece of a hand grenade in the back of his skull to show me.
"I have escaped death so many times in my life," he says. "It's unbelievable!"
Any of those escape attempts could easily have been his last-nights when he did not have the money to cover a bet with the kind of guys who get their money one way or another,  places where you were as likely to glimpse a gun as you were to watch a game.

Here in South Florida, though, where a seething sun blanches the storm-proofed roofs of Burger Kings and Citgos that banish the state to a crush of homogenized towns, the money, guns and glory that Kenny remembers dissolve into the banalities of the present. But that's not to say that he isn't still pulling tricks.

"I just gave a testimonial about it last week," he begins. "It's unbelievable! 'Mona Vie,' this juice that's made from berries-this berry from the Amazon. The doctor told me my liver was 90% dead, I was in a coma for a day and a half. The doctor told me to get my papers in order, because I didn't have much time left. Then I start drinking this juice, I go back to the doctor, and he tells me he can't believe it-my liver's fine! I'm telling you, this juice-it cures cancer, prevents heart attacks, everything" he declares with an emphatic wave of his hand.


Memory Lane: An Interview with Mike Limongello, Pt. 1
8/4/2009
Those who remember when the name of PBA Hall of Famer Mike Limongello routinely found its place high up on PBA tournament standings might wonder where he has been since retiring from the tour, but those who knew Mike Limongello will not be surprised to learn where he finds work today: at a poker table in Atlantic City. "If you put Mike and Richie in a room and gave them $10,000 each, they would only be in the room together for five seconds," says Johnny Petraglia, who grew up bowling with Limongello and his fellow action bowling legend, Richie Hornreich, throughout the New York City area. "That is the way both of them were. Great bowlers, and loved to gamble." As Petraglia and any number of other legends will tell you, though, Mike Limongello is as legendary a bowler as he is a gambler, a man who could stuff thirty pins in the pit in the tenth frame for any amount of money just as coolly as he could wager an Everest of hundred-dollar chips on a single roll of the dice. Included among the six PBA titles Limongello won during his Hall of Fame career are two majors - the U.S. Open and the PBA National Championship, both of which he won in the same year (1971). Now the man known affectionately as "Lemon" in action bowling lore is back to share his tales of the famed action bowling scene where his name became legend, as well as memories of some of the mammoths of the sport. In this two-part series, Limongello discusses the day he discovered the greatness of Dick Weber the hard way, the time he won the U.S. Open with a ball he borrowed from the great Harry Smith in the middle of the tournament, his matches for thousands of dollars a game against some of the greatest action bowlers who ever lived, and other great stories.

Tell me about Richie Hornreich, the man whom some consider the greatest action bowler that ever lived.

ML: I am still very good friends with Richie. I deal poker at Taj Mahal, and Richie comes here once a month or so. He was really great, we started really young. The first time I bowled him he was one of the best bowlers in Brooklyn and I was one of the best on Long Island. He was only 15 and I was 17, and at that young age we were the best around. So they hooked a match up with us at Leemark Lanes in Brooklyn. We had never met before, but I had heard of him and vise versa. So it was a Friday night and we must have bowled all night, we started at midnight and went to four or five in morning. The money that people were betting was unreal. Everyone in Brooklyn was betting on him and all the Long Island people were betting on me. We were bowling for $2,000 or $3,000 a game - a lot of money, especially for the early 1960s. Over the next year or two we would bang heads about once a month or so. There were three or four guys that were the toughest to bowl, and Richie was right there on top. I think he is in the top three best I ever bowled in a match. It always just came down to who didn't get wrapped the most. We both banged the pocket all night, and we were both very good in the clutch. Richie was a great clutch bowler, neither of us would back down. For spectators it was a great thing to watch - two of the best around going after each other. After that we became good friends.

Richie loved the action but he loved other action too - the horses and all that. He didn't love the tour, but I loved the tour because there was always action. We played golf for money, cards three or four nights a week. It was just like bowling action. There wasn't a lot of money on tour - the guys on tour now, they are just devoted to bowling. There is no action, they don't play cards. But back then, of the fifty or sixty who toured every stop there were thirty of us that were all action guys. The director used to write out sheets for us, Harry Golden would tell us where the action was. Harry would tell us what hotel rooms the card game would be and we would go right to the action. We'd play card games all night and bowl the next day without sleep.

Some people say that Richie, if he wanted to, could have become another Dick Weber. Do you agree?

ML: Richie could have been great, but he didn't have the drive. He didn't like the tour. He is a great guy, a really great, close friend of mine. But some guys have tremendous drive, he didn't. He was just great under pressure, you know. We bowled tremendous matches. People would come from all around just to watch us bowl. They were just nail-biting, tough drag-out fights. Neither one of us would back down. There were some guys, I would put so much pressure on them every game that they would fold up. But not Richie. He was good.

I could have been better, too. I think I could have been if I would have devoted more time to practice. But I loved the action too. Sometimes after I bowled qualifying I would play cards all night until 4am instead of getting a good night's sleep. Many tournaments I'd come back the next day and I wasn't fresh and I didn't bowl as good as I could have. I was so addicted to the action that bowling was secondary. When you were young you could do it. When you got older it was tougher.

Now Dick Ritger, there was a guy that was methodical. He never played cards, always went back to his room. Salvino hung around but wasn't an action guy. Weber wasn't. A lot of the top names weren't. But some like Dave Soutar, Dave Davis, Don Johnson - they were all action guys. They would play cards but they were great too. Johnson had 26 titles and he would play cards all night. Some of us could do it, other guys couldn't.

Obviously one of the great characters to come out of the action bowling scene was Iggy Russo. What can you tell me about Iggy?

ML: Iggy Russo, he was just one of a million. Unbelievable. He was kind of crazy, he was nuts. He wasn't great, but he was good hustler. Well, he was better than people thought he was and first of all he pulled a lot of dump jobs, a lot of shady matches. He was a good hustler, he would bowl just good enough to win so everyone thought he was a 180 average bowler. He used to bowl a lot of guys that weren't that good, 180, 175 average guys, and he would just bowl good enough to beat them. He would beat them a couple games and then dump a game back and let a guy win a game or two. He got away with murder, he screwed so many people. How he didn't get shot I don't know. He was like a legend dumper and people would still bet on him. He would bowl matches where you'd say 'He can't be dumping this match! It's too easy, he can't lose to this guy.'  He would be dumping and you'd never know it. One time at Gil Hodges Lanes he was dumping a match, and he gets up in the tenth frame and needs a mark to win lot of money. But he was betting against himself. So he is sitting in the settee area before he goes up to bowl. I wasn't there, but good friends of mine were there, and some shady mob guy comes up to him and says 'You better get a mark or you're a dead man.' I guess he didn't know what to do, so he gets up in the tenth frame, drops the ball, and fakes a heart attack. He lays out on the approach grabbing his heart and he is acting like he can't breathe and they called an ambulance and they took him away. He knew he would get beat up or killed, so that's what he did. And that's the type of guy he was. He wasn't going to win the match and lose money.

Did you find yourself in a lot of dangerous situations back then?

ML: Oh we went to some bad places sometimes, but I never really worried about it because I wasn't alone. You know we used to go to some places in Brooklyn that were a little shady. But if I travelled alone, yeah, it might have been scary. But we used to go with guys, friends of mine that were big - two guys that were body guards with me. Back then you know it never happened, you never thought about it. There weren't robberies and all that. Now it could happen more. So many people could have gotten robbed so easily, but like in Central you could have walked out of there with tens of thousands of dollars and you never heard of any robberies. I don't know what it was. Thank goodness the crooks never came to the bowling alley. These days you would be more scared of it happening.

Another guy you hear a lot of stories about is Kenny Barber.

ML: Kenny Barber! Oh, Kenny was the loudest nut in the world. He was funny, just a crazy guy. You talk about a hustler? He came in one night to bowl me in Sunset Lanes, I had never seen him before or heard about him. So we set up a match, he is going to bowl me. So we start bowling and he is in my home house now, right, and some people were in from Brooklyn or Queens. He was pretty good, threw a big hook, kind of a spinner. Good, tough action bowler. If I bowled him on ten different conditions I would beat him on eight out of ten of them - he threw too big a hook to beat me. Anyway we're bowling and I beat him the first game and I am beating him the second game, and about halfway through the game all of a sudden he starts having trouble with his thumb hole, dropping the ball. But now he is hustling me and I don't know it. He is slowing me down, every other ball he is complaining about the thumbhole, and before you know it he threw me out of whack. He beats me the second game and the third game. I think I beat him the fourth game, so we're even. He beat me one or two games more than that, threw my timing out of whack. I was taking five, ten minutes between every ball. After that I said 'That's it, no more.' And we never bowled each other after that.

He was just a wild nut. After meeting him and hearing stories about him, at first I didn't like him at all. The first time I met him I didn't like the way he acted, but then I said you know, the guy really is a nice guy, but he was crazy. He just wasn't sane. He just did wild things. I don't know what he was involved in and I didn't want to know. He wasn't the kind of guy I wanted to hang around with, he could have been dangerous.

You used to bowl as Ernie Schlegel's doubles partner in your action days, right?

ML: Yes, Ernie was one of the best. They set up a match with me and him at Whitestone Lanes and we bowled all night long. After the match was over and the smoke cleared we were even, and he says 'We're gonna make a lot of money!' I said 'What do you mean?' I was unknown at the time, it had just started to get out that I was pretty good. So he said 'Listen, we're not ever going to bowl each other again. I am going to take you around. I have some places to take you where they don't know you and we'll bowl doubles." I said 'OK.' So we used to go up to Raceway. Well he took me in there and he says 'Look, I will set up a match.' No one knew me at all in that area, and he set up matches against guys that were really easy matches to start out with, every weekend, every Friday and Saturday night for 6 months we never lost. I am out there trying hard and Ernie is doing nothing, shooting 180, 190 and I am going 'What's wrong with this guy? I am shooting 220, 230 every game and we're going back and forth and more and more people started betting on the other guy, the hometown guy. Now the money is getting big. More and more people are betting, the matches are getting up to $500 a game, $1,000 a game. Now all of a sudden Ernie starts shooting 250s. I still didn't know what was going on. He pulls out another ball and shoots lights out. In those days, it was so different from now. Then guys bowled 'til they were broke. You didn't bowl a few games and quit. In those days guys would bowl until they had no more money in the house. But you started out slow, not the top bowlers right off the bat, and you just kept winning, kept beating guys week after week. Then the matches got harder and harder, but we still won every week. It got to the point when there was nobody left to bowl but there were always places to go. We used to travel to Connecticut.

Ernie was famous back then for his antics on the lanes. What was Ernie like back then?

ML: When Ernie was bowling against me, he would try to trash talk, and I said 'Ernie, that might have worked on some of the other guys you bowled. But if you want to beat me you're just going to have to beat me. You're not going to rattle me or shake me up, no matter what. It's not going to shake me.' He laughed and said 'Yeah, you're right.' But he would rub it into guys when we used to bowl other teams. He was really bad, he would really rub it in trash-mouthing people. If he got a strike in the tenth, he would get a light hit and he would yell 'Fruit salad!' He would get the whole crowd going. He was a wild man, a showman. I was real quiet.

Schlegel sings the praises of an action bowler by the name of Dewey Blair. Did you ever have any matches against him?

ML: That's an amazing story. When I used to bowl action in Central I always heard about this guy Dewey Blair. He was the best anybody had ever seen, but I had never seen him and he never went on tour. Finally one night up in Yonkers they set up a match with me and him, and everybody is betting on him. So the first game, he beat me 269-268. The next game we both start out with first six, and I get up in 7th frame and I get the first 7. Now he throws a strike and he has the first 7 too. But on that 7th strike he rips his thumb, a big chunk of skin comes off, and he couldn't finish game so he had to forfeit. It was like the weirdest thing in world. This was going to be an unbelievable match, and now he rips his thumb and couldn't finish. And that was it, I never bowled him again. I was so upset because this guy is the best I have ever seen. He didn't throw much of a ball. He threw a straight ball, but he was deadly accurate. He never came around again. He was like a ghost - a legend, but a ghost.   
Memory Lane: An Interview with Mike Limongello, Pt. 2
8/5/2009
Yesterday PBA Hall of Famer Mike Limongello reminisced about his days as a young, legendary action bowler from long Island. Today, we conclude our interview as Limongello remembers more of his legendary matches against action bowling greats. While Limongello may be best known for his now-mythical, all-night action matches against the likes of Richie Hornreich or Ralph Engan for thousands of dollars a game, though, he also proved that he could contend with the greatest names in the sport during his days on the PBA Tour, winning two majors in one year when he took the U.S. Open and PBA National Championship titles in 1971. Here, Limongello also recalls the day that Dick Weber kept him off what would have been his first telecast, the time he borrowed Harry Smith's bowling ball in the middle of the 1971 U.S. Open and won the tournament with it, and memorable matches against legends like Carmen Salvino and Ray Bluth.

A lot of the guys who were a part of the action scene back in the day say they were the best days of their lives. What made those days so great for you?

ML: To me I was just so much in love with the action. I loved bowling, I started when I was 14. I wanted to be a baseball player and when I used to play baseball the manager of the baseball team took us out bowling after the game. I fell in love with it right away and wanted to be a bowler. I just knew I had the talent, and once I started bowling for money and action I didn't want to go to school anymore. One of my home houses was Sunset Lanes. We'd bowl pot games for two or three bucks a man. I got out of school, the school year was over and summer was starting. I was about a 175 average and I bowled the whole summer. I must have bowled 150 games a week. I went from 175 to just about a 200 in three months. I just got so good in three months from bowling every day, I don't know how I did it. But it just was natural to me I just loved the action. The friends we had, such a great time. Everybody liked the action, everyone had this group of guys traveling with them. They used to bet on me.

The action was a lifestyle. So many guys were into it. It was just a fun, fun lifestyle. In other words it was an addictive thing. You just loved the action, the money was there all the time. You could be broke but you always had a shot to make money and it was fun, exciting and fun. I wouldn't have changed those days for anything. It was a really unique time to be bowling back then, from 1960-61 to '65 when I went on tour the action was really big, 7 days a week and it was in a different house every night. One night it was in Brooklyn, the other night was in Queens, then Jersey another night. Yonkers was big on the weekends. At Central Lanes up there they had about 50 lanes, you could go there after leagues were over on Friday night, say ten or so, and go nonstop through Sunday afternoon. I would go there Friday around 11pm and you literally by one or two in the morning just about every lane was going, there was a different match on every lane. It was just before I went on tour, we just traveled the action circuit every night. It was a group of guys that I lived with on Long Island and it was maybe seven or eight of us. We were all bowlers, and we would just go every night wherever the action was and just bowl whoever was there.

At any time we could lose whatever we had in our pocket. I could have two grand and blow it easy, or I could have $50 and go into the house and just beat everybody in the house and turn $50 into $5,000. I did it so many times with a small amount of money. I won a lot of money bowling and the only way I lost money was in doubles when I couldn't get matches anymore. I would have to bowl with a 170 or 180 bowler against two 200 bowlers and you just lose matches like that.It was a different world. It started in the 1960s, '61 and '62 and went to maybe the late 70s, about 15 years. But from '61 to '70 it was just all over the place, and then it just died out. There was no action anywhere anymore. It was really a life not a lot of people would know about and what's funny is kids nowadays come up to me where I work,  some kids come into Taj Mahal-this actually happened. Some young kids came in from Long Island, a lot of people where I deal know me and that I used to bowl. I'll be dealing, and somebody might be saying something like 'Hey, this dealer, he used to bowl on tour.' 'So this young kid from Long Island sitting at the table, the kid was about 25, and he says 'You're the Lemon!' and I go 'Yeah.' And he says 'Oh my God! You're a legend!' and I am like 'How do you know about me? You're 25.' He says 'You're a legend in Long Island, everybody knows about you.' I was shocked. I know a lot of people know about me, but here is a young kid and he is a bowler and he bowls in league, wants to be a pro maybe, he says 'Yeah the guys always talk about
the old action days. Look under
actionbowlers.com.'

A lot of people call Ralph Engan the king of the action. What was your estimation of Ralph Engan?

ML: Ralph Engan was a tough guy to bowl. We had some great matches, me and him. He would beat me, then I would beat him, we would go back and forth. But one night in Central Lanes it was really late, like six or seven in the morning, and most of the action is done. I had been bowling a couple of matches earlier and Ralph was there betting on other matches. Well it came down to nothing going on and they said 'OK, Ralph, bowl Mike.' The house was betting against me and I am bowling Ralph heads-up for three or four grand a game because everyone in the house was betting on him. I beat him like four in a row, and that was the end of the match. But he beat me a few times too. I didn't really want to bowl him, it was a tough match.

What was it like to make that transition from action bowling to the pro tour?

ML: The action and the tour were very different things. My goal was to be a pro bowler, I didn't want to be a hustler for rest of my life even though I loved it. I wanted to be on tour. When I went on tour the reason I started out so good right away was that when I got up against the best guys on tour I wasn't afraid of them. I was in awe of them, I had seen them on TV, OK, but in my mind I said 'If I bowl as good as I can bowl I can beat them.' That is how I felt in my heart. So bowling in the finals against Dick Weber or Salvino or Harry Smith I wasn't afraid of them. Of course they beat me sometimes. I am not trying to brag, these are my honest feelings. The first finals I made was in Florida. It was the fifth or sixth tournament I bowled in and the first game I bowled Salvino, he shot 250 and I beat him. The next game I bowled Harry Smith. He shot 240-something and I beat him. The next game I bowled Ray Bluth. He started with the first 9 and I beat him. I started out strike, spare and struck all the way out. He had the first 9 and left the 2-4-5 and shot 277. I struck out and shot 280, and I am floating on cloud nine. I just bowled three of the best bowlers I have ever seen on TV and beat them. And I settled down after that. It was a 16-man finals. I was hanging in there in 5th, 6th or 7th place-somewhere in that area. They only took the top four to make TV. So now it comes to the final game and I am bowling Dick Weber. So it's whoever wins the game makes TV, whoever loses is the alternate. That was the first time that I was nervous and had to win a game to bowl on TV, and I am bowling Dick Weber and he is in his prime. It was a close match all the way. Then it came down to the tenth frame and it was really close, and I got up first and I had to double to win and I get up in the tenth and left a four pin. He had to strike to beat me and he just struck out in the tenth and he beat me 218 to 210.

How do you deal with that, coming so close to the show and missing it by just 8 pins?

ML: You know, I didn't even care. I wasn't even disappointed to not make the show. I just thought 'Wow, I just bowled Dick Weber!' I didn't choke, I bowled good. But I was nervous. That was one of the happiest times on tour for me, knowing that I was good enough. I said 'OK, I made it. I bowled all these good guys, beat some really good ones, and one of the great ones beat me. Dick had to strike out in the tenth to beat me.' But Dick was great.  He just got up and threw three strikes like nothing. It wasn't like I was rooting against him. I was like in a different world, it was so great to me that I was able to watch somebody that great. That was a turning point in my career. Five or six weeks after that, I won. At that moment, I knew I was good enough.

What other memories of Dick Weber do you have?

ML: Dick was a great guy. A lot of times I would have talks with him and I would say 'God, how do you do it?' He was about thirteen years older than me. And a lot of times I'd say 'How do you stay so good? How do you keep going?' To me at that time he was older, he might have been 33 or 34. I said 'What gives you that drive? You've done everything.' At that time he had won so much. He just said he loved it,  loved the game, the action, the competition. You know, when you bowled him you could see the fire in his eyes. He wasn't giving an inch. He was totally focused. He was just mean on the lanes, he was like a tiger on the lanes, just mean. Off the lanes he was a great guy. Like Marshal Holman or Pete Weber. On the lanes he is a lion.

Your Hall of Fame entry on the PBA's website describes you as "one of the top clutch bowlers of all time." How did you control your nerves under pressure?

ML: I guess I just did it so much. There were times I bowled with nothing in my pocket and I HAD to win the game, I didn't have enough to cover the bet. I think I just did it so much and so often it just became second nature to me. The biggest thing was I loved it so much it didn't really affect me. In other words I actually loved the pressure, I would wish when it came to the tenth frame-let's say the match was even-I would actually root for the guy I was up against to throw a double so I would have to double to beat him, because I wanted to see how good I could be in the clutch. I didn't want him to screw up. Money wasn't important at the time, I wanted to beat him under pressure. I wanted him to get a double to show I could get up there and beat him. I used to do that all the time. I knew I was going to do it. I knew I could do it. The thing I would concentrate on was the basic principles. If you get nervous and do not think about what you're supposed to do you'll forget your basic fundamentals and you might choke. But if you have a set way of bowling that keeps you in time-you know, keeps your timing right to make a good shot-concentrate on that and not on 'Oh, God I have to get a double to win!' That's what I concentrated on, I got my focus down so good that my concentration was so good and the pressure never came into my mind.

There are stories online about you not even using your own equipment on tour. Is this true?

ML: A lot of times I would borrow someone else's ball. I always believed before this new equipment that if I was having trouble with the lanes there was another ball that would react better than my ball. So if I was struggling, most of the time when we went to an alley on tour I would have one or two balls at the most, the black rubber and a plastic ball-that was it. Now guys carry fifteen to twenty balls, there are so many different things to choose from. If I was bowling I would bring one ball with me, maybe borrow someone else's. I would walk around and ask when I bowled the U.S. Open, after the first qualifying round I was in 150th place. At that time we bowled four 8-game blocks. I said  'I am dead.' I go into the paddock, talking to Harry Smith who had four bowling balls. I am putting my hand in his stuff-his hand was almost identical to mine, same span, grip, everything-and I say 'Harry can I try one of your balls in the next block?' So I get this ball, and whatever kind of balance he had in it, top weight, whatever-in those days all you could do was play around with different weights-the ball just reacted perfectly and I averaged 220, 230. I kept moving up the line and went on to win the tournament. There I am using Harry Smith's ball, and it went all over the paddock, 'Lemon's using someone else's ball!' I used to do that a lot because I always knew in my mind that there is always a ball for every condition.

Why did you leave the tour?

ML: I hurt my back in my late 20s and had to lay off a whole year, doing rehab, weights, training, stuff like that, and it just never helped. I had to have an operation, and then it just kept giving me problems. In my later days on tour when the lanes got tougher for me, you know, it wasn't as easy. Then when I got married everything changed. It was more pressure for me and harder to handle it because I was not just bowling for me anymore, and I was having trouble performing. And even if I did, my fundamentals weren't working. In other words, that's when pressure can get to you-if you can't perform anymore. In my prime, it never got to me. So when I was not able to hit the lanes the way they were doing them I lost interest, the fun was gone. I won 2 majors in 1971 in my prime. I won the U.S. Open and the PBA Nationals, and I got married that same year, and then the year after that was when I hurt my back. I started losing interest and I quit the tour after the winter tour in '75. I moved to Vegas, met my future wife, and I lived in Vegas from '75-'78. Then when we decided to get married we moved back to New Jersey. I had odd jobs here and there, bartending and different stuff, and in the '90s I got into dealing poker. I have been in Atlantic City ever since. I still love the action. I work part time, I am on social security now. I deal three days a week and play poker three times a week. I only live ten miles outside the city, so at least I am still in the action.
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Mike Limongello Had Ice Water In His Veins


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