Detroit's legends of bowling

In 1905, Frish’s Tigers were the champions of Detroit’s Olympia Bowling League. Standing, from left, are Harry Beaton, John Frish, and Joseph Yergel. Seated, from left, Winfield Ramsey, Joseph Bauer, and Joseph Brichta.

The sport of bowling has been with us in one form or another since at least the Middle Ages and probably longer. After all, just about anyone, young or old, male or female, can roll a ball at some pins.

And it’s no accident that bowling is so closely identified with beer. It’s an indoor sport so you can put a bar nearby, and it makes you thirsty. That’s probably why most of the great bowling teams were sponsored by breweries. And the game lends itself to betting, however illegal that might be.

For all these reasons, bowling took root in this country and by 1850 there were 400 bowling alleys in New York alone.

The sport boomed in Detroit, where breweries sponsored bowling teams and leagues. Newspapers eagerly covered bowling and the move of a prominent bowler to another sponsor or team often got as much space as a new player for the Tigers.

In 1933 Joe Norris, with the backing of Detroit’s Stroh Brewery, formed a team with Phil Bauman, John Crimmins, Cass Grygier and Walter Reppenhagen. The Stroh team won the ABC National tournament in 1934 and the first five World Match Game titles. The bowling champions did nothing to diminish Detroit’s 1935 designation as “City of Champions” after the Tigers won the World Series, the Lions won the NFL championship, the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup, boat racer Gar Wood won the Harmsworth Trophy and Detroiter Joe Louis ruled boxing.

One of the youngest players ever to bowl for the Stroh team learned the game at an east-side bowling alley competing for 10- and 20 cent jackpots.

“My father took me to the old Chene-Trombly recreation,” Eddie Lubanski recalled in a 1969 Detroit News article. “Joe and John Paulus were the owners and they were instrumental in getting me started.”

Lubanski joined the Stroh team at the age of 15. Stroh won the all-events championship in 1951. At the time bowlers got paid, but still ranked as amateurs.

“There were a lot of great bowlers then. I remember Andy Varipapa and Ned Day. Joe Norris was great and Ed Easter was still averaging 200 in his seventies.

“Don Carter was a great one; there were so many it’s hard to say who was the best.

“For some reason or other Detroit was always a winner. I’ll bet if somebody looked it up they’d find Detroit won more major titles than any other city. We drew names from all over the country and we had the big sponsors.

“Detroit was the training ground. The good bowlers came here and went on to fame,” Lubanski said.

At the height of his career in the 1950s Lubanski earned as much as $50,000 a year. He rolled 11 300 games, two back-to-back, one on TV. He had a lifetime average of 204 and won three ABC titles in one tournament in 1959.

Another Detroit bowler, Fred Wolf, starred on the world championship Stroh team of 1940-1946. Wolf loved the home-and-home traveling team matches.

“We might leave their town 400 pins down but we’d be smiling because we knew we’d get them on our home alleys…400 pins was nothing,” Wolf reminisced in a 1978 Detroit News article by Doug Bradford.

“We’d get the lanes at the old Palace ready…oil cans, some rags to dress the lanes – nothing like it is today with all the modern equipment.

“But we’d get the alleys just like they would be for the match. And we’d practice. The other team would come in and wouldn’t know where to throw the ball. We’d kill ’em.”

A back injury ended his bowling career and he switched to radio, where he became a successful disc jockey and sports announcer.

 Eddie Lubanski in 1961

Eddie Lubanski in 1961.

Wolf had a television show, “Championship Bowling,” that ran from 1954-1965 and was carried in 200 cities. He was inducted into the ABC Bowling Hall of Fame in 1976.

Michigan also produced some great women bowlers.

She so dominated her sport during the 1950s and 1960s that The Detroit News’ Joe Falls compared Marion Ladewig of Grand Rapids to Babe Ruth and Gordie Howe. She started bowling in 1937 and ended her pro career in 1964.

During her best year, 1952, she won two national tournaments and every Michigan tournament she played in. Over her career she won the All-Star (now U.S. Open) eight times and the World Invitational five times. She was named bowler of the year nine times.

At age 81 in 1996 she carried a 160 average, but complained that, “Sometimes I get tired.”

 Michigan bowling greats Don Carter of Detroit and Marion Ladewig of Grand Rapids display their trophies after each won championships at the National All Star Individual Match Game Bowling Tournament in Chicago in 1954.

Michigan bowling greats Don Carter of Detroit and Marion Ladewig of Grand Rapids display their trophies after each won championships at the National All Star Individual Match Game Bowling Tournament in Chicago in 1954.

Another Michigan bowler, Dearborn Heights native Aleta Sill, became the first woman to top $1 million in earnings in 1999.

Detroiters set and surpassed a number of bowling milestones:

In 1958 a team of future Hall of Famers, Dick Weber, Don Carter, Ray Bluth, Tom Hennessy and Pat Paterson set a five-man team record score of 3858.

In 1999 A Detroit five-man team, Verlin Terry, David Boyd, Steve Bradley, Carleton Chambers and Earl Justice, broke that record with a 3870 score at the Shammy Burt tournament in Toledo.

In 2000, the Turbo 2-N-1 Grips/Remerica team, competing in the All-Star Bowlerettes league at Clover lanes in Livonia, hit 3557, a women’s world record. Lisa McCardy rolled 813 including a 300 game; Erica Mickowski, 764; Novella White, 693; captain Michelle Ewald, 659; and Shelly Zarick 628.

Michigan has 172,101 sanctioned bowlers, New York is second with 147,051. Michigan has 8,908 lanes, second only to New York. Michigan has 5,422 leagues, second to California and Michigan ranks fifth with 400 bowling centers.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News. To view images available for sale from our photo collection please visit our Photostore of historic galleries. )

By Vivian M. Baulch / The Detroit News