It's Still the Greatest Bowling I've Ever Seen

Steve ThompsonAnalyst IIINovember 3, 2009

Over six months ago, I wrote an article listing my personal top ten sports events I'd like to see on DVD that have not been released yet.  All were hockey, baseball, and football games with the exception of the legendary April 4, 1970 final game of the Firestone Tournament of Champions Professional Bowling Tournament.

So imagine my surprise and delight to find that ESPN Classic channel was showing that tournament again yesterday and this afternoon.  It was the first time I had seen it since I saw it live as a teenager, 39 years ago, and I found it just as exciting as when I saw it back then.  The only quibble I had is that the original telecast was an hour and a half and ESPN had edited it down to one hour which dilutes some of the excitement and tension.  But even an hour is better than nothing.

The tournament was the climax of the PBA tour, offering its largest prize of $25,000 to the winner.  This may not seem like much by the sums offered today, but it was an enormous sum back in 1970, probably the equivalent of today's one million dollar first place golf tournament prizes.

To add to the tension, ABC offered an additional $10,000 and a new car to any bowler who would bowl a perfect 300 game in the final game.

I also had a personal reason for watching it again.  I come from a family of bowlers.  When I saw the original telecast, I had been five-pin bowling since my single digits and now I was an up and coming teenage bowler.

My parents bowled all three kinds of games.  They originally had been five-pin bowlers but had switched to 10-pin.  My father was such a fan, he had his own custom made 10-pin ball which I still own.

My parents bowled the pins from fall to spring, but during the summer they were lawn bowlers, a game more like curling.

In 1970, my father was president of his men's lawn bowling club section and my mother was president of the ladies section.

Shockingly, my father would die unexpectedly on the lawn bowling green later that September of a massive heart attack, so when I saw ESPN was showing the Firestone Tournament of Champions that was originally broadcast in the spring, I recall that this was one of the last sporting events we would see together on television.  Watching this again was like going back in time for me; when I think of this game, I think of my father and all the times we watched sports on television together.

The first match set the tone for the rest of games.  Like all true legendary sports events, the story was more about someone rising to the occasion instead of someone faltering.  There would be several great games this day.

In the first match, Jim Stefanich, the 1967 winner, opened with eight strikes and beat Barry Asher 269-217.

Next, Stefanich ran into the hot Dick Ritger and lost 263-215.  Then followed an anti-climatic semi-final in which Ritger defeated Mike Durbin 237-211.

And then came the most legendary match I would ever see.

Ritger entered the finals shooting a mind-boggling 250 average.  Incredibly he would actually increase it when it was over.

He showed he was ready by opening with a strike.  Then it was Don Johnson's turn.  He already had a memorable match play game earlier with Ritger, bowling a perfect game against him, 300-249. 

Johnson had come close to winning the big one before, finishing second twice, and fifth once, so there was a lot of pressure on him to finally go all the way.

Like Ritger, he opened with a strike and then followed with another (see photo above).  Ritger answered with two more of his own and Johnson replied in kind.  Some of Johnson's early strikes looked initially like misses, but he got great mixing action which tripped out the 4-7.

As the game wore on, the tension mounted.  Even though I knew the outcome, I kept respectfully silent like the live studio audience until the ball had been thrown on the lane.

At the half-way point, the game was still tied.  Each bowler had thrown six straight strikes. The two men had bowled a perfect game between them.

The audience was spellbound at the possibility of seeing two perfect games in the final of the PBA's greatest tournament.  After every ball, there was dead silence as the tension mounted, no coughing, no talking, no fidgeting.  Everyone was under the spell of what they were seeing.

Unfortunately, Ritger broke the spell, leaving up a four-pin in the seventh frame.  He followed that up with another single pin spare.  But he recovered in the ninth with another strike, leaving him poised to put the pressure on Johnson if he were to strike out.

However, Johnson continued to throw nothing but strikes.  The tension and the spell was unbelievable when he got the ninth one in a row.

The tenth one won him the match and the $25,000.  Now all that remained was to throw two more strikes to win an additional $10,000 and a new car.

Down went the next ball and Johnson got another strike.  He now stood on the lane with a $10,000 ball in his hand.

He let it go and flung himself face down on the lane.  The ball was in the pocket like the previous eleven...and a solid ten-pin remained standing.

Ritger helped lift Johnson to his feet and congratulated him.  Then he struck out.  He had bowled his best game of the afternoon, 268, a score that would usually annihilate an opponent, and still lost by 31 pins.  Of a possible 240 pins, only three had remained standing, two by Ritger, one by Johnson.

I was fortunate to see this legendary match again.  I also managed to find the edited ESPN version on YouTube, so that this article's readers who want to experience it for themselves can watch and feel it.

I also found an excellent website in which Johnson, now a grandfather, gives his personal reminisces about that day.  He still thinks it was the greatest match he ever played in and has no regrets about not bowling a perfect game.  He says that he is now remembered even more because it was only 299.

Sadly, this must have been one of the last of Johnson's public interviews because he died just like my father did, suddenly from a heart attack in 2003 at the age of 62.

As for Ritger, he went on to become a world-wide successful bowling instructor.

But both Johnson and Ritger achieved something more that day than the $37,500 they collected between them.

They passed into sports legend for which they'll always be remembered, an inasailable  prize, for a legendary bowling match, my father and I were lucky to witness.