Going back in time with bowling in Vegas

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My “real” job at Fair Grounds took me to Las Vegas last week on business. On the way from the Vegas airport to the Red Rock Hotel and Casino, the taxi driver told me, “The place has kind of a ’70s theme to it.”

Little did he know how true those words would be, and I wasn’t thinking of the modern themes and wood finishes.

Not only was my horse racing business at Red Rock, but the Professional Bowlers Association was culminating its 50th anniversary celebration – at the same time, in the same city, at the same hotel – with its annual Tournament of Champions and a gala banquet.

My all-too-brief visit to Red Rock Lanes took me back to the 1970s, when I was a pre-teen, watching the greatest bowlers in the world match shots over four days, first at Pelican Lanes, later at Expressway Lanes. I saw people I hadn’t seen – other than on ESPN Classic and YouTube – in three decades.

What you had at Red Rock was a lot like what you see in golf with The Masters. Last year, the PBA modified the field requirements for its Tournament of Champions and increased the field size, first to 52, and this year to 60. In addition to the more recent winners, former T of C winners and PBA Hall of Famers (with priority given to those who won most recently) were invited.

Then, on Saturday night, the tour saluted the 50 Greatest Players in PBA History and inducted a new Hall of Fame class at the banquet, which ESPN analyst and 28-year PBA member Randy Pedersen described as “truly the greatest event I’ve been a part of.”

If you lived in New Orleans and have followed the sport of bowling, you know that our city was a fixture on the PBA Tour during its first two decades. That included a run of 11 straight years (1968-78) on the Winter Tour, which culminated with a Saturday afternoon national telecast on ABC – appointment television in those days, as “the show,” as bowling insiders still call it, outdrew college basketball and even the aforementioned Masters.

Johnny Petraglia won at Pelican in 1971, the second of his record three consecutive Winter Tour wins that culminated a week later with a victory in the Firestone Tournament of Champions. I was 5 and just starting to learn to bowl. He was left-handed and so was I, and Petraglia became my boyhood idol. We stayed close through his annual visits to New Orleans.

Having not seen him in person in 31 years, getting to re-introduce myself – me at age 43, he at 61 – was quite a treat. But it wasn’t the only one.

Two of the oldest players in last week’s field, 70-somethings Don McCune and Carmen Salvino, both recalled fondly their visits to the Crescent City. McCune, the 1973 PBA Player of the Year who now lives in Las Vegas, was usually eating crawfish within minutes of arrival. Salvino still talks regularly with New Orleanian and former pro Dean Courtade.

Salvino, a charter member of the PBA Tour who counts a 1973 victory in New Orleans among his 17 career titles, was a fan favorite everywhere he went. He made a new fan during the last game of qualifying, walking into the stands to hand a teenage boy a bowling ball.

Since 1978, New Orleans’ exposure to the pros has been limited. The city did host the first-ever senior PBA event in 1981 and made a three-year return as a Winter Tour stop from 1988-90, but the Crescent City has watched the pros from a distance since then (unless you count Hornets guard Chris Paul hosting the inaugural PBA Celebrity Invitational in September in Winston-Salem, N.C.).

The game has changed immensely since then – the season has been reduced, ABC and the tour parted ways after more than three decades, and equipment changes have given power players even more of an advantage.

Parker Bohn III won that last stop in 1990 at what is now AMF All Star Lanes in Kenner, the third of his 31 career tour titles.

Four years ago, when Hurricane Katrina hit, Bohn was visiting sons Parker IV and Evan in Tennessee.

“I wanted to rent a van, load it up with what I could and drive down there,” said Bohn, who qualified for match play last week with a strike in the final frame of qualifying. “People told me I wouldn’t get close to the city. I found out about a truck that was getting ready to bring supplies, so I went to the nearest store, bought everything I could and got it on that truck.”

The PBA Tour may have been gone from New Orleans for two decades, but clearly, it hasn’t forgotten.

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Lenny Vangilder

Lenny Vangilder


Lenny was involved in college athletics starting in the early 1980s, when he began working Tulane University sporting events while still attending Archbishop Rummel High School. He continued that relationship as a student at Loyola University, where he graduated in 1987. For the next 11 years, Vangilder worked in the sports information offices at Southwestern Louisiana (now UL-Lafayette) and Tulane;…

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