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Milt Northrop’s Bowling: BPA All-Star League left a rich history

About this time 10 years ago, the Bowling Proprietors Association All-Stars League was wrapping up its 24th and final season on the local scene. It was a noble and novel experiment that sadly, in the minds of many of its bowlers, died to a variety of factors, some financial and some due to changes in the bowling culture.

Team bowling had its heyday in the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s when the old Courier-Express League was rolling at Sheridan Lanes, returned with the creation of the BPA All-Stars in 1981 and survived through the 2005-06 season.

On Friday, Greg Merkle and Jim Wolf, two former All-Star league presidents, recalled some of the highlights of the league’s existence.

Both agreed that Eugene F. “Whitey” Heidenburg Jr. was one of the originators and a driving force behind the creation of the BPA All-Star League, which at times was known as the Black Velvet, Miller Lite and Buffalo Beverage All-Star league during its existence. Another originator was Robert Schwartz, proprietor of Southside Lanes.

Twelve different bowling establishments put up $2,000 each to create a $24,000 prize fund. Teams representing the 12 bowling houses bowled a 36-week season, traveling to each lanes three times during the season on Saturday afternoons. Later contributions by the bowlers eventually brought the prize fund to $50,000.

Team rosters were created by a draft system. In order that there not be any dominant team or so-called dynasties, rosters were redrafted each year, although teams were allowed to freeze two bowlers. Also, the seasons were split into halves, with champions determined for each half of the season. Each half-season winner would meet in a three-game playoff to determine an overall winner.

Merkle bowled on an Alden Lanes team, a second-half winner, which defeated Manor Lanes’ first-half champions, 23-7, for the overall title in 2001. The Alden lineup included Ron Sutton, Bob Ujvari, Brad Hamilton, Curk Burgess and Mike Branham. Pat Brick, who bowled only 39 games, led the team in average at 223.85.

“Very seldom did the same team win both halves,” Wolf said.

Team matches were for 30 points, based on team game wins, total team pinfall and individual matches. A Baker format game worth three points was added in 1996-97. There was an emphasis on looking professional with a strict team dress code with standards for etiquette and conduct that were enforced seriously with fines.

A unique feature was the free substitution rule. Rosters sizes usually ranged between six and eight players over the years. A team captain could substitute a bowler, call in a replacement from the bullpen, so to speak, at any time. A potential sub often would be practicing on an adjacent lanes and be called in to take over for a struggling bowler.

“Sometimes, I used to signal ‘bring in the left-hander’ like a baseball manager,” Wolf recalled with a laugh.

Merkle remembered the most famous and most dramatic lineup change in league history. It came in an Orchard Park Lanes team match at Manor Lanes in the Town of Tonawanda.

“John Zak had the first 11 strikes in a game. Then he took himself out of the lineup and had Gene Rutkowski bowl the 12th. Nobody had ever heard of that happening before,” Merkle said. “John was being generous. He wanted Gene, his good friend, to be part of a 300 game. Gene left the 10-pin.”

In 24 seasons virtually every bowler worth his salt bowled in the All-Star league. Jim Wolf obviously missed his calling – he should have worked for a sports statistics operation because of all the records he kept and maintained.

Wolf is one of only five who bowled all 24 seasons. The others are Bill Truman, Kelly Utnik, Don Johns and Dave Miller, who also was the league’s publicist over the years. Utnik bowled 2,269 games over the life of the league. One-hundred-and sixty bowlers participated in 300 or more games.

According to Wolf’s record book, which is almost 3 inches thick, the only bowler to bowl all 108 games was Glen Ufland in 1995-96. “He averaged 203.7, which was pretty good for that time,” Wolf said.

The league roster ranges from many old-timers to some of the sport’s bright young stars of this day. The list of 12 original team captains includes Jim Schroeder, Al Strianese, Dick Ciprich, Art Jeziorski, Ange Ciminelli and Doris Coburn. Yes, there were several women who bowled alongside the men. Current PBA Tour star Ryan Ciminelli led the league with a 230.1 average in 2004-05, when he was a freshman at Erie Community College. Another tour pro, Jack Jurek, had high average six times over a span of nine seasons.

“Suburban Lanes had an all-women team,” Wolf recalled. That lineup was led by captain Carole Golebiewski and included Kay Jeziorski, Gail Simmons Krycum, Jan Attardo and Helen Nikiel. In the final All-Star League season, Liz Johnson’s 226.9 was high for the league.

The captains were drafted by the proprietors and then the captains and proprietors drafted the rest of the bowlers. Some other high draft picks in 1981-82 were Joey Bellanti, John Masiello, Phil Dewey, Bud Schwabl, Dennis Major, Matt Marzec and Ron Chader, all major names in Buffalo bowling history.

Average leaders over the year included names like Frank Manzella, Fran Bax, Butch Benhatzel, Jim Mee, Tom Harkins, Jim Reese Jr., Rich Tomaka, Bob Foss Jr., Carl Kinyon, Chuck Jagodzinski, John Meczynski, Mike Dirmyer and Bob Ujvari.

Wolf’s meticulous records also reflect the rise in bowling scores over the years, something some of the sport’s purists deeply resent. The league average in 1982-83 was 195.1 per bowler. It reached a high of 215.5 in 2004-05 but fell back to 210.7 in the final season, 2005-06.

“There was a feeling that there should be more difficult lanes conditions,” Wolf remembered. The host lanes determined and put down the oil pattern for each week’s matches.

The BPA All-Stars was an idea whose time came and, unfortunately, is probably gone forever.

Masiello tops Smith

Veteran bowler John Masiello, the 1993 Obenauer Masters winner, is the reigning champion on the Beat the Champ TV show going into Saturday’s telecast (4 p.m., and 11 p.m. Sunday on WBBZ-TV) after his 216-194 victory over Myles Smith of Cheektowaga in last week’s final match.

Will Gearhart of Amherst defeated champ Matt Zasowski, 248-246, to open the show before losing to Smith, 279-257.

Masiello, 60, will take on former champion Brandon Korczykowski of East Amherst in this week’s first match. Waiting in the wings are 20-year-old Chad Mee of Hamburg and Andrew Herbert of Eden, also 20.