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Earl Anthony's place in Buffalo bowling history was small but memorable

At first, we had only mild interest in the news that Barry Sparks, a freelance writer from York, Pa., had written a biography on Earl Anthony, who was a giant figure in that golden era of bowling when the sport was a weekly TV staple on ABC with Chris Schenkel at the mike.

Buffalo was an annual stop on the PBA Tour in the 1970s and early '80s, but the perception was that Anthony was not much of a factor in the sports history here.

Turns out that was wrong.

Anthony, once bowling's all-time winner, never won here in tournaments at the old Fairlanes in Depew or Thruway Lanes in Cheektowaga, but he had a second-place finish to Roy Buckley in the 1981 Buffalo Open at Thruway. That was after Anthony's career as the top bowler on tour seemed over following a heart attack he suffered in 1978. The left-hander died in 2001 at age 63 after a fall.

Even though, none of Anthony's 43 titles and just one of his remarkable total of 43 second-place finishes came in Buffalo, he did have two notable encounters with Buffalo's Tom Baker, the best male pro bowler this region ever produced. Baker won more titles both on the regular and senior tours and won more money than anyone from Western New York.

One Baker-Anthony encounter was in the Rolaids Open in Florissant, Mo., near St. Louis. It was at lanes owned by Dick Weber, Pete's Hall of Fame father.

Baker was only 26 and in his prime in a season in which he would win three of his 10 career titles and earn a career high in earnings. Anthony was 43 and three years removed from his heart attack.

Baker went into the stepladder finals in Florissant as the No. 1 seed being the top qualifier. It's not always the easiest position to be in, sitting out waiting to learn your championship opponents, especially if that opponent might be Anthony.

The ABC telecast of the final is available on YouTube with the mellow call of Schenkel detailing the drama. Baker struck in the seventh for a four-pin lead over Anthony, who converted a 4-pin for his spare. Then came the fateful eighth frame. Baker made a bad shot, the ball supposedly slipping out of his sweaty grip perhaps due to the heat of the TV lights. He left the 2-6-10, which he converted.

Anthony, though, struck in the eighth and doubled in the ninth. Now it was Baker's turn. He had to convert another tricky spare, the 4-7-8, to stay alive. Now, he had to mark in the 10th to keep some pressure on Anthony. To his credit, Baker made the 2-8 then struck on his last ball. Anthony did not flinch. Forced to mark, he struck to close out the match, take home the $16,000 first prize and gain his 33rd career title, which was then a record. It was the first of four tournament wins by Anthony that year.

Later in the season, Baker had three titles in a four-week period in California, Las Vegas and Denver. It was the greatest run of his career.

Anthony's next title that year came against Roy Buckley the next week in Peoria, Ill.

Later that season, Buckley, an Ohio pro, defeated Anthony in the Buffalo Open final at Thruway.

Later in 1981, Baker and Joe Hutchinson of teamed up to defeat Anthony and Nelson Burton Jr., in the Showboat PBA Doubles Classic in Las Vegas.

Sparks wrote the Anthony bio, "Earl: The Greatest Bowler of All Time," because he felt it was something lacking in sports biographies.

"It's mystifying how any athlete who is considered the greatest in his sport could go this long without a biography," Spark said. "Imagine if there were no biographies of Hank Aaron, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Peyton Manning, Arnold Palmer or Jimmy Connors."

Many remember Anthony for his "nerd-looking" crew cut with the horn-rimmed glasses. It's a look he dropped later in his career. He was most of all an athlete, with a brief pitching career as a minor leaguer in the Baltimore Orioles system. He did not touch a bowling ball until he was 21 and did not venture out on the PBA Tour until he was 31, doggedly taking all that time to hone his game for the rigors of the tour.

A native of the Tacoma, Wash., area, he didn't have to travel far for his first Tour victory in 1970 at the Heidelberg Open in Seattle. No. 2 came in New York City the next season.

Anthony's comeback from a 1978 heart attack was remarkable.

"When Earl came back, most players could not tell any difference," Sparks said this week. "Some thought he was even better, in better shape and focused more. He certainly wasn't an easier guy to beat."

In addition to his health issues, Anthony was going through a divorce and was virtually broke.

"It's a pretty amazing story that a lot of people don't realize," Sparks said. "Just to come back was one thing, but to come back at that level ... "

Later in his career, Anthony moved to Dublin, Calif., near Oakland, where he owned a lane.

Sparks interviewed more than 100 bowling figures and researched Anthony's career year by year.

"I tell you the most common things people said about him was what a fierce competitor he was, but a true gentleman," Sparks said. "I heard that over and over again. He finished second 43 times and that really irritated him. ... No matter how successful he was, he still stayed pretty hungry.

"I used a quote in the book from Bobby Knight: 'The will to win is not as important as the will to prepare to win.' Earl actually developed his game with five different ways to release the ball. He could change speeds, play any part of the lanes, could modify his game to fit the lane conditions.

Anthony also took his public persona seriously. It's said he never turned down a media interview and in his encounters with fans tried to make it a pleasurable experience. He looked people right in the eye.

It was the same way with his fellow bowlers.

"He treated every bowler the same," Sparks said. "That's why he was so feared and respected by his peers."

The book can be purchased at www.earlanthonybook.com, with 10% of the proceeds to be donated to the Earl Anthony Scholarship Fund managed by the United States Bowling Congress.

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