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In Print: Carmen Salvino's life in the bowling lane

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When professional bowler Carmen Salvino turned 35, he started having trouble with his game. The year was 1968, and the soft shellac finish on most bowling lanes had recently been replaced by hard polyurethane. The change put Salvino, like most "hookers"--bowlers who use a quick wrist turn to make their balls curve--at a disadvantage.

Salvino, a Chicagoan since his teens, had been a boy wonder, turning pro at 17 and winning eight individual and team titles before he was 25. He held nearly 20 titles by 1968. But by 1969, he was throwing badly. Other bowlers made fun of him behind his back.

With his friend Hank Lahr, then also a pro bowler, Salvino set out to scientifically analyze his style and change it to suit the new lane surfaces.

"Hank and I would sit down with a pencil and paper and work out hypothetical bowling situations," Salvino writes in his new book, Fast Lanes (published by Bonus Books). "If I threw a ball this hard, with this much wrist turn, on this type of surface, what would happen?"

For several weeks, the two didnt go near a bowling lane; instead, they discussed energy, rotational and translational forces, and friction. Some days they talked for 15 hours straight.

Salvino started winning tournaments again. His winnings rose from about $12,000 in 1968 to $19,380 in 1971. He won nine more titles by 1984 and was inducted into five halls of fame by 1985.

This story is also the turning point in Fast Lanes. The book is half autobiography and half advice from the pro. Sandwiched in between are glossy black-and-white photos of Salvino on the lanes, Salvino with his family, and Salvino with old teammates and fellow hall-of-famers.

Fast Lanes has hit the stores right when bowling's popularity is on the upswing: the yuppie crowd has made the bowling lane one of its favorite retro hangouts, there are now 252 intercollegiate bowling programs, and bowling will be a demonstration sport at the 1988 summer Olympics.

Salvino believes the sport never really went out of style. "Bowling goes in cycles like any other sport, only it's never gone on a down cycle," he told me recently. "It just keeps reaching plateaus."

Such confidence is characteristic of Salvino. He sometimes brags about his bowling prowess and admits his reputation as a braggart in the same breath. "You've got to have a very strong ego to succeed in sports," he says.

Salvino started bowling when he was 12 and working as a pinsetter at the Amalgamated Center at and Van Buren. His family had just moved to Chicago from Florida, where a crop failure on their farm had left them penniless. Working at a bowling center, Salvino says, "was the only way I could get money to bring home and participate in a sport."

At 15, his average was already 193, as high as many older, professional bowlers. At 17, he took a week off from school to play in his first professional tournament, as a member of the Alcazar Hotel's Classic League team.

After he graduated from Crane Tech, Salvino worked as a stock boy for a mail-order house and continued to bowl for the Alcazar team. He quickly gained a reputation for being loud and cocky. He'd challenge anyone to a game, and in the 50s, when it was impossible to make a living on tournament winnings alone, he made good money as a hustler.

He became a minor celebrity when television started to broadcast bowling in the early 50s. He appeared about 20 times on Championship Bowling, the brainstorm of Chicago adman Walter Schwimmer, which got its start in 1952.

Salvino's signature mark was jumping excitedly after a good throw. "I've always been flamboyant," he says. "That's just the way I feel when I bowl."

In 1955, two years after she beat him in three games on their first date, Salvino married Virginia Morelli. In 1956, he gave up hustling as a way of supplementing his tournament income and started endorsing products and conducting clinics for the American Machine & Foundry Company.

Salvino likes to talk about his professional eye. "When the average guy looks down a bowling lane, he sees 10 pins set up 60 feet away," he writes in Past Lanes. "I see the wear left by other people's balls. I see dry patches here and there. I see oil conditions that change from day to day and even hour to hour as the oil from the front of the lanes gravitates toward the rear."

Despite his professional status, Salvino claims he's never been overly concerned with money. He says his wife used to find his prize checks in his pockets when she did laundry, and that once he forgot to pick up his winnings before leaving a tournament.

He also claims to have had a hand the formation of the Professional Bowlers Association. He was the one, he says, who convinced his colleagues to listen to Eddie Elias, the Ohio lawyer who started the PBA in 1958.

Salvino, now 54, still competes regularly. One of the nice things about bowlers, he says, is that they can keep playing for years. "About another 20 years and I'm gonna turn it over to the kids."

He bowls fewer tournaments now, perhaps 15 or 20 a year when he used to bowl 35. But he already holds the record for the most career PBA tournaments: 680. By the end of this year, he'll have competed in 700.

Salvino tries to bowl 20 games four times a week, and practices more just before a tournament--usually at one of three favorite north-side bowling centers. He also walks, lifts weights, watches his diet, and takes vitamins. "To bowl like I bowl, you have to condition," he says.

His long talks with Hank Lahr got Salvino interested in research. He has patented a design for a weight-block, the mass of heavy material under the finger holes in a bowling ball that restores the balance lost when the holes are drilled. He has also developed a chemical compound for making balls; his design, the "Thunderbolt," is manufactured by the Ebonite Company.

Salvino now works as a consultant for Ebonite and says he spends 10 to 12 hours a day doing research. His next project is roller-skate wheels. "Once you learn how and why things work, you've got the key to making them work better," he says.

Fast Lanes costs $9.95 and is available at Kroch's & Brentano's, B. Dalton, and Waldenbooks stores, and at Bonus Books, 160 E. Illinois.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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