What started out as a “top-10 moments” story to commemorate bowling legend Carmen Salvino’s 80th birthday on Saturday, Nov. 23 – along with his announcement that he plans to enter a record 29th PBA Tournament of Champions next April – seemed like an easy assignment, which quickly turned into easier said than done.”
Giving PBA’s original showman some time to think about his prodigious career, the next day he replied with a six-page fax that was essentially a resume of his career highlights and a simple message: “Can’t be done, too many,” he said.
What couldn’t be done was the PBA and USBC Hall of Famer’s ability to narrow a lifetime of accomplishments into 10 moments, top moments or otherwise.
What complicated matters was that there’s much more to his career than bowling. He’s a noted bowling ball scientist in the areas of physics and chemistry, bowling ambassador, author and health enthusiast. And he’s still a fixture at many PBA events, where he is sought out by many of today’s players for advice.
Like many players of his era, he was introduced to the sport working as a pinboy. That experience quickly turned into a passion for the sport because it allowed him to bowl when he wasn’t setting pins.
As a youngster during the Depression, Salvino, at age 5, and his family moved to Florida from their native Chicago, where his dad worked as a vegetable farmer in a job created by President Roosevelt’s New Deal Works Progress Administration (WPA) program. Salvino and his brother often helped their father, learning a strong work ethic in the process.
Eventually the family moved back to Chicago and one day while walking down a street in his west-side neighborhood he stumbled on a bowling pin laying on the ground outside of a bowling alley. Recalling that he was about 14 at the time, he walked into the establishment—called Amalgomated Center–which was a small private six-lane establishment located in an office building reserved only for those who worked in the garment industry in that part of town.
“Picking up that pin got me interested, so I walked into the place and started talking to the guy who was running it and he said he needed pinboys to set pins,” Salvino remembered. “He said I could make $2 or $3 a night, which was great money back then, plus we could bowl when we weren’t setting pins. That’s how I got started.”
He was a quick learner and by 17 was averaging well over 200 and competing as a high school bowler for Chicago’s Crane Tech High School. According to Salvino, he was the first person to letter in the sport which at the time was governed by the then American Junior Bowling Congress. Most high school tournaments were conducted at a bowling alley called Jerry Peck’s Lanes on Chicago’s south side where all the teams from around the state would travel to compete.
“It was really the early days of high school bowling,” Salvino said. “(Crane Tech) never had a bowling team before, but in that first year we beat everybody. I was averaging 211 at 17 back in the day when we were using rubber balls.”
That same year (1951), Salvino began competing nationally in the American Bowling Congress Tournament in St. Paul, Minn. (now the USBC Open Championships). In his first ABC, he remembered having to get permission from school officials to miss class for a few days to make the trip. He made the most of that first ABC bowling a 699 series in singles.
It wasn’t long before he burst onto the national scene. At age 19 he teamed with noted instructor and one of bowling’s legend of the day, Joe Wilman (23 years his senior), to win the National Match Game Doubles title in 1953.
“We were teammates in the Chicago Classic League and what made us successful was that we had the right mix of me being a hot shot kid and Joe being a guy who was established and had a lot of experience,” Salvino said. “He was good at being able to reel me in once in a while.
“The National Doubles title really kicked off my career nationally,” Salvino said. “By the time I was 21, I had won the Chicago Match Game tournament, had an ABC Tournament team title and was Chicago Bowler of the Year, so I was getting a reputation as a pretty good bowler by that time.”
Salvino continued to star in the prestigious Chicago Classic League and Chicago Traveling League where he held the high average for several years. He won his first ABC Tournament title in the 1954 team event with the famed Tri-Par Radio team and also appeared on every televised bowling show that became popular in the 1950s. He set the record for highest series on TV with 846 in 1955 on a show called Bowling Stars - also with a rubber ball, he is quick to note.
In 1958 he received a call from PBA founder Eddie Elias who was in the fact-finding stages of creating a professional organization and tour for bowlers. Salvino remembered a little known fact; the first time Elias approached any bowlers about the idea of a pro tour there was a meeting of seven “star” bowlers in New Jersey that essentially gave Elias the encouragement he needed to proceed with the idea of creating the PBA.
“To the best of my memory the guys at the first meeting were Dick Weber, Don Carter, Dick Hoover, Harry Smith, Buzz Fazio, Steve Nagy and myself,” Salvino said. “Long story short, Eddie liked what we had to say, and we liked what he had to say. The next meeting was held in Syracuse (N.Y.) where the 33 founding members signed on. If Eddie didn’t like what we had to say or we didn’t like what he had to say, who knows what would have happened.”
With the birth of the PBA Tour, Salvino’s career soon blossomed in the 1960s. He won 10 titles in the decade, the first coming in the 1961 Empire State Open in Albany, N.Y. His first and only major came in the 1962 PBA National.
By the late ‘60s Salvino’s game had declined. He went through a stretch of six tournaments where he didn’t even cash. That was a wake-up call.
Having a keen interest in the technical side of the sport, Salvino turned to his friend Hank Lahr who had an engineering and physics background to see if the answer could be found through science. The two collaborated and developed a formula called “The Equation” which broke a bowler’s stance, arm swing and approach into a mathematical equation that, after analysis, would show where a bowler needed to make corrections to improve accuracy.
The most obvious visible result for Salvino was a new stance where he would begin his approach with the ball down at his side. It was a technique incorporated by other bowlers since then, most notably Hall of Famer Wayne Webb who still successfully uses it.
It must have worked because Salvino went on to win seven more titles in the 1970s.
“That was kind of a revelation because after that I started about thinking scientifically of how I could improve myself in all aspects of the game – ball construction, how to drill the ball, shoes, you name it,” Salvino said. “Bascially, I felt I still had the physical ability at the time but not the knowledge.”
Through that experience, with no formal training and being mostly self-taught, Salvino found he had a knack for figuring out things scientifically.
“I didn’t have a degree or any formal training, but I could take a pencil, paper and a piece of clay and communicate what I needed to communicate to an engineer, physicist, chemist or whoever, and they could run the formulas to make it happen.”
In 1982 he was awarded the first of three patents for ball construction which he licensed to Brunswick. The first patent was for a two-piece weight block which resulted in the first dynamically balanced bowling ball. Previously, ball balance was only measured using static balance devices. In 1991, he received a patent for a “spin axis-weighted ball” and then a second generation of the axis weight concept in 1995.
But the time he spent in the laboratory took time away from the lanes and his competitive career began to wane by the late 70s. He revived it on the Senior Tour, where he won two titles, and wound up his competitive career with 17 Tour titles, two PBA50 (Senior Tour) titles, a pair of PBA regional titles and he was voted the 17th greatest player of all-time as part of PBA’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2009.
Even though Salvino has not won the Tournament of Champions, it holds some of his fondest memories. At the top of the list was bowling against another of the sport’s legends, Hall of Famer Dick Weber.
Salvino compared an evolving relationship of mutual respect with Weber to that of Formula 1 racing rivals Niki Lauda and James Hunt, portrayed in Ron Howard’s recent motion picture Rush.
“When we walked out of that movie I told Ginny (his wife of 58 years) it was like the relationship Dick and I had on Tour,” Salvino said. “When you’re just starting, you just look at each other as competitors - two fast guns trying to make a living,” he said. “As time goes on you develop respect, then admiration and then a bond you can’t describe. It’s more than friendship.”
Salvino also felt the personal loss of another fellow competitor when PBA Hall of Famer Billy Hardwick died on Nov. 16 of a heart attack.
“The first year Billy came out on Tour, he didn’t make a dime,” Salvino said. “But to come back and win four tournaments and player of the year was just unbelievable. He was one-of-a-kind, had a great personality and everybody loved him.
“Billy was one of those guys who could play off the corner, which you could do a lot in those days,” Salvino continued. “If the shot was a little farther inside, he wasn’t as effective, but when he got lined up off the corner his ball would hit like a truck. It seemed like he was knocking us off one-by-one so he made a lot of us learn out to play that shot off the corner.”
But now, at age 80, Salvino isn’t taking anything for granted. He works out regularly, watches his diet and plans to get in plenty of practice before the Tournament of Champions next April to record another milestone in a colorful career.