Bowling’s original superstar, Professional Bowlers Association and United States Bowling Congress Hall of Famer Don Carter, died at his home in Miami Thursday night. Carter, who had recently been hospitalized with pneumonia complicated by emphysema, was 85.
Carter rocketed to fame during bowling’s so-called golden era of team bowling in the 1950s, but at that same time he was a dominant figure in the emerging world of sports television. He is widely remembered as a member of fabled Budweisers of St. Louis, but most of the world got to know him through his appearances on television shows like Jackpot Bowling, Make That Spare, Championship Bowling and numerous others. He also traveled the world making appearances for Brunswick and Budweiser.
In great part due to his high standing among his fellow competitors, Carter became a leading force in the formation of the PBA in 1958. After appearing on an Akron, Ohio, radio program hosted by attorney Eddie Elias where he talked about the importance of building a professional bowling tour similar to what golf had created, Carter and his fellow Budweisers’ teammates (Dick Weber, Ray Bluth, Tom Hennessey and Pat Patterson) convinced a group of other players to pledge $50 each to back Elias’ plan and get the PBA off the ground.
The PBA was launched in 1959 with three tournaments, but only three years later it had a schedule of 32 events and Carter was one of its stars, eventually winning seven PBA titles including five major championships.
Carter won two of the seven PBA Tour events conducted in 1960 including the PBA National Championship. His other major wins were four BPAA All-Star titles (the forerunner of the PBA U.S. Open) and the 1961 American Bowling Congress Masters. He also won a record five World Invitational titles – a grueling 100-game marathon – and he won four ABC Tournament titles.
The St. Louis native first experienced the sport at age 13.
“We were very poor but my mother managed to give me one game of bowling for my 13th birthday,” Carter said in an article written by the late Hall of Fame bowling writer and long-time friend Dick Evans. “That was the biggest birthday present of my life. I enjoyed that one game so much that when one of my teachers started a bowling club after school, I signed up. Then I started setting pins so I could bowl and practice for free.”
It was at that early age that he also developed his unique, unorthodox bowling style, using a bent elbow and a deep knee bend to almost push the ball down the lane. Carter later said his technique evolved because he started bowling with balls that had very large finger holes, and that’s the only way he could hold onto the ball.
Carter also was a good athlete in other sports, including baseball. After serving a tour of duty in the United States Navy during World War II in the South Pacific, Carter signed a minor league baseball contract with the Philadelphia Athletics organization as pitcher-infielder. But after a year he returned to St. Louis and took a job at Golden Eagle Lanes where he began taking up the sport seriously.
His bowling career gained momentum in 1951 when he was invited to bowl on the Pfeifer Beer team in Detroit. Then his long-time St. Louis bowling friends, including Bluth, Hennessey and Whitey Harris, convinced Anheuser-Busch to sponsor their team. With the brewery’s financial backing secured, the group lured Carter back to town and their Budweiser team became arguably the most famous bowling team in history. A great deal of the team’s fame came after it recorded a 3,858 five-player team series in 1958, a record that stood until 1994.
At the height of his fame, Carter was as recognizable among American sports heroes as Mickey Mantle, Johnny Unitas and Arnold Palmer. And he accomplished something none of those sports legends had ever done when he became the first athlete in American sports history to sign a $1 million sports marketing endorsement contract with bowling ball manufacturer Ebonite in 1964.
Carter received virtually every honor available within the sport. He was voted Bowler of the Year six times (1953, 1954, 1957, 1958, 1960 and 1962). He served as the PBA’s first president. He was inducted into the ABC Hall of Fame in 1970, alongside his close friend and teammate Dick Weber, and he was a charter member of the PBA Hall of Fame in 1975, also joined by Weber, Bluth, Carmen Salvino, Harry Smith and Billy Welu.
Carter was selected as the Greatest Bowler of All-time in a 1970 Bowling Magazine poll, ranked second in Bowling Magazine’s “20 Greatest Bowlers of the 20th Century” poll in 2000, and he was voted the 11th greatest PBA player of all-time as part of the organization’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2009.
Because of deteriorating knee injuries, Carter retired from PBA competition in 1972 and settled in Miami, Fla., with wife and fellow hall of fame bowler Paula Sperber where he owned a chain of bowling centers bearing his name.
Because he hated to fly, and didn’t like public speaking, Carter rarely ventured far from home in retirement, although he did regain widespread public exposure in the 1980s when he appeared in a series of Miller Lite commercials featuring retired sports stars.
“I really don’t think anybody under the age of 65 remembers me,” Carter said about his Miller Lite appearances. “I’m really big with senior citizens. I’m famous because I’m the only guy to have two wives (Paula and first wife Laverne) in the (Women’s International Bowling Congress) Hall of Fame.”
Details regarding memorial services for Carter are pending.
“It is impossible to put into words what Don Carter meant to the PBA and sport of bowling,” said PBA Commissioner Tom Clark. “There is no way to fill the void left by his passing. Our deepest sympathies to his wife Paula and his family. He was a pioneer, a champion and will never be forgotten."
“It’s a sad day,” said long-time teammate Ray Bluth. “You’re never really prepared, and when you think of how many guys we had on our team over the years, I’m the only original and Bill (Lillard), who joined later, are the only ones left.
“Don was the greatest bowler of his era,” Bluth continued. “There was no one like him. Don was the star of the (Budweisers). He was our leadoff man. He wasn’t too gung-ho about that role, but he kept getting strikes and so did the rest of us, so he stayed there. It was just a great experience bowling with Don.”
“He’ll be missed. He was a great guy; he was hard to get to know, but once you did, he was your friend forever,” Lillard said. “They always ask who was the best bowler ever. There wasn’t much difference between some of the top guys, but Don beat me relentlessly, so in my eyes, he was the greatest ever.”
“Don was one of the greatest bowlers who ever lived, but he had some other things that made him great,” Salvino said. “He was a great athlete. He won two 100-game tournaments in one year and I don’t know how many other bowlers could take that kind of punishment. And he had the ability to focus better than anyone I’ve ever seen.
“On the lanes, he was in his own world, but off the lanes, he was a true gentleman,” Salvino added. “I had a lot of respect for him, as a bowler and as a man.”
“I believe he was the greatest bowler that ever lived," said PBA charter member and historian Chuck Pezzano. "He was a master of any condition, great in the clutch and great coming from behind. He had all the attributes of a great athlete. He was there to bowl and to win. I often thought that if I could build a robot of the perfect bowler, I would take most of the parts from Don Carter.
“He wasn't really emotional, but I never saw him so emotional as when he was honored as one of PBA's 50 greatest players. One thing that many people didn't know was that he was very compassionate and helped a lot of people who might have fallen on hard times during his career.”