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The 11th Frame: Video of a 7 series PURPLE HAMMER testing illegally soft illustrates why USBC urethane ball hardness tests are needed — and where it goes from here

JEFF RICHGELS | Posted: Saturday, February 15, 2020 2:00 pm

A screen grab from Ron Hickland's YouTube video illustrating how heat can lower the softness of a urethane ball such as this PURPLE HAMMER.

(Note: It is my style for 11thFrame.com to fully capitalize the names of bowling balls to make them stand out and be found easily by readers. Also, this story is so important it is free for all to read. My subscription fee is $1.99 per month, or $19.99 per year.)


Within the past month, the simmering issue of whether illegally soft PURPLE HAMMERs were being used on the PBA Tour emerged publicly, capped by this lengthy story I posted Monday and then Friday’s announcement by USBC that it would be checking all "recently released" urethane balls at next week’s U.S. Open.

I’ve made this story free for anyone to read, but the story posted Monday is for subscribers only.

The basics of the story are that PBA Commissioner Tom Clark confirmed that PBA addressed the concerns raised during the Summer Swing back in August by having USBC experts fly in for middle-of-the-night testing of every ball on the PBA Tour truck with their calibrated durometer equipment and all tested legal, with the PURPLE HAMMERs not the softest.

However, the story turned before the start of the 2020 PBA Tour when the allegations focused on certain PURPLE HAMMERs — notably the older 6 and 7 series balls — with one player putting it this way: “It’s not the balls on the truck — it’s the balls in people’s bags.”

Sean Rash brought the issue public on FloBowling the night of Friday, Jan. 17, and J.R. Raymond added his voice with two YouTube segments on the topic after he returned from competing in Monday's PBA Tournament of Champions PTQ.

I wrote that it seemed that whether there is an older batch or batches of illegal PURPLE HAMMER balls that some players may be using is a question PBA must definitively answer, or it’s hard to imagine the speculation, innuendo and bad feelings going away. 

The bottom line is that either there are illegal balls being thrown, knowingly or unknowingly, or doubt is being wrongly cast on the accomplishments of players winning with PURPLE HAMMERs.

In an interview with 11thFrame.com, PBA Commissioner Tom Clark called the accusations “baseless” and all the talk “irresponsible” speculation and said that no one has presented any data to back up any claims.

So I went looking for evidence, asking on Facebook if anyone had a 6 or 7 series PURPLE HAMMER that they could have checked and share the results. I found multiple people with such balls, but managed in a couple of days to only find one who could get their ball to a pro shop that had a durometer for an unofficial test that would be recorded on video. Since Friday's USBC announcement, I've had multiple pro shop owners report multiple 6 and 7 series PURPLE HAMMERs that were illegally soft, but no other balls.

The reality is durometers are not common anymore in bowling — I cannot recall the last time I saw one used — whereas they once were an everyday fact of life in top-level bowling like the PBA.

Even less common are the calibrated durometers in the special housing that enables them to be considered official USBC tests of a ball’s hardness — the reason Clark asked USBC to come to the Summer Swing.

Here is the video done by Lou Lakota, showing his PURPLE HAMMER at room temperature testing 65, 65 and 68 with a hand-held durometer. It is imperative that anyone reading this story or watching that video understand that a hand-held test is not an official test, whatever may have been the case years ago!

 

But it is a good indication that USBC and/or PBA need to do official tests, which USBC late Friday afternoon announced it was doing before the 2020 U.S. Open that starts Tuesday.

Lakota said he had no idea that his PURPLE HAMMER, which he said he hadn't used for some time, might be illegal and said he would no longer use it: "My conscience won't let me throw that ball anymore, doesn't matter in league or tourney. Maybe if they still tested the balls like when we were younger, they might have caught it."

Lakota said he would like to see USBC test his ball to get an official ruling on whether it is legal.

Lakota said he and Chris Regas from Tom Hinz's T&D Bowling and Awards in Joliet, Illinois also checked a Storm PITCH BLACK that came in at 82 and a PITCH PURPLE that came in at 78. They didn't do videos of those or I would post them as well.

If you accept that their tests were done consistently and as well as possible by hand, the results absolutely scream for official tests, though that became irrelevant with USBC's announcement Friday.

The important background for the USBC ball hardness tests is that USBC did research published in this report on ball hardness and then updated the segment covering ball hardness in the USBC equipment specifications manual in November. I saw no publicity on either, and only learned of them from industry insiders when I was researching my story posted Monday. 

The fascinating report explains that a ball’s hardness can fall below specifications due to heat with both plain urethane and reactive resin balls, and from just bowling for only plain urethane. The heat impact was fairly well known, but the fact that just using a urethane ball and getting oil on it can lower the shell hardness was new to me and everyone else I’ve talked to about it.

USBC’s ball hardness minimum since it (then ABC and WIBC) established a rule in the 1970s has been 72, while PBA originally was 75 until it adopted the USBC rule years ago.

The change in the hardness specifications effectively makes the minimum hardness 68, “due to variation between durometers documented by both the tool manufacturer and ASTM.”

Here is how the ball hardness specifications now read:
1. The use of chemicals, or other methods, to change the hardness of the surface of the ball after it is manufactured is prohibited. (Note: This is covered in the rulebook under rule 17a. Unfair Tactics)
Last updated on 11/19 BOWL.com 
a. Field test
 i. Ball is to be tested at room temperature (70-77 degrees Fahrenheit) with a clean surface, and in compliance with ASTM 2240-15, using a certified D type durometer with test stand.
1. A ball must be acclimated to the test environment before testing (may require several hours), and the ball surface temperature should be verified with an infrared temperature gauge
2. Balls should be cleaned with isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) before testing.
a. The ball must have an average hardness from 10 readings of at least 68D. The difference between the field specification and the manufacturing specification is due to variation between durometers documented by both the tool manufacturer and ASTM.
b. A ball found to be outside of the field test specification could result in that individual ball being disqualified from that competition and may lead to a spot check.

At the bottom of this story are PDFs of the 2019 USBC Equipment Specifications and Certifications manual, the 2019 USBC Hardness Research Report, the 2020 PBA rulebook bowling ball specifications, and then the four items USBC posted here late Friday afternoon: 2020 U.S. Open key points on urethane ball hardness testing, 2020 U.S. Open urethane ball hardness testing overview, 2020 U.S. Open urethane bowling ball inspection form, and PBA message about ball hardness check at 2020 U.S. Open.

To fully understand what USBC is doing, why and how, you should read all of those PDFs.

For those who might think Rash’s comments, Raymond’s YouTube posts, or my story Monday prompted the ball hardness checks at the U.S. Open, here is the USBC summary on its documents with the key phrase in bold:
“As the National Governing Body for bowling, the United States Bowling Congress (USBC) is responsible for governing the rules and specifications of the sport. Recently, there has been discussion in the field concerning the hardness of some urethane balls. The USBC has done research in this area, publishing a Hardness Research Report in 2019. In 2020, USBC received additional information and conducted additional spot checks. In order to collect field data and govern the U.S. Open, USBC will take an additional step to verify urethane balls used in the event. The goal is to collect valid data related to a topic where public discussions are continuing, and to ensure all balls used in the competition meet USBC specifications. USBC will publish a report in March with results of the testing. As with all USBC research, manufacturer and player names will not be published in the report.”

Clearly, USBC had the tests in the works. 

I would say, though, that if USBC hadn’t been planning the tests, my story and the Lou Lakota ball video would have served as a compelling impetus to do tests.

Some highlights from the USBC documents include that the tests will be conducted for all drilled balls with urethane or blended urethane shells, with a complete list in one of the PDFs.

USBC correctly states that “The process will provide value even if the tests simply disprove the rumors in the marketplace.”

USBC said it “does not have any reason at this time to believe any player or manufacturer is knowingly manipulating these products or has done anything wrong,” and it “expects that if testing shows a problem, that this will be an isolated issue and related to individual ball or balls being out of specification.”

USBC said the data will allow it “to better evaluate if a long-term change related to specifications is appropriate.”

It said it will publish a report on the data collected in March.

“Improvements in this area are made by the industry coming together to listen, evaluate the research and discuss next steps,” USBC said. “The PBA and USBC have been doing this for several months on this subject. If manufacturers want to provide input moving forward as well, USBC always welcomes their comments.”

Balls that pass the hardness test, will have a mill hole drilled to show they passed — as was done in the old days on the PBA Tour.

A ball that fails will require verification by the USBC Senior Director of Tournament Programming. If it fails again, the player will have the right to witness a re-test, and if it fails then it will be “indefinitely confiscated by USBC for additional review.”

Urethane balls drilled on the PBA truck at the U.S. Open will not require a field test, as USBC said it has conducted spot checks of current production balls and confirmed they are within specification. Urethane balls drilled onsite must have a mill hole, or they will be deemed ineligible for competition. (For those who raised the question, I am 100 percent confident that no ball on the PBA truck will be illegally soft!)

Urethane balls presented at the check-in table for competition without mill holes will be collected for the hardness check before they can be thrown.

Any urethane ball thrown during the tournament that is not marked with a mill hole that shows it passed the hardness test can result in the ball and bowler being disqualified and result in forfeiture of any prize money. The tournament director will make all final decisions.

Notably, USBC said it “is only requiring that bowlers check balls planned for use at the U.S. Open. However, USBC will be glad to test additional balls and welcomes bowlers to take this opportunity to confirm all urethane balls in your bag are legal.”

USBC also posted this message from PBA:
“The PBA recognizes the USBC as the governing body of bowling with respect to rules and equipment specifications and supports the USBC's effort to conduct this urethane ball test at the US Open. The PBA encourages player participation in the check (this includes all of their urethane products whether being used in the U.S. Open or not) with the knowledge that results of this test may or may not affect the eligibility of a ball in future PBA competition.”

As further emphasis, players competing in the U.S. Open got this letter from USBC Executive Director Chad Murphy that 11thFrame.com obtained:

Hello,
Just a quick note to say thanks for helping us out this week with the hardness testing.  Also, I encourage you to bring all of your urethane balls in for testing even if you don’t plan to use them at the US Open.
I’ve known many of you a long time, some more recently.  I have tremendous respect for all of you as professionals and I very much enjoy watching your talents live and breathe on the PBA Tour.  I’ll admit, I’m more a fan today then a regulator most of the time, but at times, we have a job to do and plan to do that this week.
I’m sending this note because bowling has a huge opportunity in front of us to work together.  When USBC started talking about this test, the question was a tough one.  Do we come in and just start randomly pulling balls from competition?  Or, do we announce we are doing it?  We have obviously chosen the later and here’s why.
It’s because we don’t believe any professional has done anything wrong (even if a ball is ruled out, nothing wrong.  There was no way of knowing, they are approved for use). It’s because we respect you as professionals and we believe you want the same thing we do.  A competition that has a level playing field that is played within the rules.   That’s why we are open and transparent with the test.  It’s why we are asking you to bring in every urethane ball you have in your bags, your cars, in transport for testing whether you plan to use it in this week’s event or not.
If you are the professionals I believe you are as a fan, then, as a regulator, there is no reason not to ask you to do the right thing.  And that’s why we chose that route.
To further implore you, I’ll point you to the talking points in the document.  We do not believe one player has done anything wrong at this point.  We do not believe any manufacturer has done anything wrong at this point.  Please participate at the highest level and let us collect enough data to move forward productively.
To skirt the test or not bring certain balls in would change all that.  It would say to the regulator, I don’t appreciate the respect I’ve been given and I don’t respect the sport.   It also says, please come back in the future and randomly pull balls and test them because that would be a step to consider at that time.
Anyway, please help us this week.  This is a much bigger data collection project then it is a search for illegal balls.  We have been researching these new urethane shells for quite a while and plan to continue to do so.   This is simply that.  If we find some balls out as a byproduct, then we have done our job and you as bowlers are bowling in a cleaner environment than before.  It’s a win/win for everyone.
Lastly, please do your best to get these balls in for testing as soon as possible. If you are in Lincoln, there will be an opportunity to start today.  If not, then whenever you get in please make it a priority.  If you wait until the end, there will be a back log and if we can’t get through them those at the back of the line will not be approved for competition. So, please be proactive and get the balls in at your first chance. Thanks again for your help this week. Please look at the opportunity to help bowling move toward the future by participating at the highest level.
Lastly, good luck this week.  We are looking forward to crowning one of you the 2020 U.S. Open champion.
Sincerely,
Chad Murphy

Basically, what Murphy is telling the players is they need to bring the balls in for testing or else, with the key phrase being: “To skirt the test or not bring certain balls in would change all that. It would say to the regulator, I don’t appreciate the respect I’ve been given and I don’t respect the sport. It also says, please come back in the future and randomly pull balls and test them because that would be a step to consider at that time.”

The player who is perhaps most identified with the PURPLE HAMMER is Jakob Butturff, the left-hander with hypermobility in his wrist and one of the most devastating strike balls in bowling history.

Any shade being thrown on the issue probably falls most directly on him due to his success and the fact that the PURPLE HAMMER is by far his most-used ball.

I’ve written many stories on Butturff and have never hidden my admiration and fascination for his unique and considerable talent and technique.

Butturff made this post on his athlete page Saturday morning:
"A lot of talk lately has been going around about the Hardness test of Urethane. My 2 cents...
1. I’ve had a fair share of people come up to me in the last 24 hours, through text messages or even phones asking me what it was about and in all honesty, if you really need to check the hardness of urethane balls, go for it. What happens happens. It seems like the integrity has been lost as to “How good the bowler is” and its now “what ball is he throwing.”
2. Seen a lot of post about just one specific Urethane ball. Obviously it’s the Hammer Purple Urethane. It’s been a very successful ball over this course , but yet it has just come to a very biased as clearly stated , we are doing a hardness test for ALL urethanes at the us Open. Maybe it is just that successful of a bowling ball? I think so.
Guess what I’m going to do? I’m going to go out there and still compete like I do every single tournament and I’m looking forward to another US open."

I immediately commented with this question:
“Here's the question everyone who cares about this situation wants to know: Do you have any 6 and 7 series PURPLE HAMMERs (the ones people are questioning) and if so will you be bringing those to the U.S. Open for testing?
I've noted multiple times that you won a lot when you were with 900 Global when you couldn't throw the PH ... But a lot of shade is being thrown your way and this is your chance to settle things once and for all and clear your name.”

Fellow lefty Ryan Ciminelli quickly responded:
“Jeff Richgels he told me he was submitting them, like a proper professional. And I as well have one that I will be submitting. We believe they are legal and although I haven’t thrown that specific one in competition it’s only right to give every urethane we have, as requested for testing.”

And Butturff soon replied:
“Jeff Richgels whatever people want me to test, I’m all for it.”

The important thing some might forget about Butturff is that he won a ton when he was with 900 Global before switching to EBI, including two PBA Tour titles and a record-breaking nine PBA Regional titles in one season. So anyone who says he owes his career to that ball is simply wrong.

There are only a couple of things I would be concerned about in the USBC tests.

First, it seems as though the tests might be conducted in prviate, which I would fear could lead to conspiracy theorists to cry cover-up depending on the results.

Such tests need to be as transparent as possible to settle the issue, and I hope USBC conducts them openly so players, officials and even the media can witness them. Heck, I would suggest that BowlTV and FloBowling webcast the tests. 

Second is that USBC said it will not release manufacturer and player names when it publishes its results report. If a player unknowingly used an illegally soft ball I don’t have a problem with their name being withheld, but I think it’s imperative that USBC be transparent about what, if any, balls fail the test.

Clearly, if any fail the issue will resonate beyond the PBA Tour to other certified competition, perhaps most notably the USBC Open Championships, where USBC will need to take some measures to protect the integrity of that competition.   

So what might USBC find, what does it mean, and where do we go from here?

First, I am going to assume that players will follow Murphy’s call to bring in all of their urethanes for testing, obviously and most notably the 6 and 7 series PURPLE HAMMERs that are in question. If that does not happen, USBC and PBA will have gotten a clear indication that harsher measures are needed, including bringing back hardness tests every day of competition on the PBA Tour.

The ultimate “nothing here to see” result would be no balls testing illegally soft, which puts the entire issue to bed, assuming the testing is transparent enough that players and officials accept the results.

I think it’s safe to say that pretty much everyone in bowling is hoping for this result.

There also could be a case where just a few balls randomly across companies are found to be illegally soft, which might be an indication that use and oil impacted them, as USBC research has found, or perhaps an anomaly in manufacturing, or even shenanigans by players in an era when hardness hasn't been tested on any regular basis.

In any of those cases, the particular issue can be dealt with, whether it be a rules modification by USBC, or individual discipline.

The toughest case will be if a particular ball or balls comes in consistently illegally soft, the obvious one being PURPLE HAMMERs in the 6 and 7 series, though the following applies no matter what ball it may be — just change the company name as applicable.

This would mean either that EBI had an issue or issues at the now-shuttered plant in Kentucky that caused the balls to be manufactured softer than how they were when certified by USBC, or EBI intentionally made them illegally soft, or something happened in the field that softened them.

The next issue is whether players and Tour reps were “innocent cheaters” who didn’t know they were using illegally soft balls, or whether they knew and therefore truly were cheaters.

The implications of the various scenarios are very different and make PBA’s job in sorting things out anywhere from fairly easy to very difficult.

If a player unknowingly used an illegal ball that no one knew was illegal under a standard no longer enforced by PBA except in spot tests or challenge situations, I find it hard to believe there would be severe discipline such as titles stripped, fines and/or suspensions.

However, if PBA finds solid evidence that there was willful and knowing cheating going on, I can’t imagine there wouldn’t be severe discipline such as titles stripped, fines and/or suspensions.

Consider that Marshall Holman got a 6-month suspension for kicking a foul light on TV, and Pete Weber got long suspensions more than once for personal conduct.

Neither of those involved willful and knowing cheating that impacted the competition and livelihoods of other players.

To be clear, I know nothing that says this is where this is going. I am merely sketching out possible scenarios for my readers, providing context and analysis that helps them understand what is going on and what might happen.

Kudos to USBC for taking a necessary step in what might be a very difficult situation.


Note: 11thFrame.com does not have any advertising, but as has always been clearly disclosed on 11thFrame.com here, I have been a Storm bowling staffer since 1996, and also have been on staff with Turbo for many years predating 11thFrame.com, and with Logo Infusion since 2016. I have transitioned to a Senior/Hall of Fame staffer who does not bowl competitively anywhere near as much or as well as I once did. Also, I have been a PBA member since 1986, except for a short period in the mid-2010s when I dropped my card in order to keep bowling with my USBC Open Championships team — I re-joined when the rules changed again to make my being part of Team USA in 1985 the same as being a PBA member.