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Entertaining Andy Varipapa biography a treasure trove of bowling history

JEFF RICHGELS | Posted: Sunday, June 30, 2024 3:00 pm
Entertaining Andy Varipapa biography a treasure trove of bowling history

Author Glenn Gerstner has done much more than write an entertaining biography in penning “Andy Varipapa: Bowling’s First Superstar” — he has produced a treasure trove of bowling history.

Like most serious bowling fans, I have a good grasp of the PBA Tour era, as well as the 1950s, when bowling was emerging as a more organized sport in the great team era.

But Varipapa was born in 1891 and details of what bowling was like when he became the first superstar have never been laid out as Gerstner does — at least to my knowledge.

We learn about the great matches of the early years of the 21st century, which served as the only determining factor in who was the best, even if it was a poor measure, and the mostly local tournament scene of that era.

Gerstner does an excellent job explaining how trick shots and Hollywood made Varipapa the first superstar, which is something many knew as a concept, but not in such entertaining detail.

And his recounting of the origin of the BPAA All-Star, which later became the U.S. Open was gold for a bowling junkie and journalist.

For those who don’t know, the first All-Star began Dec. 7, 1941, the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and it was the most demanding and important tournament in the world.

Madison’s Connie Schwoegler, a USBC Hall of Famer, won the tournament in 1942 and 1948, and Gerstner’s accounting will be of interest to my fellow cheeseheads.

I knew Varipapa won the marathon tournament back-to-back in 1946 and 1947 at age 55 and 56, which arguably is the greatest achievement in bowling history.

I also knew that Varipapa finished second to Schwoegler in 1948, but didn’t know he had finished third in 1945, which is even more incredible.

Imagine winning the U.S. Open three or four straight times in your mid-50s. That’s what Varipapa almost did under a format nearly twice as long as today’s format.

I also didn’t know that Varipapa at age 61 finished second in the 1952 ABC Masters, nearly winning what became a PBA Tour title at four years older than record holder John Handegard.

There also is a ton of detail on bowling’s early TV shows and the huge amounts of money won on the shows, most famously Therm Gibson’s $75,000 win on Jackpot bowling in 1961. That equates to more than $750,000 in 2023, Gerstner reports.

Reporting prize money in 2023 dollars is one of the most valuable things Gerstner does in the book, as it does so much to illustrate how truly big bowling was for much of the 20th century.

Gerstner also does a tremendous job detailing the biggest showman and personality in bowling history.

As a journalist, I also appreciated Gerstner’s meticulous explanatory sleuthing and sourcing.

“Andy Varipapa: Bowling’s First Superstar” is available at Amazon for $25.99 on Kindle and $39.95 paperback. That’s a great value for any bowling fan.

Note: I was provided an advance copy of the book for the purpose of this review.

Glenn Gerstner. Contributed photo.
Glenn Gerstner. Contributed photo.