Marion Ladewig was known as the "Queen of Bowling." Many people consider her the greatest female bowler who ever lived. She set the pace in the opening days of women's professional bowling. Not only did she lead the nation in high average for a woman four times between 1949 and 1963 but, in 1951 she outscored the men.
Born Marion Margaret Van Oosten on October 30, 1914 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Ladewig was a policeman's daughter who grew up a tomboy. She was a high school sprinter and played first base on her brother's baseball team. By age twenty-two she was a softball player of some distinction in local women's leagues. By her own estimation she was a good shortstop, slick fielder, and hard-hitting batter. When it came to pitching, however, Ladewig described herself as a "batting practice pitcher for other teams" because her balls brought easy hits.
It was her softball skill that led to her career in bowling. Local businessman, William T. Morrissey, Sr., saw the makings of a bowler in her strong throwing arm. In 1937 he invited her to roll some balls at his alley but it took a group of girlfriends to lure Ladewig onto the lanes. After just one game, she was hooked on the sport.
Career Begins In Local Alley
Morrissey offered Ladewig a job in his establishment, The Fanatorium. She honed her skills in the tan building at 40 Jefferson Ave SE, decorated with green awnings, vaulted striped ceilings and checkered floors. Affectionately known as "the Fan," the bowling alley became a Grand Rapids institution. In later years locals called it "the house that Marion built."
Ladewig credits Morrissey for her success. He offered her career direction and recruited outstanding local male bowlers as impromptu coaches. Although Ladewig was on the lanes in league play three nights a week,
Morrissey insisted that she practice daily. As a result, she said she bowled every day from 1940 through 1962.
In her first bowling attempts Ladewig barely tallied an 80 score in ten frames and ended her first season with a 149 average. Three years later her average was 182. Ladewig's first competitive triumph came at the Western Michigan Gold Pin Classic where she and a partner won the doubles crown for the 1940-41 season.
One winter night, while filling in for an absent pinboy, Ladewig saw the means for improving her game. From the vantage point of the pit behind the set pins she observed how balls approached their target. She saw two styles of play—speed and spin—and noted that the spin was more successful. By dropping her backswing to shoulder height and focusing on spin rather than speed, she soon added ten points to her average score. For the 1944-1945 season she recorded the women's high average in the nation. She repeated that feat three times (1948-49, 1951-52, 1954-55).
Wins First All-Star
In 1949 Ladewig won the first Women's All-Star Tournament, sponsored by the Bowling Proprietors Association of America (BPAA), and successfully defended that title in five succeeding tournaments. In the 1950-51 season she became the only bowler in history to win the All-Events title at the city, state and national levels in the same year. All-Events tallied a bowlers points in singles, doubles and team events. She knocked down 1,796 pins to win the Women's International Bowling Congress (WIBC) All-Events category. Her WIBC success included winning the team championship as a member of the hometown Fanatorium Majors.
During the 1951-52 season Ladewig won both the Women's All Star and the WIBC tournaments, plus every Michigan competition she entered. She completed the All-Star with a 211.46 average for thirty-two games of match play, setting a tournament record unmatched for the next twenty-two years. She was named Michigan Woman Athlete of the Year in 1953.
Ladewig repeated her WIBC All-Events win in 1954-55 with a 1,980 pin count. With partner Wyllis Ryskamp, she also captured the WIBC doubles title. Teaming with LaVerne Carter, wife of men's champion Don Carter , Ladewig captured the women's doubles title again in both 1958 and 1959. The first year they won by four pins. The 1959 championship was decided by Ladewig's "Brooklyn Strike" (a right hander into the 1-2 pocket) for a two-point victory.
Ladewig and Don Carter dominated bowling's heyday in the 1950's and 1960's. The pair won more All Star and World Invitational tournaments than any other bowlers and appeared together on television commercials and demonstration tours. Men and women tuned in at 5:00 pm on Saturday evenings to watch Ladewig control the lanes on the "Women's Major League Bowling" show introduced by the National Broadcasting Company in 1958.
Easily unnerved by the stress of competition, Ladewig struggled to maintain her control. She later admitted that Morrissey often berated her severely in his attempts to revive her fighting spirit. After Ladewig discovered that chewing gum relieved her stress she was never without a supply. Sportswriters dubbed her "The Chiclet-Chewing Lady" for her noticeable gum chomping during competition.
Success came at a price. Ladewig was on the road often for competitions and promotions. She filmed bowling commercials with Don Carter and presented exhibitions with male star Buddy Bomar on alleys laid over two flatbed trucks. And there was always the practice to maintain competitive form. The toll on Ladewig and her family prompted her to announce that the 1955 All-Star tournament would be her last. Rather than going out on top, she came in third. Looking like a youthful bobby soxer in stylish skirt and sweater sets, forty year old Ladewig graciously accepted her defeat as Life Magazine captured the event in photos for a feature titled "An Ordeal On the Alleys." The winner, Sylvia Wene Martin, had trailed Ladewig as runner-up in the event for the previous three years.
|1914||Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan|
|1937||Begins bowling career|
|1954||Announces next All-Star Tournament will be her last|
|1955||Loses All-Star Tournament in finals|
|1956||Returns to win All-Star Tournament|
|1964||Retires from professional competition|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1941||Western Michigan Gold Pin Classic doubles|
|1945||National women's high average|
|1949||First BPAA Women's All-Star Tournament; national women's high average|
|1950||Women's All-Star Tournament|
|1951||WIBC All-Events titles at city, state and national levels; Women's All-Star Tournament|
|1952||WIBC and Women's All-Star tournaments; national women's high average|
|1953||Michigan Woman Athlete of the Year|
|1954||Women's All-Star Tournament|
|1955||WIBC All-Events; WIBC doubles; national women's high average; Jo Ettien Lieber Award for Distinguished Service to the Game of American Tenpins from NWBW|
|1956||Women's All-Star Tournament|
|1957||World Invitational title|
|1959||First woman named to Michigan Sports Hall of Fame; Women's All-Star Tournament; WIBC doubles|
|1960||First PWBA Tournament; World Invitation title|
|1961||Fourth place Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year|
|1962||World Invitational title|
|1963||World Invitational title; Women's All-Star and WIBC tournaments|
|1964||World Invitational title; Inducted WIBC Hall of Fame|
|1973||Voted Greatest Woman Bowler of All Time by BWAA|
|1984||Inducted Women's Sports Foundation Hall of Fame|
|1991||Inducted International Bowling Museum Hall of Fame|
|1995||Inducted Professional Women Bowlers Hall of Fame|
|2000||Named to Sports Illustrated 100 Sports Women of the Century|
Ladewig's retirement was short lived. She returned to capture the All-Star title in 1956 and again in 1959. She tossed her fifteen pound eight ounce ball down the lanes at seventeen miles per hour delivering 507 foot pounds of energy to her ten pin target to win the first of five World Invitational titles (1960, 1962-1964).
Back in top form in 1960 Ladewig won the first Women's Professional Bowling Association (WPBA) tournament over a field of 100 women at the North Miami Beach Pinerama Lanes. She was a contender for the 1961 Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year. Olympic gold medal track star Wilma Rudolph was chosen but Ladewig's fourth place standing was the highest ever for a female bowler. She again won the two most important individual bowling tourneys—the All-Star and the World Invitational—in 1963 when she was a near-fifty grandmother. The following year she retired from professional competition and was inducted into the WIBC Hall of Fame.
Off the lanes Ladewig was a charmer. In competition she was cool, known for her closed mouth and intense concentration. "None of us got much talk out of her while we were on the lanes," commented Marge Merrick, who defeated Ladewig for the 1961 WIBC crown. "It just wasn't her idea to pass the time of day out there. She was only out to win and she's certainly done enough of that to prove the worth of keeping quiet."
Ladewig described her delivery as an angle ball with a slight hook. Observers swore the hook was invisible and described her consistent delivery as machine-like. Accuracy was her greatest asset. Ladewig said the game never became easy for her and that fact kept her working hard. No one could match her in taking down spares. "I spared 'em to death," she liked to say.
Honors In Retirement
Honors continued to mount for Ladewig. In 1973 she was voted the Greatest Woman Bowler of All Time by the Bowling Writers Association of America (BWAA). She was named to the Women's Sports Foundation Hall of Fame in 1984. Her Ladies Pro Bowlers Tour (LPBT) trading card was issued in 1991. She was inducted into the International Bowling Museum Hall of Fame in 1991 and became one of ten charter members of the Women's Professional Bowling Hall of Fame in 1995. Ladewig was the only bowler named to the Sports Illustrated top 100 sports women of the century.
Marion Ladewig loved the game and continued to bowl after her professional career ended. She served on Brunswick Corporation's Advisory Staff of Champions and wrote syndicated columns offering bowling tips. At age 81 she carried a respectable 160 average but complained, "Sometimes I get tired." In the summer of 1999, at age 85, she rolled her last balls on her familiar home alley. "The Fan" closed its doors in 2000.
Related Biography: Bowler Sylvia Wene Martin
Sylvia Wene Martin was the first woman to roll three perfect 300 games in sanctioned competition. She marked her first perfect game in 1951 and repeated the feat in 1959 in the World Invitational Match Game Tournament. This was also the first perfect game by a woman in match play. Her third perfect score came in the 1960 qualifying rounds of the BPAA All-Star Tournament. She won the All-Star in both 1955 and 1960.
Born in 1928, Martin called Philadelphia, Pennsylvania home. In addition to three perfect scores, she held records for all-time high league average of 206 and for fourteen career three-game 700 series, the most for a woman bowler.
Martin was named Woman Bowler of the Year in 1955 and 1960 by the Bowling Writers Association of America. She was elected to the WIBC Hall of Fame in 1966 and to the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
Marion Ladewig was voted Woman Bowler of the Year nine times by the Bowling Writers Association of American, more than any other person, male or female. The Detroit News sportswriter Jo Falls compared her to baseball legend, Babe Ruth, and hockey stand-out, Gordie Howe . Her media accolades drew unprecedented national attention to the sport of women's bowling. The five time World Invitational title holder and eight time All-Star champion left her mark on the sport and truly earned the title "Queen of Bowling."
David, Mac. The Giant Book of Sports. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1967.
Weiskopf, Herman. The Perfect Game. New York: Rutledge, 1978.
"Detroit's Legends of Bowling." The Detroit News (May 12, 2001).
"Final Frame." The Grand Rapids Press (April 21, 2000).
"Mrs. Ladewig and Mrs. Carter Retain Bowling Doubles Crown." New York Times (May 11, 1959): 38.
"An Ordeal On The Alleys." Life (February 7, 1955): 134-136.
"Silence Is Golden." New York Times (December 26, 1961): 31.
"A Tale of the Gauge." New York Times (July 28, 1959): 31.
"Marion Ladewig, Bowling." http://womensportsonline.com/ladewig.html (October 25, 2002).
"Marion Ladewig." LPBT Card Collection. http://www.leggnet.com/pbacard/lpbt/911pbtcard2.html (October 18, 2002).
#x201C;94. Marion Ladewig, Bowler." Sports Illustrated Women. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/siforwomen/top_100/94/ (October 25, 2002).
Sketch by Cynthia Becker
BOWLING. According to archaeological evidence, ancient Egyptians played a game similar to bowling in 3200 b.c. The game was popular in medieval Europe, and American colonists bowled in the streets of Jamestown, but the modern tenpin game developed with the German immigrant community in America in the mid-nineteenth century. Most bowling alleys were located in saloon basements, and the game's association with drunkenness,
violence, and gambling quickly earned it an unsavory reputation.
Prohibition severed the direct connection between saloons and bowling, but the game still struggled with its image problem. The "pin boys" who cleared and reset pins and returned balls after each roll were a public-relations disaster. The dangerous and demanding work paid very little, and in general, only vagrants and young teenagers would take the job. Child welfare advocates condemned bowling alleys as sweatshops teeming with immoral influences.
The invention of the automatic pinsetter in 1951 had a great impact on the game. No longer reliant on unpredictable labor, alley proprietors saw an opportunity to expand their market beyond league bowlers, and they advertised the game as good clean family fun. Glitzy recreation centers with cheerful names such as "Bowl-ODrome" and "Victory Bowling" opened in shopping plazas throughout the country. Many featured Laundromats and nurseries to serve the family needs of suburban consumers, and a few even banned alcohol to encourage parents to think of the lanes as a safe place for their kids. Now packaged as "the people's country clubs," bowling alleys grew increasingly extravagant. Chicago's Holiday Bowl Recreation maintained sixty-four lanes, an Olympic-size swimming pool, and tennis courts. In 1958, the Professional Bowlers Association, which organizes about twenty tournaments each year, was created to capitalize on the success of television broadcasts. By the late 1960s, however, the bowling boom was over.
Still, the game remains one of America's most popular pastimes, and it has become a powerful if contested cultural symbol. Many artists and writers use bowling, especially the sweat-stained embroidered bowling shirt, to represent suburban conservatism and provincialism. But Robert Putnam's influential book Bowling Alone, which laments the decline of "social capital" in the United States, employs bowling as a metaphor for a less crassly individualistic era.
Hurley, Andrew. Diners, Bowling Alleys, and Trailer Parks: Chasing the American Dream in the Postwar Consumer Culture. New York: Basic Books, 2001.
Luby, Mort Jr. "The History of Bowling." Bowlers Journal 70, no. 11 (1983): 102–159.
Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.