Billy Hardwick had a view from the top of the world the day he received the call that tore him to the ground.
Competing at the 1969 Japan Cup, where a year earlier he set a PBA record that stands to this day when he averaged 271 for eight games, Hardwick already had won a PBA Player of the Year award and beaten Dick Weber to win the inaugural Firestone Tournament of Champions in 1965.
He would notch another record in 1969 by winning seven titles that season alone, a feat topped only once in the 41 years since, (Mark Roth, 1978). One of the seven happened to be a win at the U.S. Open that made him the first bowler to win the coveted triple crown of major tournament titles—the Firestone, the U.S. Open, and the PBA National Championship.
All this despite an inability to straighten his arms due to rheumatoid arthritis, a doctor’s assurance that he would be “crippled by the age of 28,” and a childhood injury to the ring finger on his bowling hand that left it almost totally inflexible.
“I won my first Bowler of the Year with my index and middle finger,” Hardwick said of the grip for which he became known as “the boy with the golden claw.”
Yes, Hardwick had a view from high above all that in 1969, a view from which names that loomed large at the time—Weber, Zahn, Carter—seemed to him no larger than pedestrians observed from the top of a hundred-story building.
“If Carter and I put our foot up on the approach at the same time, hey, I got there first. Back up,” Hardwick said of his attitude in 1963, when he first etched his name into the stone of bowling immortality.
Billy Hardwick stars in this 1969 commercial for Miller High Life (above). Hardwick's son Chris explains the following: "This was the first beer commercial done by a professional athlete. After this, though, they mandated that only retired athletes could do them so that it wouldn't send the wrong message, like 'Drinking makes you a champion.'"
But the person on the other end of the call that sent him scrambling for the next flight home from Japan that day in 1969 was not Weber or Carter calling to congratulate him for any of these glories. It was not some reporter looking for an interview. No; it was his wife, and the news had nothing to do with bowling.
Billy Hardwick’s first-born child, seven-month-old Billy Jr., was dead.
The infant, by all accounts a perfectly healthy baby, died suddenly in his crib in what was then termed “crib death,” more commonly known today as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
“Country music entertainer Merle Haggard hit the charts a while back with a song called ‘I’m Always on a Mountain When I Fall,’” one Bowling Magazine writer put it in 1985. “Billy Hardwick knows the feeling.”
The loss proved to be too great for Hardwick's marriage to overcome. He got married for a second time several years later. He and his new wife had a son, Christopher. Then they decided they wouldn’t mind having another.
And that’s when it happened—again.
Left to right: Dick Weber, Billy Hardwick
“She got pregnant again, but she had a terrible time. The baby was about seven months along, and the doctor said she was over the rough part but wouldn’t be able to have any more kids. Five days later, the baby comes out arm first. The baby died two days later,” Hardwick explained in an interview with Bowlers Journal.
“At that point, who really gives a damn about bowling? People say they understand, but until you actually lose two children—including an infant—there is no way to describe what it is like. At the time, I was No. 1 in the world, and I said ‘So What?’ I just didn’t care. You just check my records after that, because they’re all zeroes.”
After turning himself into the PBA’s version of the human highlight reel in 1969, Hardwick would not win another title on tour for the next seven years, fumbling for some way to outlast his grief as he bowled merely to please the sponsors that paid him to be there.
“Being the best bowler in the world was the least important thing,” Hardwick said in 2005, “because I convinced myself that the better I bowled, the more disaster I would have to face.”
The ladder Hardwick climbed to reach that view from the top may have taken just the length of one terrible phone call to crumble, but it took years to ascend. The climb began at Bel Mateo Bowl in San Mateo, Calif., where he wiped tables at age 16 for $1.65 an hour as he brooded over dreams of joining the bowling gods he worshiped on TV.
Billy Hardwick with former President Gerald Ford
“We had a bed outside, under a little overhang on the patio. I’d tell my parents I wanted to sleep out there. Then, when they’d go to bed, I’d sneak out and go to the bowling center and stay until 5 o’clock in the morning,” Hardwick revealed in a 1985 interview.
“And on weekends, it was Friday midnight straight through 6 p.m. on Sunday. You’d bowl all night, load up on No-Doz and coffee, then catch a few minutes rest with your hand bleeding, your back sore, and then get back up and grind away again.”
And if Hardwick’s victims ever saw through his act – the smell of a calculated sip of beer on his breath or the speech he slurred while taking on all comers to put on the airs of easy prey—Hardwick always knew who to call.
“Make sure big Lenny was there so when you go to the parking lot, you could get to your car. It was great,” Hardwick said of his former high school classmate—Phantom Radio’s Len Nicholson. “He’s 6-foot-3 and 250 lbs., so I was safe with him because nobody would mess with him.”
It might be true that nobody messed with “Big Lenny” in a bowling alley parking lot, but the guy that nobody messed with on the lanes was Billy Hardwick. By 1969, Hardwick would rake in a single-season’s earnings of $64,160 ($381,659.34 in 2010 dollars).
Like any young dreamer, though, Hardwick had lessons to learn and lumps to take before he found the big time.
“The first year I lost my paycheck every week bowling for money,” Hardwick recalled in 1985. “A friend used to lend me 50 cents a day to get a pack of cigarettes and a cup of coffee.”
Billy Hardwick bowls the 1969 BPAA All-Star tournament, which became the U.S. Open in 1971. Hardwick would go on to win this event, thereby becoming the first player in PBA history to win bowling's triple crown.
But it wasn’t always just his money Hardwick had to protect back then—sometimes, it was his life.
Out of money and desperate after blowing his dough on a carnival game at the San Mateo County Fair, Billy struck up some talk about bowling with the fair worker that had just cleaned him out, telling him that he averaged a meager 145. Hardwick’s days of averaging 145 were as far behind him as his days of getting by on $1.65 an hour by that time. But that was for Billy to know and for the other guy to find out.
That’s how it was supposed to go, at least.
“We agreed to meet at Bel Mateo for some money matches when the fair closed at 2 a.m.,” Hardwick explained years later. “He walked in the center at exactly 2 a.m., came over to where I was putting my shoes on and took a .45 from his jacket and laid it on the table. He told me, ‘I just want to make sure your average is 145.’ I didn’t even finish putting my shoes on. I just got out of there as fast as I could and promised God I would never hustle again.”
Hardwick might have been a hotshot hustler by then, but in his first year on tour he would learn that the way most hotshot kids end up on the PBA tour is borrowing money for a trip back home with egos held together by Band-aids. Billy Hardwick would need a lot of Band-aids after his first foray on tour: He went 0-17 and didn’t have so much as a dime to show for his efforts.
Don Carter told him to go home, and go home he did—but just long enough to raise the money to go back out there and do it all over again, that is.
“When he got back home, we asked him what he was going to do,” says Nicholson, “and he said ‘I'm going to go back out there next year and beat them all.’ We all told him he was nuts.”
And maybe he was. After all, this was the Billy Hardwick who, as one Bowlers Journal story put it, “throws the ball like he’s falling out of a tree.”
Hardwick slid and hopped his way to the foul line like a doomed plane coming in for an emergency landing, hunching over at the line to deliver a full roller that spliced his target like a thread through a needle.
Billy Hardwick in his prime
“When they watched me bowl for the first time they wanted to bowl me for a living,” Hardwick recalled of his first days on tour in 1961. “I was the worst they had ever seen.”
“He had more ways of getting to the foul line than U.S. Air,” Nicholson recalls, “but he was accurate as hell.”
Today, those who doubted Hardwick in 1962 know that they were the nuts and he was the star. But in the 1970s, Hardwick’s star had vanished into the night sky of his despair, and the spectacle was as painful to watch as it was to read about.
“Even the veterans, who saw him when he was at the top of his form, thought he was just marking time, hanging on to past glories and hoping for just one more moment in the spotlight,” Jim Dressel wrote in a 1976 story for Bowlers Journal.
But somebody else remembered Billy Hardwick “at the top of his form,” too—someone by the name of Billy Hardwick.
Seven years of losing was enough to remind Hardwick what it felt like to strike out in 33 of his first 36 at bats on the Hillside High baseball team in San Mateo—and to become the team’s most valuable player the following year.
“I was so obsessed with beating my high school friends that nothing else mattered,” Hardwick recalled years later. “I just couldn’t stand having them beat me.”
It was enough to remind him of his ride back home after that 17th week on tour in 1962, broke and beaten down—only to come back the following season as the PBA Player of the Year.
Now he had one more memory to make, one more dark hole to climb out of just when everybody else thought he had fallen for good.
“Then in 1976, it finally hit me that I had been on the verge of being the best bowler of all time, or at least considered for it, and here I was blowing it,” Hardwick said in 1979
Winning always was easy for Billy Hardwick. All he ever had to do was decide to do it. Sure, there was work and hassle in the meantime, guns to duck at Bel Mateo, that bed to leave behind on the family porch for all those endless nights of hustling, the thousands of games of practice after that rookie season from hell and the doctors who told him not to bother. But no amount of practice could do more to put him over the top than his own raw will to “beat them all.”
“He had unbelievable desire and determination,” Nicholson recalls. “It was at a level that the average guy knows nothing about.”
Hardwick battling Dick Weber at the 1965 Firestone Tournament of Champions. “The last thing I do before walking out of the hotel room is take some after shave lotion and put it on and when I did, I realized I had forgotten to shave," Hardwick recalled of the hours before the show that day. "That’s how nervous I was.”
Hardwick found losing as unbearable in 1976 as he did all those days he went down swinging at Hillside High; he just hadn’t yet decided to win again. Then he left to catch a plane to Toledo to bowl the 1976 PBA Monro-Matic Open at Imperial Lanes. For the first time in seven years, he allowed himself to feel what it was like to head for the next tour stop without the slightest doubt that his name would be on the trophy by the end of the week. He vowed to win in Toledo.
“I had never said anything like that before," Hardwick said years later. "But I had never wanted to do anything so badly before, either. I knew it was my tournament, and that nobody was going to take it away from me.”
He was right. Hardwick made the show in Toledo as the No. 1 seed and blasted a 236 to take his first title since those long-gone days when he enjoyed that view from the top of the world.
But Hardwick mentioned something else on his way to Toledo, too.
"I’m going to make the show at the Firestone," he told his wife before boarding the plane. "I don’t care if they put sand on the lanes."
They didn’t put any sand on the lanes when the Firestone returned to Akron days after his triumph in Toledo. But whatever they did to the lanes that week, it didn’t stop Hardwick from doing exactly what he said he would do.
Hardwick once again was the top qualifier and opened his title match against 21-year-old Marshall Holman by burying three perfect strikes in a row.
“Three in a row for Billy Hardwick in this final match!” exclaimed Chris Schenkel, the man after whom Hardwick named his son, Chris Hardwick.
“It’s almost unbelievable, the control and accuracy of Hardwick,” Bo Burton added. “The three strikes he’s gotten so far are perfect, packed strikes.”
As Hardwick sat and blew on his sore thumb while Holman bowled, he leered at the pins from under his brow like an angry gunslinger staring down his enemy in some spaghetti western, unsmiling and determined.
Hardwick opens the title match against Marshall Holman at the 1976 Firestone Tournament of Champions with a vengeance.
“His focus and concentration were unreal,” Nicholson says. “When he got into that zone, the other guys would recognize it and say, ‘Well, I guess we are playing for second place again this week.’”
But the man who became the youngest bowler to win a PBA title in 1963 would fall that day to the man who would become the youngest bowler to win the Firestone in 1976, as Holman edged Hardwick by a margin of just five pins, 203-198.
And that, as it turned out, was about the last the PBA would see of the boy with the golden claw.
“After the Firestone, it wasn’t important to me anymore,” Hardwick said three years later. “Maybe that’s why I’ve always felt that the Firestone was the last tournament I really bowled in. Sure, I bowled on the ’77 winter tour, but it was more promotional than anything else.”
In the town of Bradenton, Fla., that Hardwick calls home today, a lot of things no longer seem important. Hardwick hasn’t thrown a bowling ball in nearly 30 years; that urge he had to be the best in the world is eclipsed these days by an urge to enjoy life, and he has found in his third wife, Rebecca, a woman whom he describes as his “best friend.”
A 2007 Bowlers Journal story found a barefoot Hardwick sipping wine at the beach, sporting a suit and bowtie with a medal dangling from his hand that read “Here’s To Me, From Me.”
“Peaks and valleys, that is what life is all about,” Hardwick said at the time. “I went through a three-and-a-half year period when my oldest son and youngest son both died, and I can’t tell you one thing in between the day I turned 30 and the day I turned 40. Self-pity was my best friend. Now, I wake up with a smile on my face.”