WHEN BILL LILLARD STRUCK DOWN BOWLING'S VERSION OF MURDERERS' ROW
By J.R. Schmidt
Bill Lillard has done many great things on the lanes during his long career.
But one of his most remarkable achievements is often overlooked.
In May 1955, the “Championship Bowling” TV show began filming in New Jersey. The site was the new Paramus Lanes, one of the first places to showcase Brunswick’s version of the automatic pinsetter. In the fall, the series would be broadcast in 26 weekly matches, with a king-of-the-hill format. The actual filming was scheduled over a two-week period.
Lillard had just rejoined Buddy Bomar’s Chicago Falstaff team after a season with the Detroit Pfeiffers. Both men came to Paramus for the show, and halfway through the schedule, they found themselves rolling against each other. “Buddy was my mentor, he was like a big brother to me,” Lillard says. That didn’t stop him from beating his captain, 630-591.
And now it began.
Match Two. Lillard defended against Andy Varipapa. It was a close match all the way. Lillard won the first game, they tied the second, then Varipapa came back. Andy needed a double in the final frame to win. He got the first strike, then left a 7-pin, and Lillard squeaked out the victory, 658-655.
Match Three. Buzz Fazio jumped out to a 43-pin lead after the first two games. But in the third game, Lillard opened with a spare, then strung the last eleven strikes for 290 and the win, 676-633. Fazio was so shocked afterward, he walked into the snack shop still wearing his bowling shoes.
Match Four. Veteran Harold Asplund came out of the gate with the first six strikes. Again, Lillard came from behind in the third game. Asplund helped, opening five frames for 141. Lillard 591, Asplund 562. “I guess they all thought I was easy,” Lillard chuckles today.
Match Five. Another close one against Joe Wilman. And once more, the third game was the key. Lillard opened two of the first three frames, but Wilman couldn’t take advantage of the situation, leaving three splits of his own. Lillard on top, 597-580.
Match Six. For once, Lillard had a laugher, trouncing local favorite Marty Cassio, 668-516. At the end of the match, host Chris Schenkel told the audience that it was hard to believe that such a fine star could have such a bad time. Cassio responded, “I can hardly believe it myself!”
Match Seven. Lillard faced Don Carter, then at the height of his powers. For some reason, Carter never did well on “Championship Bowling.” Lillard led all the way, 600-570.
Match Eight. Now Lillard’s opponent was Junie McMahon, the one bowler he always considered his nemesis. At the end of two games, McMahon was in front by 46 pins and cruising. Then they stopped to change film in the cameras. Some water got onto the approach during the break, and McMahon fouled. The momentum swung in Lillard’s favor. When McMahon opened the 10th frame, Lillard had a 655-642 win.
Match Nine. Lillard started with 244, then stayed in front of Connie Schwoegler to notch his ninth straight match, 666-629.
Match Ten. Billy Welu finally ended Lillard’s streak, 679-623. Though Lillard struggled most of the match, he said farewell by closing with the last five strikes. After it was over, he told the audience: “All I can say is that it took another Texan to beat me!”
Bill Lillard had defeated nine straight future hall-of-famers in head-to-head competition. In the long history of the “Championship Bowling” series, nobody would ever come close to that mark. It is a feat worthy of bold letters in the record books. But because it happened on a “mere TV show,” Lillard’s performance has not gotten the publicity it deserves.
A few years later, Lou Campi won fourteen straight matches on a local New York TV series. However, that show was staged at Bowlmor Recreation, where Campi had bowled for years. His opponents were all Mid-westerners, most of whom had never shot at Bowlmor. At Paramus, Lillard had not had a home-lane advantage.
In any event, Campi’s streak was finally halted . . . by Bill Lillard