Having a ball

At 106, Bill Hargrove is the country’s oldest bowler, and he’s still...
Thursday, May 17, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:33 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Bill Hargrove started bowling in 1924. He says, “It’s been a lifelong pleasure. I’ll keep playing as long as i can physically handle it.”

DECATUR, Ga. — Bill Hargrove took three small steps and dropped the ball at his feet with a loud clunk. While it rolled slowly down the lane, he held up his right arm in a camera-friendly pose.

Good form, especially for someone who’s 106 and can’t see what he’s aiming at.

At a well-worn strip mall in suburban Atlanta, Hargrove became the oldest league bowler in U.S. history Wednesday. Leading off for “Bill’s Bunch,” he knocked down nine pins with his first throw and averaged 93 in the three-game match.

“I haven’t really given it much thought,” Hargrove said. “I just go with the punches.”

But plenty of others thought the occasion was worthy of notice. The United States Bowling Congress sent a representative all the way from Wisconsin to present Hargrove with a plaque. His minister came out. So did more than a dozen friends, who took turns posing for pictures with the man of the hour.

Hargrove surpassed the record that was held by 105-year-old John Venturello of Sunrise, Fla., a certified bowler until his death in 1993. The new record holder turned 106 last week.

“Unless someone can prove us wrong,” said Mark Miller, a spokesman for the USBC, “we believe he’s the oldest bowler in the world.”

A few months ago, one of Hargrove’s good friends asked him, “What is your goal in life?”

“I know that really seems like a dumb question to be asking a 105-year-old,” said Tom Smith, who bowls with Hargrove in another league closer to his north Georgia home. “But he told me, ‘I want to be 106, so when I throw that first ball I’ll be the oldest sanctioned bowler ever.’ He really wanted to set the record. And he did it.”

Hargrove lost most of his sight with the passage of time, but his love of bowling never waned. He took up the sport in 1924 and remains passionate about every throw.

“It’s been a lifelong pleasure,” he said. “I’ll keep playing as long as I can physically handle it.”

Actually, Hargrove was starting to wear down from the grind of having to play three straight games in the league format. But his teammates got him a lighter ball about six weeks ago, he now throws an 8 pounder instead of a 10, which has improved his scores and made it easier to keep going. Special holes were drilled into the ball at an angle, making it easier for him to handle with his arthritic finger.

Hargrove works around his other limitations.

Since he can’t see the pins at the far end of the lane, he relies on a teammate to tell him which ones are standing after his first throw. Hargrove can’t get much speed on the ball, so he has to rely on precision to knock down as many pins as possible. Occasionally, he dumps one in the gutter. More often, he puts the ball right where he’s aiming.

“He’s a joy to be around,” said Flo Burrell, a teammate who started bowling 10 years ago at Hargrove’s urging. “To be 106, it’s amazing that’s he’s still here, much less being able to bowl.”

Eighty-one-year-old Hubert Davis has been a member of “Bill’s Bunch” for three years. He’s usually the one who leans in close while Hargrove is feeling for his ball, telling him what pins are left and sometimes giving him a bit of advice.

“This is what keeps him going,” Davis said. “He lives to bowl.”

For much of his life, Hargrove played a version of the game known as “duckpin bowling,” which is played with a smaller ball, minus the finger holes, and allows three throws per frame instead of two.

As duckpins faded in popularity, Hargrove took up the more popular form of bowling in 1970, and just kept right on going. It helped him cope with heartache, such as his wife’s death in ‘73. It gave him something to look forward to when retirement became a little lonely.

“I love it,” he said. “It puts you on trial as far as your ability. And your ability comes and goes. I’m fighting it all the time.”

In Hargrove’s other league, he leads a team known as “Billy and the Kids,” which includes the 77-year-old Smith and his 76-year-old wife.

“We’re kids compared to him,” Smith quipped. “He’s always telling us, ‘You guys are barely out of diapers.’”

Wearing a tan shirt with his name written on the back in cursive script, Hargrove doesn’t let his age stifle his emotions.

“Oh, shoot,” he said at one point, having squandered the chance to pick up a spare. “I have a problem with those singles.”

After Hargrove delivered an unintended hook right into the gutter, Davis theorized that his teammate was a bit overwhelmed by all the attention. Still, over the course of three games, Hargrove managed two strikes and three spares. He usually knocked down at least seven or eight pins in the other frames.

“I don’t want to be embarrassed about my bowling,” he said. “When it gets embarrassing to me, that’s when I’m going to quit.”

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