Every sport has them, prodigies whose vices overshadow their talent, players whose flashes of brilliance are the only light that shines in the darkness of personal struggle. Baseball had Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry. Football has Michael Vick and Adam "Pac Man" Jones. Bowling, for a time, had a now-forgotten player by the name of Bobby Jacks.
The first time anyone outside his native New Orleans heard of Bobby Jacks, he was lighting himself a cigarette somewhere in the pages of a mid-‘60s issue of Bowlers Journal, on his way into a Bourbon Street Jazz club in the city streets his parents abandoned him to at age 11 when they divorced. A headline under the photo read “A Star in the Making,” and with that pompadour hairdo and slick black tie, who could argue otherwise?
“He’d wear shoes with spats on them, he’d have a cane, he’d wear exotic outfits to look like he was really rich,” says Phantom Radio’s Len Nicholson, who roomed with Jacks on tour now and then. “Diamond cufflinks, pinkie rings, he even had a shoe horn that was about three feet long. He’d use that to put on his bowling shoes.”
Dean Courtade, a mentor of Bobby’s from back in New Orleans, put it this way: “Bobby was exposed to the big money too soon.”
That certainly was the verdict at the American Junior Bowling Congress, whose officials expelled Jacks at age 13 after learning just how soon he came across that big money.
But the Bobby Jacks that Nicholson describes was just one of the many faces of the man Jacks would become. It was the face of the cocky kid who had just won three PBA titles in a single season before turning 20. The face of the kid who would look then-PBA tour player Curt Schmidt in the eye after losing to him in match play and ask the following: “Do you know who I am? What right have you got to beat me?”
“I never forgot that,” a chuckling Schmidt recalls.
Jacks could talk that way back then. After all, this was the19-year-old kid who won more titles in 1966 than Dick Weber, the kid who won as many titles as that year’s leading money winner and future Hall of Famer Wayne Zahn. In fact, eight PBA tournaments would be won by players 21 years of age or younger in 1966, and every one of them would someday count themselves as Hall of Famers — Johnny Petraglia, Barry Asher, Jim Godman, Mike Limongello.
Every one of them, that is, with the exception of Bobby Jacks — the player whom Lyle Zikes would rank nonetheless as “the most amazing teenage phenom of 1966” forty years later.
“He was a great talent, but his personal life killed him,” says Petraglia, who sponsored Jacks along with Don Johnson during his sensational season back in ‘66. “If Bobby would have had a normal upbringing, which he didn’t, he would have been one of the great ones.”
Those are the “ifs” and “would have beens” in which the other Bobby Jacks emerges. The Bobby Jacks who traded headlines and high fashion for time in the pen on charges of bad checks. The Bobby Jacks who went AWOL on the Army after two Armed Forces cops hauled him out of a tournament for ignoring a draft letter — all while family and friends watched from the stands.
The Bobby Jacks who collected sponsors like coins and dumped down the stretch in PBA tournaments to pocket their money and run; who was about as good a gambler as John Wayne was a ballerina, dropping $750 at a craps table and dismissing it as “nothing” because he “saw Sammy Davis drop $30,000.”
“Bobby did not seem unduly concerned,” Mort Luby noted of Bobby’s magnificent failures as a gambler.
Nor did Jacks seem “unduly concerned” to find himself broke in 1965 after pocketing $10,000 in tournament winnings that year. And how long did the winnings from his very first PBA title in 1966 last him? “Six weeks later he was broke,” bowling writer Lynda Collins reported. And what became of the $5,500 he picked up bowling a tournament called The Petersen Classic at Archer-35th Recreation in Chicago? Well, Jacks had an answer for that, too: “I spent it.”
Of course, there is always the tournament at which he banked three grand in the afternoon and dropped a thousand of it on a victory party that very night.
“It was a very gala affair,” a teenage Jacks explained at the time.
Bobby Jacks spent many things unwisely in his life — money, talent, youth, second chances.
“I wish there had been a PBA school in 1965,” Jacks complained years later. “It probably would have eliminated the problems I had then. It’s hard to be able to win, and not know how to accept it.”
But just as Doc Gooden came back to toss a no-hitter at Yankee Stadium in the sunset of his career, and just as Michael Vick stood behind center now and then for the Eagles last year, it would take more than a single wild season to waste the kind of talent Jacks was born with. Bobby Jacks always came back — again, and again.
Sponsors beckoned with dreams of a made-for-Hollywood comeback. Jacks bit the bait every time and went chasing the shadow of that stud with the diamond cufflinks and three-foot shoe horn. And every time he found just that — merely the shadow of the glory he basked in the night he paused to light a smoke on Bourbon Street for a reporter’s camera, the “star in the making” who, as bowling writer Jeff Weintraub put it, “not only lived in the fast lane, but had an almost total disdain for the lower gears.”
There he was in Baltimore, pushing Ernie Schlegel to the brink at the 1976 PBA Fair Lanes Open, only to watch Schlegel slam the door with two clutch strikes in the 10th to send him packing. And there he was again 10 years later, taking Dave Husted to the wire in Tuscon for the 1986 PBA Miller Light Challenge title, 20 years removed from his last win on tour, only to watch Husted step up in the 10th and do to him what Schlegel had done back in Baltimore.
Catching a glimpse of Bobby Jacks on a PBA telecast was a lot like spotting a comet. It didn’t happen often and, when it did, you’d better be ready to witness it because it could be years before the next time.
And just like spotting a comet in the sky, watching Jacks bowl was about as unusual a spectacle as you could witness. The 5-foot-6 lefty had no slide whatsoever, planting his foot at the foul line and cranking the ball into a violent roll that sent it nearly sideways as it neared the pocket. And when he struck, the pins blew into the pit like beach umbrellas in a hurricane.
It is anyone’s guess where Jacks disappeared to in the wasted years between his fleeting comebacks, but those who knew him had their hunches. Maybe you could find him at the horse track. Maybe you could find him throwing down another wad of someone else’s cash at the craps table. Maybe you could find him hawking fine clothes for $150 a week at his buddy’s fashion shop or tending bar out west.
More often than not, you could probably find him counting days in the county jail, where another bad check or a debt he owed to the sort of people you only fail to pay if you’re no longer interested in living (sponsors with gangster names like Izzy La Brosse), swept him off the streets for months or years at a time.
By the time of his second and final comeback in the mid-1980s, the legend of Bobby Jacks was a thing of such common knowledge that Lynda Collins got no farther than the opening sentence of her 1986 story, “The trials of Bobby Jacks,” before making sure to disclose the following: “Bobby Jacks has been out of prison and on parole for about four years.”
And that, it turns out, is the last that anyone heard of Bobby Jacks. Some stories have him working the front desk at a bowling center in Bakersfield. Some have him dying in jail when his many debtors worked what connections they had “on the inside” and gave him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Others have it that his body was found in, well, places you wouldn’t want to be caught dead in.
Anyone who was paying attention along the way, though, would have seen that Bobby’s entire life was a gradual disappearing act.
The headline that heralded his arrival on the scene after that first title in 1966, for instance, credited a certain “Bobby Jones” instead.
“I wish they’d confuse our bank accounts while they’re at it,” Jacks quipped of the confusion between himself and Bobby Jones the golfer.
And the trophies from those only three PBA titles he ever won, all within a single summer? He lost them. To top it all off, the PBA stripped him of those titles and expelled him from their ranks, such was their sense of humor about players who spent their off time in jail.
Wherever Bobby Jacks disappeared to in the end, the stories he left behind reveal the character of a man who lived life his way. It may not have always been the best way; most of the time, in fact, it wasn’t. But it was the only way he knew how to live it, and for a kid raised on the streets of New Orleans with little more than a passive grandfather to call a parent, maybe it is a wonder that he managed to make as much of his talent as he did.