April 22, 2010
Marion Ladewig looks out from behind the pins one winter afternoon as she fills in for an absent pinboy. It is a vantage point from which she sees how the best shots differ from the way she throws the ball herself; they are slower, they approach the pocket from more of an angle, and they always push all ten pins back into the pit where she waits to set them up once again.
Ladewig does not know that she has just discovered the thing that will win her the first of three National Women’s High Average awards, the thing that will nudge her closer to the bowling royalty she’s destined for.
And she has no idea that the house in which she sets up the pins today — Bill Morrissey’s “Fanatorium” at 40 Jefferson Avenue SE in Grand Rapids — will someday be known to locals as “The House that Marion Built.”
To Marion, it will always just be “The Fan,” a place she entered with some girlfriends one day only after tossing a coin as she fretted over a particularly agonizing decision — whether to spend her last 20 cents on an ice cream soda or a game of bowling.
“It came up heads, which meant bowling, and the start of a spectacular career on the hardwood,” Henry Martin wrote in the Chicago Tribune.
Now a year or two removed from the coin toss that changed bowling history, another Michigan winter is icing over the softball fields where her powerful arm so thoroughly persuaded Morrissey of her potential as a bowler that she would practice for free at The Fan every day for 22 years. And the woman who will become bowling’s “Queen” is a policeman’s daughter who empties ashtrays for $2.50 a day.
“The number of ashtrays I’ve emptied is more than the number of pins I’ve toppled,” she would tell the Chicago Tribune’s Dave Condon years later.
By then, Ladewig will be the grandmother of five who has just won her third consecutive World’s Invitational title at 50 years old.
In that era of rubber balls and spray cans, she will also have averaged 248 for an eight-game block and 211 for the week at the 1951 All-Star, where “the Grand Rapids lady came down the stretch like a true queen” as Bowlers Journal put it.
That performance was easily good enough to capture her third-consecutive All-Star title and, had she been given the chance, good enough to win the Men’s title that year as well (Men’s champion Junie McMahon averaged 210).
“Yessiree, dem frails are getting rougher each year. Better look to your laurels, men,” a 1952 story in Bowlers Journal read in the wake of that performance. “Marion Ladewig proved herself to be one of the outstanding woman bowlers of all time by winning her third consecutive All-Star title, a feat that will stand for a long time.”
Actually, that feat hardly wrote the first chapter of the Marion Ladewig story; she would win the next two All-Star tournaments as well and eight altogether. And when the Professional Woman Bowlers Association conducted its first-ever tournament in Miami in 1960, the winner was — you guessed it — Marion Ladewig.
“What can we do with ‘Mechanical’ Marion?” Doc Hattstrom asked in a 1953 Bowlers Journal story. “It has been suggested that Marion be declared unconquerable and therefore be retired with pension and the title of Unbeaten Champion.”
“She could close herself away and not even know who was around her when she bowled,” 1966 Bowler of the Year Joy Abel remembers. “She had the ability to focus, and you can’t be a champion without that.”
The headlines then accompanying Ladewig’s ongoing dominance reflected the longevity of a career which began with a $500 check for first at the Chicago Herald American tournament in 1939, enough to cover exactly 200 days of emptying those ashtrays at The Fan.
“Grandma Strikes Again,” one of them read.
“Carter And Ladewig Again” read another.
“Hurricane Donna wasn’t the only storm to sweep through Miami last month,” Mort Luby Jr. said of her PWBA performance. “She was preceded a week earlier by a seasoned tempest from Grand Rapids, Mich.”
“She could have beaten most of the men,” Don Carter, the King to Ladewig’s Queen in the bowling world of the 1950s, said from his Florida home after news of Ladewig’s death at age 95 on April 16. “She was one of the most accurate bowlers I ever met, rarely missed the pocket.”
PBA and USBC Hall of Famer Chuck Pezzano agrees.
“Marion would win the tournament and her average most times would be good enough to make the finals against the men,” Pezzano says. “She was completely dominant, a nine-time Bowler of the Year. She was just fantastic.”
It was an era during which writers referred to women as “dem frails,” an era in which Bowlers Journal assured readers that they “do not approve the wearing of slacks by girls in a national meet . . . even though they look neat in ‘em.”
But Ladewig’s defiance of gender roles began decades before she ever set foot inside a bowling center. It began, in fact, before she was even born, when her mother so expected to have a boy that “she gave her the boy’s name of Marion instead of spelling it Marian,” Bowlers Journal reported in 1957.
“The thing that Marion Ladewig did was to open the sport to women,” 1958 WIBC All-Events winner Patty McBride McCormick said in 2006. “In many cases, bowling was seen as a bar-room sport. You bowled in dark, smoky places and those were places young women just didn’t go to.”
“She was the one who put women’s bowling on the map,” two-time All-Star champion Dottie Fothergill said days after Ladewig’s death. “She was the best, and that took a lot of work and practice.”
The queen with the “boy’s name” came to be known by many names in her life – “Queen Marion,” “Mechanical Marion” or, in a 1954 Chicago Tribune story 17 years into her career, merely “Grandma.” As her trophies grew so numerous that they should have chipped in for the rent, though, only one designation would do: “the greatest of all time.”
“In the basement of her home on Michigan Street, there’s a small office boasting three sides of floor-to-ceiling glass cases bearing just some of her trophies,” Bob Becker noted in The Grand Rapids Press in 2006. “Many more are stored away, while others are in the Women’s International Bowling Congress Hall of Fame.”
No matter how many storage facilities she needed to contain her trophies, though, Marion Ladewig always remained the 5-foot-4 lady from Grand Rapids who insisted to the end that she had “little native ability” for bowling.
“If there was any reason for the success I had,” she said towards the end of her life, “it was the fact that the game never became easy for me, and I always had to keep working at it.”
No one knew better than Ladewig exactly what that work entailed: the times Bill Morrissey took over front counter duties at The Fan because he heard that work had kept her too busy to practice that day, how sharply the steel exterior she wore on the lanes contrasted with the rattled girl inside of her, those long drives in the back of Morrissey’s car as he and his wife did what they could to calm a tearful Ladewig’s nerves after another grueling block at the All-Star.
“I thought if I couldn’t win the tournament it would kill me,” Ladewig told Bowlers Journal in 1964. “I couldn’t take the strain. Well, finally I learned how to lose, but I never learned how to beat the strain.”
“They say she’s an iceberg, these reporters,” Morrissey, the demanding coach whom Ladewig constantly credited for her success, hissed at the time. “How little they know about her. I tell you sometimes her heart was pounding so hard it was ready to jump out of her body.”
That was the Marion Ladewig known only to the Queen herself and, of course, to the coach who started her on the road from that softball field to the throne she would claim.
It was the Ladewig who said that she entered the 1956 All-Star weighing 126 pounds and “must have lost five or six” by the time she threw her final shot, the Ladewig whose trademark became the wad of gum she constantly worked to settle her nerves, the Ladewig whom bowling writer Byron Schoeman described as “the coolest cat you would ever want to see” on the lanes, “but take a look at her as she emerges from the dressing room, watch her as she gets ready to bowl,” he noted. “She’s nervous as a cat, and somehow you doubt if she ever will be able to as much as take the ball from the rack and start bowling.”
Nervous or not, she always did pick up that ball from the rack and start bowling. And by the time an 85-year-old Marion Ladewig finally threw her last ball at The Fan before it closed for good in 2000, nearly 70 years after she stood outside its doors and tossed a coin to choose between an ice cream soda and the very first game of her career (she bowled an 84), who is to say that the late Bill Morrissey was not there in some form anyhow to smile on a life well lived?