1979 Classic Team champions reunite at 2019 USBC Open Championships

By Matt Cannizzaro and Daniel Farish
USBC Communications

On May 18 at the 1979 United States Bowling Congress Open Championships in Tampa, Florida, the members of Robby's Automatic Positioner 1 of Glendale, California, posted the score that went on to win the Classic Team title, outdistancing teams that were stacked with some of the best bowlers in the world.

It was the first, and last time, those five bowlers would compete on the same team - until this week in Las Vegas, when they reunited on the championship lanes for the 40th anniversary of their memorable victory.

The reunion was 18 months in the making, with each competitor promising to make the trip to the South Point Bowling Plaza to compete together at the 2019 USBC Open Championships.

Tom Laskow of Dover, New Jersey, came up with the idea almost two years ago and reached out to two of his former teammates, Fred Conner of Henderson, Nevada, and Butch Soper of Lake Havasu City, Arizona. After speaking with them, Laskow decided he wanted to track down the other two members of the team.

"Fred and I went on a search to find Jack (Andolina) and Boysie (Huber)," said Laskow, who runs a pro shop in New Jersey. "We knew Boysie was in St. Louis, so I reached out to Pete and Rich Weber, thinking they might know. Fred found Jack through some people on Facebook, and we all met for dinner last January out here in Las Vegas."

It was at that dinner, together for the first time in nearly four decades, that the group decided when and where to make its return to the biggest stage in bowling.

"We wanted to do it on the 40th anniversary," said Conner, who would be making his 15th trip to the Open Championships.

"Plus, it would be my 40th appearance here, which is kind of cool," Laskow said.

Laskow and Soper continued traveling to the Open Championships following their 1979 title, with Soper's participation concluding in 2011. Conner bowled a few more times and then took some time away as life moved him in a different direction. He has competed each year since 2014.

It was Andolina and Huber who had to readjust to putting their hands in a bowling ball.

"After I left the (Professional Bowlers Association Tour) in 1982, I didn't pick up a ball for nearly 35 years and didn't have anything to do with bowling," said Huber, who logged 20 games of practice over the last two months. "Then, out of the blue, Tommy calls me. I guess he found me on Google and put this all together. When he told me about it, it got me really excited about bowling again."

Huber found out pretty quickly that the old adage of "tried and true" doesn't apply to 40-year-old bowling ball technology.

"I drilled a few balls before coming out here, and I tried using a Hammer I had 40 years ago, but it went as straight as can be. Well, that didn't work. But, this game is like riding a bike. If you can get to the line, you'll be fine."

While Andolina found the conditions to be challenging, that wasn't the toughest part for him. It was the simple act of putting his hand in the ball, something that was painful and threatened to keep him from returning to the Open Championships for the first time since 1997.

Fortunately, bowlers always seem to find a way to compete, no matter what it takes.

"I was going to have surgery, but they gave me some shots in my hand," said Andolina, who had a few balls drilled by Laskow in his New Jersey pro shop. "I still didn't know if I was going to be able to bowl. Tommy told me he didn't care if I had to throw it with two hands, which apparently they do nowadays. But, this was a lot of fun. Tough, but fun."

After their success in 1979, the teammates went their separate ways and didn't make the return to the 1980 event in Louisville, Kentucky, to defend their title. In the eyes of Soper, that only means one thing.

"We're still the best team in the last 40 years, because no one has beaten us," Soper said, laughing as the team agreed in unison. "They say you're only as good as your last performance. Well, guess what? Last time out, we won."

Additionally, 1979 marked the final year of the Classic Division, which was introduced in 1961, shortly after the creation of the PBA, to separate professional and non-professional entrants.

In its 2019 return, the group was in tune with the current fashion, too, wearing the same style of bowling jerseys that a lot of tournament and league bowlers now wear during competition. But, they added their own flair, as the jerseys were designed with the same color and sponsor that they had in 1979, which brought up one of Soper's favorite stories from that entire experience.

"We were walking through the tunnel, and Nelson Burton Jr. was knocking our canary yellow shirts, teasing us about the color," Soper said. "And I told him, 'Well this canary is going to fly back home with an Eagle,' and we did."

Burton, a USBC Hall of Famer, also had success at the 1979 event, shooting 300 during doubles en route to the Classic Doubles title with his brother Neil. It was one of Nelson's record nine titles on the championship lanes. The two also own the Open Championships record for titles by brothers (11) and titles as a family, as Nelson Burton Sr. added one to the tally.

Conner admits that while the odds were not in their favor, their dedication to each other is what set them apart and allowed them to pull off the unthinkable.

"What I remember most is the camaraderie we had with one another," said Conner, who lives just minutes from the South Point Bowling Plaza. "We practiced together, ate together and drank together. We even played frisbee. The odds were not in our favor, bowling against all those pros."

"But, we were able to take the lead, and after the final ball, our names were still on top of the leaderboard. Coming back today, seeing our names up there with the gold cups next to them was so cool. It's a huge deal to me because I've bowled my whole life."

With the average age on the team sitting at 69 years old, the guys realized this year's outing probably wasn't going to net them the same success they found 40 years ago. Knowing that going in, they only had one plan.

"You know what our goal was?" Conner asked. "It was to not get hurt, and for none of us go out on a stretcher or in an ambulance. And, our goal was achieved, because we are all still standing here talking."

Soper, who enjoyed a 29-year career on the PBA Tour that included six national titles along the way, made sure to reiterate how much fun he had during the reunion this week.

"We knew we wouldn't do anything as far as scoring out here, since we're 40 years past our prime," said Soper, who also logged his 29th appearance at the Open Championships. "But man, this was a lot of fun, and I can't wait to hit the lanes tomorrow night for doubles and singles."

Competing in the Regular Division, the returning champions put up respectable team scores of 899, 829 and 899 for a 2,627 total. Conner led the group with a 596 series and was followed by Soper (582), Laskow (504), Huber (474) and Andolina (471).

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