Bowling league turning 100 years old

When Bill Couch joined the Los Angeles Metro Telco Bowling League in 1957, he pulled in a salary of $52 a week working for the local telephone company. The average yearly wage was $4,550, you could buy a new car for less than $3,000, and gas set you back to the tune of 24 cents per gallon.

Yet these prices, too, might have seemed grossly inflated to anyone who bowled the Telco league in the year of its inception: 1911.

“Yep, we’re 100 years old,” says longtime Telco league member Ron Stearns, who joined the league in 1964 and also serves as its treasurer.

The Telco league that W.W. Bunton began as league president in 1911 was open only to employees of the local phone company, and only to men. Women were not yet able to vote in all 50 states, and the telephone itself was still so new that inventor Alexander Graham Bell’s patent was only 35 years old.

But the Telco league of today is one in which each team is required to have at least one woman, and bowlers no longer have to be employed by the phone company to shoe up and bowl.

“We had our first female president in 2003,” Couch says.

That may seem like a lot of change since Mr. Bunton’s day, but for many Telco league bowlers, a lot of things remain the same.

Bowlers like Richard Thorson, for example, who bought his first bowling ball the year he joined the league in 1964 and threw that same ball for the next 40 years.

“I had never thrown a fingertip ball until I got my new one about five years ago,” Thorson says.

Many of the league’s more senior members retired from the phone company years ago, but that doesn’t mean they’re taking it easy.

“We’re all retired from the phone company now, but I am still a phone man and so is Bill, and even though we’re old farts we still do jobs together,” Stearns says.

They may be retired from the telephone business, but they have no plans of retiring from the lanes anytime soon.

“I think I’m going to be buried on one of the lanes,” says Syd Byford, a Telco league bowler since 1974. “When we bowl there will be a bump about two thirds of the way down the lane, and that will be me kicking people’s bowling balls into the gutter.”

Above: Pickwick Bowl in Burbank, Calif. has hosted the Telco league for the past 35 years

Many years have gone by since the days when a quarter bought you a tank of gas, and the Telco league has called many different bowling centers home since the day Bill Couch showed up at Hollywood Star Lanes in Hollywood to bowl his first three games of league with buddies from the phone company. But one constant remains after all the years and the changes that came with them: Come Tuesday night, the only place you can find Bill Couch is out on the lanes.

“Tuesday night I drive to the bowling alley and I bowl three games and go home,” Couch says. “There’s not much more that can be said.”

Couch and the rest of the Telco crew have followed their league to just about every corner of L.A. County over the years, from Hollywood Lanes to Grand Central Lanes in Burbank to Canoga Bowl in Canoga Park, Reseda Bowl in Reseda and most recently to Pickwick Bowl back in Burbank, the center that the Telco league has called home for the past 35 years.

And if Couch and his buddies from the old days have their way, they’ll call it home for another 35 years.

“I just like to bowl. That’s what I keep telling my back surgeon,” Ron Stearns jokes. “I tell him that as long as I can bowl I am not going to have another back surgery. I’ve had two back surgeries and I had surgery on my bowling hand last Wednesday. So I am out for a couple of weeks – but I’ll be back in two weeks!”

“That’s just the way we were brought up by Mother Bell,” Syd Byford says, “and that’s the way we continued to do things. We do it once a week and goof around once a week – and some of us goof around more than once a week. We all grew up together in the phone company so it was like our own family. When you were part of the phone company it didn’t matter if you knew the other bowlers because they all made you feel welcome when you showed up.”

It is a family that remembers days when they held their end-of-season banquet at the Los Angeles Police Academy before heading off to the Dodgers game, younger days when the night had only just gotten started after the last game of league.

“We were a little younger then and there was a little partying going on afterwards,”  Richard Thorson says. “You know, the usual stuff when you’re young and wild.”

But if you’re hoping to hear some of Thorson’s party stories, you may be waiting a while.

“Yeah, I’ve got some good party stories, but I can’t tell you any of them,” he laughs.

Most of the Telco bowlers may be a little older these days, and those end-of-season excursions to Dodgers Stadium may have given way to a trip to the Viva Fresh Mexican Restaurant across the street from Pickwick Bowl where they recount another season gone by over a modest meal. But they do still head out to Vegas each year for an annual tournament called the West Coast Telco Bowling Tournament, which attracts up to 200 teams each year.

“I’m a hot rodder; I have a race car in my garage and I am 70 years old but I am still young at heart,” says Ron Stearns, who built a Fiat A/A coupe in 1958 and raced it to victory for the next several years with his Ratican-Jackson-Stearns drag racing team.

Above: Ron Stearns revs up the old Ratican-Jackson-Stearns Hot Rod

“Last weekend we had a big reunion for all of us old-timers,” he says. “We push-started the cars down the strip and made a lot of noise.”

And as soon as that bowling hand heals in a couple of weeks, Bill, Syd, Richard and the rest of the boys can bet that Mr. Stearns will make some noise on the lanes again too.