I hope you don’t mind if I do a little “Throw Back” Tuesday bowling column this time around.
A “young” man I met for the first time in 2005 at the River Center for the then, American Bowling Congress Tournament, earlier this year made tournament appearance No. 71 at the event at the National Bowling Stadium in Reno, Nevada.
When he made that walk down center aisle on March 16 he tied Bill Doehrman and Joe Norris for the appearance record in the event.
Sylester Thiel was very hopeful to set the mark in 2017 at 82, but sadly Thiel passed away in Lake City, Minnesota on May 31.
I was fortunate in late March 2005 to watch Thiel create some of his long history here, and the following is a part of a column I wrote as part of our tournament coverage at that time:
The 72-year-old Thiel became just the eighth bowler to total more than 100,000 career tournament pins Thursday night in the first game of the late team shift with a ninth frame strike that put him past 159 for the game that would up as a 198. An alert mechanic was on top of the situation and grabbed the final pin to fall in the strike, a shot a bit high that toppled the four pin for the strike, and tournament officials gave it to him after the milestone.
Equally outstanding was the standing ovation his fellow bowlers gave him in the paddock when they first presented him with his plaque for his 60th ABC Tournament appearance. I don’t know what’s more impressive, the 100,000 pins or the 60 ABC appearances, which began in 1940. He’s bowled in 41 straight tournaments and who knows how far this run will continue.
“I will continue bowling as long as I can. I’m not ready for the rocking chair,” Thiel said afterwards, when relaxing in the media relations office of the tournament.
Thiel started his life in bowling in Detroit, his hometown. It’s a life that makes you understand how much the game has changed. How pin boys became automatic pinsetters, how hand written scorers became monster computer boards.
“I was a raised in a neighborhood where there was a local bowling alley. I used to sit in the foul box and call the fouls,” Thiel recalled citing details like it happened just yesterday. “When someone fouled I had to flip the switch and the next thing I knew I had a fist in my face because I called the foul. I used to bowl after school, pay 15 cents a game and I bowled two games every day. Then I went to work at Kroger where I delivered groceries in a wagon, on a sled during the winter. On the weekend, when I made a few extra pennies, it went toward bowling.”
Thiel bowled his first league during the 1935-36 season in Detroit and became a fixture in the Detroit Classic League, a traveling league that bowled in a different Detroit area center every week. At that time, the area was one of the nation’s bowling hot beds and all the big stars tried their hand at the Classic League and Thiel’s 198 average more than held his own.
“I bowled (the tournament) when there were pin boys,” he said. “I’ll never forget we bowled in 1949 in Atlantic City and it was raining and it was coming in on lane one. We were bowling on lanes one and two. There was a rooster tail of water on lane one. I’ll never forget that. I remember this tournament that if you got 3 or 4 inches of hook you were doing very well. The balls didn’t hook very much. Today, they hook two, three feet at least. They just go. You must have speed. It’s a young man’s sport. It was changed. In 1940, I was still a young boy and using a 15-pound ball. Today I’m using a 13-pound ball. That’s the difference. The lane conditions have changed so much.”
Maybe the most amazing thing, is that Dec. 1 (2004), a Mayo Clinic helicopter was picking Thiel up after he suffered a heart attack. After an emergency procedure and seven days in the hospital, the first thing Thiel asked his doctor was “When could I bowl?” The doctor told him to wait a couple of days. Thiel did and his first game back was a 253. The trip to Baton Rouge was back on the schedule.
After 60 years, Theil has become a walking history of the ABC Tournament and bowling in general and there appears to be no stopping him right now for a guy whose career average in the tournament is 188.
“I enjoy the companionship, the fellowship,” he said. “My team sticks with me and we all have a great time. I want to add on to those 100,000 pins. My ambition is to see if I can move up in position. I’m getting up in age, but I feel good and this is a wonderful sport and I’m happy to be a part of it.”
In doubles and singles, Thiel had games of 216 and 210, for a 1,589 all-events total making his career total now at 101,430 pins.
Syl, thanks for the history lesson and letting us be a part of your special night.
Hope you enjoyed reading and sharing a few memories from 2005 at the River Center. Thiel’s appearance in Baton Rouge in the 2012 tourney would be No. 66 and he left here with just shy of 110,000 pins. He finished with 114,297 pins, sixth among the 19 bowlers to presently have 100,000 pins knocked down. He was certainly loved by a lot of people that worked the tournament year-after-year and waited for his return. It’s hard to imagine he will not get the chance for the record-breaking appearance No. 72.
There are the stories that make covering the Open a special event and we look forward to the stories that will be here for us in the spring of 2017 when the USBC Women’s Championship comes to Baton Rouge and the River Center. Thanks for joining us and until June 21, good luck and good bowling.