Pin Action — Gianmarc Manzione introduces us to the world of bowling hustlers

Venture into the seamy, vainglorious, cut-throat scene of bygone pros like Ernie Schlegel, Checkbook Al, Goldfinger and Bobby Pancakes.

We’re a disaster.

It’s 3 p.m. at University Lanes in Temple Terrace. There are a handful of families bowling, 9 year olds rattling bumpers. I’m a dilettante, bowling maybe once a year, so I don’t feel too bad about the stumbling boulders I’m hucking.

But my opponent is Gianmarc Manzione, new editor of Bowler’s Journal and author of Pin Action, a manic saga of bowling hustlers. He’s been bowling since he was 9, including his own stint of successful gambling, and he rolled up to our match with a well-worn bowling bag, two pro balls and his own pair of menacing all-black shoes. He throws a spinning hook that looks like a gravitational anomaly out of Interstellar.

But none of that’s doing him much good as he drops spares left and right and ekes out the very occasional strike. He’s still kicking my ass — but my score looks like it belongs to one of the 9-year-olds. He’s had a busy couple of years, he explains in his faint Brooklyn accent, and hasn’t been bowling much. “You lose your timing.”

Our scores don’t bear printing. Instead of continuing to degrade ourselves, we step behind the line for afternoon beers. Manzione, born and raised in Brooklyn, reminisces about his own brief stint in the action.

“When I was like 16 I used to go to this place called Leemark Lanes on 88th street between 4th and 5th Avenue in Brooklyn — which, sadly, has been torn down. We used to bowl pot games after the leagues were done, 10 or 11 o'clock at night. I would do really well.”

But he was catching only the faintest glimpse of what was once a feverish world of late-night bowling vice, when betting on pins — so-called “action bowling” — was as passionate as on horses. With bowling’s mainstream popularity exploding in the 1960s and 1970s, New York’s lanes filled with gamblers and hustlers. They had names like Checkbook Al, Goldfinger, and Bobby Pancakes, and behind them lurked enough mobsters and shylocks to give the whole thing a jagged edge.

”I came around when that era was very long gone,” says Manzione.

But over the years, he became fascinated by its history and characters. A crucial moment came in 1995, when he tuned into a televised bowling match and spied a guy named Ernie Schlegel. At 52, Schlegel hadn’t appeared in a high-profile tournament in years, but he strutted like a peacock. When his opponent left one pin standing to give him the match, Schlegel exploded from his seat shouting, “I am the greatest! Muhammad Ali!”

Manzione was captivated. “It’s one of the most memorable moments in Professional Bowling Association telecasts. I thought, holy shit, this guy’s fucking nuts.”

Manzione moved from Brooklyn to Florida a decade ago, following his extended family, and met Ernie Schlegel in person at the Stuart Bowl in Stuart, Fla., where he appeared with the Generations bowling tour. Schlegel’s first words to Manzione, delivered in a marble-mouthed drawl, were “I’m da greatest hustlah dat evah lived.”

“I thought, I’ve got a character on my hands,” says Manzione. “I knew it.”

Over years of interviews, Manzione learned more and more about Schlegel’s rocky rise from street tough to PBA Hall of Famer, peppered with drug habits, dry spells and stabbings. Schlegel would become the backbone of Pin Action, the crazed center holding together a dizzying, rollicking book packed to the gills with shady characters and violent capers.

Turning Schlegel and his world into a book was a backbreaking process. Manzione turned bowling detective, following leads from Schlegel to track down former greats who had left their pasts as hustlers and champions behind them. “I found guys on my own that Ernie couldn’t believe I had found,” like Mike Limongello, a notorious hustler turned PBA hall of famer who now deals and plays blackjack in Atlantic City.

The business of publishing a book was new to Manzione. “I was writing this thing in the dark, no editor, no publisher, just because I dug the stories and I loved writing.”

His New School MFA in poetry wasn’t much help. But the doors broke open when he landed a feature about Schlegel in the New York Times in late 2012. Within eight months, he had a book contract.

In our second game, I throw three strikes and a spare for 101, to Gianmarc’s five strikes and a spare for 178. A couple of beers later, we’ve been blessed by the touch of vice.

Exploring the dark side has had a similar effect on Manzione’s life. After years of gutting it out as a hotel clerk and harried writing instructor, publishing Pin Action was quickly followed by his new full-time editing gig. He’s also started doing commentary for pro bowling events, and has a new baby.

Manzione hopes to write another book, or at least to keep making his living in a world as hardscrabble as the midnight lanes once were.

“I am in love with people’s stories. I see someone sitting at a bus stop bench, I want to know their story.”

I wouldn’t bet against him.

Manzione will read and sign books at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 13, at Haslam’s Book Store, 2025 Central Avenue, St. Petersburg.

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