Thursday, January 20, 2011

23 Questions with…Fraser Hambly

Since I started this blog, I've been saying that this sort of venture isn't something I would be able to do alone, and thankfully right from the very beginning I haven't had to.  I've had some of the premier bowlers in Canada contribute to this site, making what I think a very valuable resource for any 5pin bowler.  I've been working with an idea to take a glimpse into the minds of the prominent figures in our sport.  Taking this idea and running with it, is Steve Barker.  Over the course of time, Barker will be picking the brains of bowlers across Canada for your reading enjoyment.  What better way to start Barker's feature on this site, than with the man sits at the top of Ontario's top 90 bowlers of all time, Fraser Hambly.

23 Questions with...Fraser Hambly

In most sports, the greatest players can often be recognized by one name. Golf has Jack, Arnie, Ernie, Phil, Tiger and Elin (oops). In hockey, you knew who the announcers were talking about if you heard Gordie, Wayne or Mario. 5-Pin has a few of their own, but the most recognizable has got to be FRASER.

Inducted into the O5PBA Hall of Fame in 1989, Fraser Hambly's accomplishments and contribution to our game is incredible. He is the only 4-time Ontario Open Singles Champion and turned those wins into 2 National Titles to go with a Silver and a Bronze. He has also won 5 Open Team Championships in Ontario. Between the Open and the Masters, Fraser has won a National Championship in 5 decades! In addition to winning adult league High Average titles in 6 consecutive decades, he has also won 60+ tournaments, spanning 6 decades. In 1974, Fraser won the Canadian Invitational Singles, netting $10,000! (Worth about $100,000 now)
A 10-time winner on the regular MBAO tournament tour, Fraser has also won 9 Senior Scratch titles. Fraser has thrown an incredible 16 Perfect games (2 sanctioned), an 1162 triple, 1654 for 5, 3087 for 10, and held a league average of 289!!
A member of the C5 All-Century team, Fraser was also voted Ontario's #1 Bowler of all-time in the 1999 "Top 90" list.

I recently had the privilege to delve into the mind of a legend;

Fraser, we appreciate you taking time for us.

At what age did you start bowling? 12

Did you play YBC?

No, but I played CJBC (Canadian Junior Bowling Congress) for a few years, before our team was banned for bowling in a men’s league and accepting prize money.

Do you recall what you averaged back then?

At 12, I averaged 212; at 13 and 14, I averaged in the 240’s; at 15, I averaged in the 270’s; at 16, I averaged 287 (admittedly, scoring conditions were easy)

Most of us know that you throw a classic medium-speed back-up ball.
How many steps do you take in your approach?

I take what I call a 3 1/2 step approach, the first “step” being a shuffle step with my right foot to start the approach.

What do you use for a target?

I use the arrows for the most part, but I also use the boards between the arrows, and I often look down the lane past the arrows to ensure getting the ball out.

How many league games do you currently play per week?

I play 4 games per week and have done that for the last 8 years, usually throwing in 1 practice session. * I’m currently not playing the 2nd half at Bathurst – retirement looms?)

What is the highest number of leagues you've ever played at one time? 3

What is your current average?  Rather not say, let’s just say it’s embarrassing.

What is/was your highest EVER league average? 289

At what stage(s) of your development did your average drastically improve, and what lead to the significant change?

My average improved dramatically after my first year of bowling (212 to 242) mainly because I was bowling more, starting to set pins, and receiving some basic instruction. The manager (Dick Bell) at Shea’s Avenue Road also let us bowl for free quite often, much to the chagrin of the owner. We would take turns setting pins for each other.

Then after 2 years in the 240’s, my average went up to over 270. This was mainly due to instruction by Ted Datzeff. He spent quite a bit of time with me, and really stressed rhythm, balance, consistency and a never-give-up attitude. I also started bowling in one of the top men’s major leagues of the day, and got to see just how the best players went about their business.

In your prime, did you normally practice each week?

I normally wouldn’t practice in my prime because I was bowling 2/3 leagues, bowling all kinds of sweeps (money games after bowling), and bowling all kinds of tournaments. I suppose the sweeps (especially the smaller ones) were a type of practice. If my game got a bit off, I would occasionally throw in a practice session, and concentrate on the fundamentals.

Did you specifically practice before a big tournament?

With the amount of bowling I was doing, I would seldom practice before a big tournament. If anything, I would bowl less, so that I would be fresh mentally and physically for a big tourney. The famous golfer Jack Nicklaus was one of the first to use this type of “peaking”, and Tiger Woods has certainly followed this method

If so, what methods/drills do you use?

When I did practice, I would try and find a condition similar to the upcoming tournament, and work on the speed and rotation of the ball that I thought would be effective. I also always spent some time shooting corners.

Personalized bowling balls have been around for just over 20 years now. Before that, players had to adjust not only to different lanes, but to the different sizes and types of house balls. While personal balls are good for the image of 5-Pin, I also think that they have leveled the field somewhat because players can use different balls for certain conditions. Would you agree with that assessment and do you think that they're good for the game?

I think that personalized balls are wonderful for the sport, in that it gives the sport a more professional look, and that bowlers take pride in owning their own equipment. It’s great that any bowler can get a ball that fits their hand properly and feels the right weight to them. That being said, I do feel that personalized balls level the field somewhat, but to only a very small degree. They do help with varying lane speeds, but the bowler still has to be able to read the lanes correctly, and execute the shot. I think the sad part is that bowlers nowadays don’t have to learn as many different shots, but I still feel the best bowlers (not the best equipment) will prevail most often.

How many "sets" of balls do you own? 4

How many would you normally take to a tournament? 3

It amazes me how many different balls some players take to an event. I think that some people are too quick to change balls, rather than fixing a technical flaw or making a different adjustment. Plus, even when they're playing okay, in the back of their minds they must be wondering how their other balls might be working. What do you think? Are you of the mindset that you should adjust yourself first, or do you think the more tools in the box, the better?

I agree with you 100% that some people are way too quick to change balls. I remember bowling in a tournament where one of the guys warmed up with almost every ball being a perfect strike with proper rotation and speed, only to change balls after the 4th frame because of a poor start. His first 2 games were terrible, before he switched back to the original ball and bowled great – it was a perfect example of way too quick a change.

I personally always start with my preferred rubber balls, and if I don’t like the way they’re reacting, I’ll try a few adjustments. If the adjustments obviously aren’t working, then I’ll try different equipment. I have to be convinced in my own mind though, that it’s not my poor technique causing the problem before I’ll switch equipment.

What is/was your favourite event to compete in, and why?

The Ontario Open has long been my favourite tournament. Not only do you have to beat almost all the best bowlers in the province to win the Singles, you have the added thrill of Team play in an unmatched atmosphere anywhere else in 5-pin bowling. You have the thrill of the qualifying rounds in Hamilton, and the unparalleled excitement of the Stepladder Finals in front of a fired-up crowd.

What is/was your favourite bowling centre(s), and why?

I think my 2 favourite centres over the years were O’Connor Bowl and Willow Bowl. O’Connor was the first “modern-type” centre and it still holds up well even today. The owner John Martin was truly innovative – he held the first 10 game big money tournament (O’Connor Open), and he held many other important tournaments over the years, including the Marathon and the Canadian Invitational with a $10,000 first prize. I was very pleased to win both these tournaments. The early CBC shows were also held at O’Connor, and for years it was certainly the premier bowling centre in Ontario.

Willow Bowl was great in that the proprietors were very particular with having great conditions at all times. It also had the Friday Men’s Major league where virtually all the best bowlers in the city played – you had to shoot about 290 to win the high average, and there would be more than 20 players over 270 in the peak scoring years, partially attributable to the original blue band. Then there were the famous “sweeps” during and after Friday night bowling.

Which conditions/environments do you prefer? String or Freefall? Freefall
Wood or Synthetic? Wood

If you are throwing the ball consistently and are punching HEADPINS in bunches, how would you normally adjust?

The first thing I would try would be to move my starting approach spot ½ - 1 board either left or right.
If that didn’t work, I would try and slow my ball down either with a shorter approach or a shorter backswing.
Next, I would try and change my aiming spot slightly.
If those didn’t work, I would try and switch to either a softer or harder ball.
If none of those worked, I would make a big move on the approach (at least 5 boards).
If I was still picking headpins, I would just accept the fact that some days, no matter how hard you try, you’ll just pick a bunch of headpins – it’s just part of the game.

If you needed 16 points in the tenth frame to win a match, what strategy would you use? In other words, would you throw normally or play thin/chisel? Explain.

In my prime, I would always play thin. During a year in the early 80’s, I saw 5/6 tournaments lost in the last frame, when the bowler only needed a mark to win, and punched a headpin. If you play thin, you might get a strike, leave a corner or get a chop-off or miss the headpin. If you strike you win, and any of the others leave you alive for a spare and the win. To play thin though, you must practice this shot, and be at the top of your game and have every confidence that you can pull it off.

What was the best or highest scoring match that you were involved in?

I’d like to mention 3 matches in particular.

One of the the best matches I was ever involved was actually a sweep. It was after Friday night bowling at Willow Bowl in the later 60’s, and 4 of us were banned from the big sweep because we were winning too much of the money. So we decided to have our own sweep of 10 games at 50 cents up and down the line. The bowlers all turned out to be Hall of Famers – Holly Leet, Jimmy Hoult, Rusty Starr and myself. We all shot over 3000 for the 10 games, the high being about 3150, next about 3120, next about 3080 and last being about 3030. Rusty Starr was low and had to pay out $130, plus the lineage for a set like that! You knew it was something special because most of the other bowlers stayed around to watch the conclusion.

Another exciting match was when I won the Canadian Invitational in ’74 and $10,000 (way more than I was earning as a teacher at the time). It was a 5 game final between the 2 winners of the qualifying round (120 bowlers in each). It was a back and forth match all the way, and in the 4th game, I picked 7 headpins in a row to be down about 100. My opponent started well the last game and I was still struggling. Fortunately for me, I started striking and he started picking. I ended up throwing the last 5 strikes to win by a narrow margin. I have to give my opponent Roger Dunberry a lot of credit, as he was first up on the lane to raise my arm in victory – talk about sportsmanship!

The ’90 Ontario Open Singles was also a very exciting match. After winning a couple of matches to get to the final, I was behind all the way, mainly due to headpins on my part and good bowling by my opponent. He made a critical error in the 7th frame on a double to give me a chance, and as it turned out I needed to strike out in the 10th frame to win by a few pins. This was in the days before personal balls, and there was only 1 ball on the rack that I really liked. After getting the first strike, I had to wait for what seemed like an eternity, for the ball to come back, and I had to wait even longer after the second strike. I almost was going to throw another ball as the wait was excruciating and I was way out of my normal routine. At the last second it returned, and after I threw the third strike, I did something I had never done before – I ran onto the next approach and leaped up in the air. It was something very uncharacteristic for me and wasn’t planned. It was just pure joy.

What is your proudest moment in bowling?

I’m going to use a collective here as my proudest moment in bowling is Ontario and Canadian Open wins. To have won the Ontario Open Singles and Men’s Teams 4 times each and to have won the Canadian Open Singles twice and medaled the other 2 times make me especially proud.

What is your "most embarrassing" moment? (If any)

I’ve had several embarrassing moments, but the most embarrassing was when there was some media coverage for the newly renovated Shamrock Bowl. I was bowling an exhibition match against a reporter from the National Post. The approaches were very very slippery (at least that’s the excuse I’m using, but I think it was a combination of that and choking) and I bowled 150. There was a silver lining though in that at least I beat him and the scores weren’t put in the paper.

As mentioned above, you have a number of perfect games. The majority of people reading this are still looking for their first 450 game, but I know several people (Connie Ward, Jeff Forester, Shawn Morris, etc) that have thrown more than one. After throwing YOUR first 450, did the subsequent ones get easier?

I think they got a little easier in that you had the knowledge that you have done it before, but the 12th strike is always pressure-packed.

Now Fraser, I remember you throwing a 440 at the Open. Was there something funny you said to your teammates before the 12th shot?

It was actually during the championship match - Toronto versus York West. The match was high scoring and very close all the way, but we (Toronto) opened up a small lead in the 9th frame, and expanded it in the 10th. I was bowling anchor for the first time all tournament and when it came down to me, we had already clinched the title, which was very thrilling. I had started on 9 in a row, each one being important due to the closeness of the match. I threw the first 2 strikes easily enough, but then I think I was out of gas and I got very nervous. I got up on the approach, but didn’t feel comfortable, so I came back and asked my teammates how we were going to split up the perfect game award (I think it was a trip). They laughed, but what I was trying to do was to get looser – unfortunately, in this case it didn’t work, as I missed the headpin. I was never less disappointed in my life at missing a perfect game, as we were all so happy to have won the championship.

I understand that gambling used to be huge in bowling. In my first year at Zone qualifying for the Open, there were 3 guys who bet $1 per pin, up and down the ladder, over 20 games. This meant that the person who was last had to pay off both players that finished ahead of him, and whoever finished second also had to pay the winner. But I understand that there used to be "bookies" at the lanes who took all sorts of bets? Do you have any interesting gambling stories to pass along?

I only saw the bookies at the very beginning of my career at Spadina Bowl. They would set odds for almost anything: who would beat whom, the score you had to beat (250 for example – it would vary depending on the bowler). A very popular bet was “26”. You bowled on say lane 1, and if you got a mark, you bowled 1 or 2 balls on lane 2. Using the old count, you won if you got a strike or spare on lane 1 and then got everything but the left corner on 1 or 2 balls on lane 2. Therefore you needed to count ”26” in the first frame to win. The bookies liked this game best because the action was so fast.

One Friday night at Willow Bowl, there was a sweep after bowling for 50 cents a pin up and down the line. One bowler who was leaving right after bowling to drive to Florida, decided to play one game of sweeps .There were at least 20 bowlers in the game and he shot about 170. The average of the other scores was around 270, so he lost about $1000 in one game – remember this was in the 60’s. When he showed up at bowling a couple of Fridays later, I asked him how Florida was. He said that it wasn’t so good, as the farthest south he got after that game was Mississauga.

Growing up, what mentors or idols (if any) did you have? And how did they influence you?

As I mentioned earlier Ted Datzeff, had a considerable impact on developing my game when I was young.

As far as idols go, when we were in our teens we often watched the Toronto Singles championship. Rusty Starr was always so interesting to watch. He was a tall slender man, who had a monstrous medium-slow back-up ball, but he was deadly accurate and he looked like he never got flustered. Billy Hoult was always fun to watch, as he was so animated when he got on a roll. Bert Garside was also very interesting as he was referred to as the “Splendid Splinter”. He was very thin with a beautiful high backswing and a smooth back-up ball and he was the master of gamesmanship. Jimmy Hoult was great to watch as he had a slow smooth delivery, good looks (chick magnet of his day) and a smile and kind word for everyone.

Holly Leet was the bowler who influenced me the most. He had transformed himself from a hard thrower into a finesse bowler when he realized the slower ball was more effective on the new blue bands, and especially on the Double Diamond machines. We were among the few bowlers who believed in shooting for the pocket rather than the headpin. We talked bowling a lot and agreed on most things. I was the new kid breaking into the established ranks and he gave me a lot of confidence that I had the goods to succeed.

Walter Heeney also provided a lot of encouragement and support as the years went on.

What current players do you enjoy watching, and why?

I enjoy watching all the really top players. It’s fascinating to watch how both these women and men play, and to watch their different styles and attitudes. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with everything they do, but they’re fascinating to watch.

What positives do you see with the current "state" of the game?

It’s great to see so many young stars coming up. It’s also great that automatic scoring and all the other essentials to make bowling fun and easy for the masses are in place at many centres. NEB’s Funworld is a perfect example of what 5-pin bowling can be for everyone, from the novice to the expert.

I know that number of centres and bowlers in Toronto is dwindling at an alarming rate. I attribute most of this to the fact that so many new Canadians now inhabit the city. Many of these people are from other countries, and have never been exposed to the Canadian game. Would you agree? Can you think of other reasons for the decline in the Big Smoke?

Outside of the fact that there are so many New Canadians in Toronto, the price of real estate in the city itself makes it very difficult to run a bowling centre when much more money can be realized from a sale. This compounds the problem for New Canadians, as there is often no centre nearby. In addition, there are so many other things vying for the entertainment dollar. 5-pin bowling seems to be doing best in smaller areas with a more homogeneous population.

For a time, both CBC and TSN carried different 5-Pin series. In watching reruns, I find it frustrating missing four frames from a match and then watching a player stand around for 3 minutes waiting for a pin to be reset!! Other than some editing issues, do you have any suggestions or format ideas that might improve any possible future broadcasts better?

I think the broadcasters should go back and focus on the Open and Masters National championships. This is where you have the real atmosphere and people are enthusiastically cheering for their favourites, not just some polite applause after each shot on the Pins game for example. Take curling for example – would you rather watch the Brier or the Skins Game?

With the advent of Facebook, email, etc, it's easy to stay in touch with the rest of the country. In my three Nationals, I haven't noticed anything too bitter, but I understand that there used to be a healthy rivalry between Ontario and The West. Was this the case?

I think the bitterness between the West and Ontario is way overblown. For the most part, the bowlers all respect each other – that doesn’t mean you don’t play hard against each other. I know one year we were playing a Western team at the Masters Nationals and 4 of the bowlers came over and apologized for their 5th bowler BEFORE the game even started, because they figured he would do something stupid. I think the actions of those 4 bowlers typify the attitude of the vast majority of all players from all provinces.

What, if anything, really concerns you about our game?

The thing that concerns me the most is the loss of bowling centres and bowlers. I am encouraged that there seem to be more younger people operating centres, and that there seems to be some stabilization in certain areas.

And finally, what advice would you give to a bowler who's looking to improve their game?

Outside of having the desire and dedication to improve, I think the most important thing is to learn to shoot for as high an average as you can. It’s no secret that the bowlers with the highest averages win the most tournaments overall. To shoot your highest possible average you must be focused on each and every shot. Being able to do this will hold you in good stead when playing tournaments – this focus or concentration will be part of your normal routine and you won’t have to call on something extra.

Fraser, thanks again for your stories, your insight and your time. I'm sure all of the readers will enjoy this as much as I did!

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