John Davis


SOUTH BELOIT—Nothing is for certain in the current craziness of COVID-19, but Viking Lanes General Manager Dave Cliffe says his center plans on hosting the Beloit Daily News/Culver’s Holiday Bowling Tournament in December.

“That’s the plan,” Cliffe said of the Dec. 26-30 event. “We’re going to have to explore how we’ll do it and whether we’ll be allowed to have spectators.”

It’s good news that the local center will try to keep the tourney’s string alive. It began in 1926 and other than a three-year absence from 1931 through 1933 it has been held every year since.

The holiday event has provided a stage for some of the best bowlers in the Stateline, starting with the inaugural winner in 1926. Herb Kemman—better known for his exploits on the pitching mound for the old Beloit Fairies semi-pro team—emerged as the first champion of what was then called the Daily News Merchants Tournament at the six-lane Divine Lanes.

The first multiple title holder became known as the best bowler of his era, Johnny Davis. He picked up his first championship in 1928 with a 2,715 score, then waited seven years, including the three-year absence of the tourney, until he won again. His score in 1935 was up to 4,066 and started a string of five straight titles. Only one was under a pinfall of 4,000 with his best his last, a then-record 4,417 in 1939.

“The time that I broke that record is one of the biggest moments I had in bowling,” Davis told the Daily News’ Johnny Nelson in 1969. “I got it at the Gateway Recreation alleys across from the Rex Theater (located on Fourth Street).”

Davis, who was inducted into the Beloit Bowling Council Hall of Fame in 1970, held the city record for many years with a 796. A 300 game was in the middle of it, won of nine he bowled during his career.

He considered his first 300 at Divine Lanes one of his ultimate thrills as well.

“That was about 1928 or 1929 when Jimmy Divine was running the place in the 200 block of State Street,” he told Nelson.

Davis won the Wisconsin state all-events title in 1935. He aso became a member of the world champion Heil Products bowling team out of Milwaukee, competing alongside the sport’s first true ambassador, Hank Marino.

In 1934, Marino had assembled some of the greatest bowlers of all time and landed the sponsorship of Milwaukee businessman Julius Heil, the German-born industrialist who made his fortune building hydraulic hoists and truck trailers. In 1939, Heil was elected Wisconsin’s first foreign-born governor since 1882.

Marino’s team dethroned the Stroh’s team from Detroit in 1935. The following year, the Heil Products team traveled to Berlin for the 1936 Olympics. While bowling was listed as only an exhibition sport, the Heil team dominated and won a team title as Marino claimed the all-events crown.

By the time Davis joined the team in 1939, Marino was 50 years old and had bowled in 29 ABC Tournaments. He didn’t retire until 1964. Davis traveled with the team to California on a promotional tour where they gave bowling lessons to movie stars like Mickey Rooney and John Wayne.

“We were simply supposed to introduce bowling in California and we went out two different years,” Davis said.

In fact, Marino and comedic actor Harold Lloyd entered into a business arrangement and opened a $200,000 bowling palace in Santa Monica, Calif., and called it Llo-Da-Mar Bowl.

WWII intervened for Davis and he enlisted in the Air Force in 1941. When he was discharged, he took a hiatus from bowling because he “was too busy making a living.”

Plus he didn’t have the same passion for bowling he once had.

“I realized I wasn’t enjoying it because I knew what i had to do to bowl well and I couldn’t do it,” he said.

Eventually he turned his attention to golf. His wife, Doris, may have had something to do with that. She was a four-time city champion. They teamed up to win the Belle and Beau golf title in 1968.

Davis continued to hold the distinction of winning more Daily News titles than any bowler until Orlin “Red” Peterson came along. Red won seven titles in nine years, starting in 1965.

How would a bowler like Davis fare in today’s conditions? His old bowling buddy, Marino, was once asked to compare stars of his era to modern standouts.

“Equipment today is far superior,” Marino said. “But that isn’t to say champions of today would not do well against the old conditions or that we would not do well on today’s conditions. Every decade or era has its stars. A champion of any time is always the person with something extra—more will to win, mental and physical stamina to endure pressure, confidence to face any challenge and powers of concentration for self control.”