Don Carter, bowling superstar, dies at 85

January 7, 2012

Don Carter, the bowling great with the unorthodox style who flourished as a genuine sports celebrity during the game’s golden age on TV, died Jan. 5 at his home in Miami. He was 85.

The Professional Bowlers Association issued a statement saying he had recently been hospitalized with pneumonia and emphysema.

Mr. Carter, known as “Mr. Bowling,” was the game’s original superstar. He became his sport’s most recognizable name at a time when alleys were thriving across the country and bowling was starting to assert itself as a fixture on television.

Mr. Carter was a leading force in the formation of the PBA and became a charter member of the PBA Hall of Fame in 1975.

He had a style all his own as he took his steps to the line. With his stooped shoulders and cocked elbow, he made a deep knee bend as he unleashed the ball toward the pins.

Mr. Carter helped transform a sport that had been a blue-collar recreational activity. He ruled the lanes with the likes of Dick Weber, Ray Bluth, Pat Patterson, Carmen Salvino and Billy Welu. But Mr. Carter was clearly at another level.

“Don was the greatest bowler of his era,” Bluth said. “There was no one like him.”

He also did something that no one in baseball, football or golf ever did. He became the first athlete in American sports history to sign a $1 million marketing endorsement contract, with bowling ball manufacturer Ebonite in 1964.

“It is impossible to put into words what Don Carter meant to the PBA and the sport of bowling,” PBA Commissioner Tom Clark said. “He was a pioneer, a champion, and will never be forgotten.”

The 6-foot, 200-pound Mr. Carter bowled five 800 series, 13 perfect games and six games of 299 — one pin short of a perfect game — in sanctioned play. He was voted Bowler of the Year six times (1953, 1954, 1957, 1958, 1960, 1962).

He served as the PBA’s first president and was inducted into the American Bowling Congress Hall of Fame in 1970. He ranked second to Earl Anthony in Bowling Magazine’s poll in 2000 of the 20 greatest bowlers of the 20th century.

Donald James Carter was born July 29, 1926, in St. Louis and was introduced to bowling when his mother treated him to a game on his 13th birthday.

“That was the biggest birthday present of my life,” Mr. Carter once wrote in an article. “I enjoyed that one game so much that when one of my teachers started a bowling club after school, I signed up. Then I started setting pins so I could bowl and practice for free.”

Mr. Carter also excelled at baseball, playing American Legion baseball with Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola in St. Louis. After serving in the Navy during World War II in the Pacific, he signed a minor league contract with the Philadelphia Athletics as a pitcher-infielder. But after a year, he returned to St. Louis and to bowling.

His profile grew on television shows including Jackpot Bowling, Make That Spare and Championship Bowling that were watched by millions.

Mr. Carter wanted to create a bowling tour that was similar to the one in golf. The PBA was launched in 1959 with three tournaments. Three years later, it had a schedule of 32 events. Mr. Carter eventually won seven PBA titles including five major championships. Because of ailing knees, he retired from competitive bowling in 1972.

Mr. Carter married LaVerne Haverly in 1953. They divorced, and he married Paula Sperber in the 1970s. Both of his wives are in the Women’s International Bowling Congress Hall of Fame.

After retiring from bowling, Mr. Carter moved to Miami, his second wife’s home town. He occasionally competed in pro-am tournaments in the 1990s, and he owned a chain of alleys and a line of bowling apparel. His hobbies included golf and painting, and he was involved in charity work for abused children.

Mr. Carter rarely ventured far from home in retirement, not caring for public speaking or air travel.

But in the 1980s he appeared in Miller Lite commercials featuring retired sports stars.

“I really don’t think anybody under the age of 65 remembers me,” Mr. Carter said about those ads. “I’m really big with senior citizens. I’m famous because I’m the only guy to have two wives in the Hall of Fame.”

Survivors include his second wife; three children; three grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

— Associated Press

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