One for the ages: Ritger part of PBA's No. 1 Greatest Moment
When Don Johnson collapsed on the alley after leaving the 10-pin standing to finish with a 299 in the finals of the 1970 Firestone Tournament of Champions, Dick Ritger was there to pick him up.
"I just felt so bad for him," Ritger said from his River Falls home last week.
That match, televised live on ABC's "Wide World of Sports" from Riviera Lanes in Akron, Ohio on April 4, 1970, was recently voted the No. 1 moment in the Professional Bowlers Association's 60 Greatest Moments as the PBA celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2018.
The PBA's 12th and final event of 1970, the $100,000 Firestone Tournament of Champions was the climax of the PBA's winter tour, with Johnson and Ritger topping the 48-bowler field to reach the finals. The pair matched each other strike-for-strike through six frames before Ritger was stopped by a No. 4 pin in the seventh. He'd finish with a 268.
Johnson meanwhile rammed in 11 straight strikes to clinch the title. Waiting for him was a $10,000 bonus and a brand new Lincoln Mercury Cougar if he could register a perfect game. But after throwing what appeared to be another perfect ball on his last delivery, the 10 pin stood, leaving Johnson sprawled on the alley in disappointment.
Despite losing the match, Ritger said he was rooting for Johnson as hard as the rest of the crowd in the jam-packed Riviera Lanes.
"The game was over," Ritger noted. "I already finished with my 268 or whatever it was, and he made a good delivery; it was as good as could be. And the reward would have been so great. He still got the $25,000 first prize, but another $10,000, and a new car? Back then a new car was around $5,000. There just weren't a lot of tournaments that you could make that kind of money."
Ritger, now 80, said there weren't a lot of events back then that could offer the kind of prize money and bonuses that the Firestone could.
"I bowled a 300 at the Miller Tournament in Milwaukee one year and you know what I got for a prize? Beer for a year," he said. "Fifty-two cases. I didn't drink so we donated the money to the Milwaukee Children's hospital."
Ritger took home $12,500 for his second place finish at the Firestone.
"That was better than winning four $3,000 titles," he philosophized.
Ritger was a standout on the PBA tour in the 1960's and 70's. Growing up over his dad's bowling alley in Hartford, Wis., he developed a love for the sport early by sneaking downstairs each morning to bowl a few frames before heading off to school.
He bowled in five different leagues as a college student at UW-La Crosse, earning a double major in physical education and recreation, before joining the PBA Tour in 1964. He won his first PBA Tour title in 1966 and won his 20th, and final title in 1979. His 20 titles ties him for 12th place on the PBA's all-time list.
Known as a gentleman on and off the lanes, he was awarded the PBA's Steve Nagy Sportsmanship Award twice. His status among the all-time greats was solidified when he was inducted into the PBA Hall of Fame in 1978, the first of six halls of fame he's been elected to. In 1999 he was named one of the 20 best bowlers of the 20th century by Bowling Magazine. He was a regular on ABC's Wide World of Sports, making 69 appearances on the iconic television series.
"I lived through the best time of the sport," he said.
But it was after Ritger left the tour that he found his true passion, and put his college degrees to work.
"AMF signed me to a contract and they had me doing exhibitions and clinics all over the country," he said. "After every clinic we had a question and answer and every question was, how do you do this? How do you get the 10-pin? How do you get more strikes? There were a lot of average people that wanted to get better, so I devised a teaching program and it eventually took me to 38 countries and five continents."
In the 1980s, Ritger founded the Dick Ritger Bowling Camps and began producing instructional videos. He became recognized as one of the most effective bowling instructors in the world, and said he enjoyed teaching even more than he enjoyed the tour.
"It was great to compete against the best athletes in your sport in the world, but teaching was so much more satisfying," he said. "Winning a tournament was satisfying, but that wasn't what my life was supposed to be."
Ritger hosted his bowling camps in New York for over 30 years. At its peak the camp consisted of nine, 1-week sessions of 60 students per week. He estimated he's personally helped over 25,000 people.
"That to me, there's the real satisfaction," he said. "Helping somebody who loves the game like I did. All these people who came to the camp loved bowling, and I was able to influence them, I felt, in a positive sense."
One of his best students was a 14-year-old girl named Kelly Kulick, who went on to become the first woman ever to win a PBA Tour title, winning the PBA Tournament of Champions in Las Vegas in 2010. That accomplishment was voted No. 3 on the list of the PBA's 60th anniversary greatest moments.
In addition to his bowling camps, Ritger developed a three-part video series called Dick Ritger's "Feelings of Bowling." Already a member of the USBC Hall of Fame in the Performance category, Ritger was the first person inducted into the USBC's new Bowling Coaches Hall of Fame in June 2008. That same year he developed a program to help wounded military veterans.
"I took the skill drills I had and refined them and made them so simple and modified that anybody with a disability could do them and enjoy it," he said. "We did that for the wounded warriors."
Ritger, who moved to River Falls with his wife Judy in 1975 and raised four children here, has himself been slowed by strokes in recent years. He's turned the operation of his camps over to his lead instructor, Bob Rea, who with the help of Kulick continue to run them in Ritger's name. He hasn't been able to venture downstairs to the basement of his River Falls home to view his expansive trophy collection in over five years, but he still has fond memories of his 1970 match against Johnson.
"His score is what made it the No. 1 moment," he said. "When that pin stood and he fell to the floor, my first thought was wow! I was rooting for him to get it. If it had been me, I think he would have wished the same for me."
Either way, it will still go down as the most memorable moment in pro bowling history.