When It Comes to Pins, Norris Still On a Roll

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They were the days when working for wages like $1.20 was considered extravagant compared to other employment opportunities. That's not $1.20 an hour, that's a night.

"That was a lot of money then," said Joe Norris, who at 14 opted to help his family financially not by cutting lawns or shoveling snow. Instead, Norris set pins at the Fairview Recreation bowling alley in Detroit. The year was 1922.

"I started off as a pin setter," said Norris, who is looking to win the bowling portion of the San Diego Senior Olympics, one of 19 events in the festival, which begins today and ends Monday at venues throughout the city. "I'd sit in the tail pike, set the pins and send the ball back. That's what we did before it became automated."

Norris, 84, figured he set a lot of pins in two years as a pin boy, bowling's version of a bat boy or a caddy. But however many he picked up, it's not a fraction of the pins he subsequently knocked down.

Earlier this year, Norris became the all-time American Bowling Congress leader in number of pins brought down. In 63 years of certified ABC events, Norris has taken down 111,117 pins. That broke the record of 109,398 set by Bill Doehrman in 1987, but over a 71-year span.

And Norris has no plans to retire. He is busy as ever, making appearances at major bowling functions and tournaments across the country, and trying to bring the sport to more senior citizens.

"I'd love to see more seniors get involved in the sport," he said. "If you're on a team, it's a mild form of exercise, which beats sitting in a rocking chair. It's a chance to meet new people, socialize and to experience the thrill of competition."

Over his career, Norris certainly has been privy to some thrilling competition and otherwise stellar bowling moments. In addition to the countless local, regional and state titles he won, Stroh's Bohemian Beer team, for which he played from 1934 to 1947, won what amounted to world championships four times.

"Stroh's won every major tournament there was," he said, describing Stroh's as the forerunner to organized team bowling and the first outfitted in team uniforms.

But were the amateurs of yesterday as good as the professionals are now?

"Oh, absolutely. I had a 215 average then," said Norris, who now bowls a 195 average.

His team may have been considered the sports' forefathers, but long before it turned pro, bowling was considered a barroom sport.

A lot has changed since Norris was setting pins, and he believes that today's bowlers are more knowledgeable.

"When I was a pin boy you learned by watching," he said. "Today, you have coaches, TV, VCRs, there are all sort of ways you can learn. They're developing a good breed."

In 1947, Norris was offered a job with Brunswick in Chicago, and he played there until he retired in 1963 and moved to San Diego with his wife, Billie, who had a sister living here.

Norris didn't meet Billie through bowling, but she's logged enough miles with him that their first encounter, which led to a 58-year marriage, is worth mentioning.

"At a traffic accident," he said. "To this day, she still says that I hit her and I say she hit me. At the time, she was screaming at me. I looked at her and said, 'What a beautiful girl.' "

Eventually, they agreed Norris would supply the $3 to fix Billie's fender, which was how he finagled her telephone number. Billie has accompanied her husband on several of his bowling travels, which have taken them to Europe, South America, Australia and Asia.

Brunswick sent Norris, now on their advisory board, to South Korea for the Summer Olympics in 1988, in the drive to make bowling an Olympic sport. Norris went because he competed in 1936 in Berlin, in a tournament held in conjunction with the Olympics.

In 1970 he went to Colombia for three weeks to coach other bowling instructors.

"My wife had her Timex watch stolen, and they wanted to take us to chicken fights for entertainment."

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