While the Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) recognizes its 50th Anniversary in myriad ways this season, Del Ballard Jr. gave fans at the PBA Cheetah Championship a startling, unprecedented throwback experience while competing in the Tournament Qualifying Round on Wednesday at Thruway Lanes, just outside Buffalo.
A display case filled with artifacts from the Lumber Liquidator’s PBA Tour’s storied past accompanies the Tour into each city it visits as it celebrates its 50th birthday. In the case are items such as legendary original PBA member Dick Weber’s Hall of Fame ring and the ball Earl Anthony used to become the first PBA player to earn $1 million.
But the most talked about item in the display case came from perhaps the most infamous moment in the history of PBA action. It is the Blue Hammer bowling ball Ballard used in the 1991 nationally-televised finals of the Fair Lanes Open, when he rolled the gutter ball heard around the world.
Looking back, the 1991 Fair Lanes Open was an exciting title match, with fellow Hall-of-Famer (and son of Dick Weber) Pete Weber forcing Ballard to get the first two strikes and seven in the 10th frame to win. Ballard got the first two clutch strikes in the 10th, but then needing only the seven-pin count to earn the title, inexplicably threw the ball into the right gutter to hand the victory to Weber.
Wherever Ballard, one of the all-time greats of the game who will be inducted into the PBA Hall of Fame at a ceremony held Jan. 24 in conjunction with the 50th Anniversary gala dinner celebrating the 50 Greatest Players in PBA history, goes, fans ask about the gutter ball, to this day.
And Ballard had never used that Blue Hammer ball again since that fateful day 17 years ago – until Wednesday.
Bowling in the seven-game Tour Qualifying Round at the PBA Cheetah Championship, Ballard had started the day with his current equipment (far more technologically advanced than his equipment from 1991). Ballard tossed two disappointing games of 187 and 132, finding himself well out of contention to qualify.
As soon as he was done with the second game, Ballard asked PBA tournament director Corey Kistner if he could use the famed “gutter ball” that was resting in the display case. Kistner was agreeable, saying, “Well, it is your ball.” After unlocking and opening the case in just a minute, the “gutter ball” was ready for Ballard to use for the third game.
A crowd at Thruway Lanes formed around Ballard as word spread that he was actually using the infamous, historic ball in competition.
And Ballard’s scores immediately went up. He fired a 661 series for the next three games (247-225-189) with the Blue Hammer before switching back to another ball and just missed cashing in the event by 11 pins.
"I needed a ball that would go straight, so I thought myself, 'Man, I wish I had that ball (the gutter ball)'," Ballard said. "I asked (Tournament Director) Kirk von Krueger if that ball was still legal and he said it was, so I used it. I wish I had started the tournament with it! I'm glad the ball travels with the tour in case I need it."
When Ballard was finished, he returned the ball to the PBA, which promptly put it back in the display case. It makes its way to Baltimore next week for the Lumber Liquidators Shark Championship.
Ballard Jr. of Keller, Texas has 13 career PBA Tour titles to his credit, including four Majors. With Ballard’s career earnings totaling $1,300,357, he became the 11th PBA player to hit the $1 million mark during the 1994 season. Ballard won the prestigious U.S. Open two times (in 1987 and ‘93) and his four career Major victories puts him tied for seventh on the all-time PBA Majors list.
The PBA Tour, which airs Sunday’s at 1 p.m. ET on ESPN, is counting down the 50 Greatest Players in its history each week on ESPN, culminating with the No. 1 Player announcement Jan. 25 during the H&R Block Tournament of Champions telecast. Other 50th Anniversary initiatives include a commemorative 50 Greatest Players book, a 50 Greatest Players trading card set and collectible bowling balls featuring the imagery of the 50 Greatest players of all time. More details at pba.com.