The Petersen Classic has long been one of bowling’s grand events. Founded in 1921 by Louis P. Petersen, the tournament now enters its 113th edition in 2023.
As founder of the first local proprietors’ association and the driving force behind the largest-ever bowling event, the 1918 National Patriotic Tournament, Petersen was one of Chicago’s pioneer bowling promoters. But Petersen’s goal was to plan the richest bowling tournament in history, with a first-place payoff of $1,000. That would be a gigantic prize for a sporting event in 1921; to compare, the winner of golf’s U.S. Open in the same year had collected only $500.
To put together his big payout, Louie had to charge a hefty entry fee of $28 — a week’s pay for many men. Pessimists warned he would never recruit enough bowlers to finance his aggressive prize list, but Louie was able to get the 64 entries he needed.
The first Petersen Classic was held at Archer-35th Recreation in Chicago on Oct. 2, 1921. Two squads of thirty-two bowlers each rolled eight games. There were just three prizes — $1,000 for first place, $500 for second and $100 for the high single game.
Louie’s Classic was a roaring success. Bowler demand was so great that the next year he staged two tournaments, one in the spring and a second in the fall. As the entries poured in, the prize list also was expanded to more places. By 1926, the spring Classic was attracting more than 600 bowlers.
The tournament went on the road for the first time that year, when the fall event was held in St. Louis. The main Petersen Classic remained in Chicago, but for several years a second tournament was bowled in places like Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland or Buffalo. (That’s why if you do the math the 2018 Classic counts as No. 108.)
When the Depression hit it caused entries to dip. By 1934, the entry list was down to 82 and regretfully Louie suspended the tournament. Four years later, the Petersen Classic resumed and as before it offered the richest prize in bowling.
The early Petersen tournaments were dominated by star bowlers, so the number of entries remained small. Petersen wanted to expand the field and came up with a novel way to attract more bowlers. His idea was simple: if the winning scores were low, then more people would take a chance and bowl, figuring they might get lucky and take home a big prize. So Petersen did everything he could to keep the scores down.
Louie’s plan worked. Soon bowlers from around the country began making an annual pilgrimage to Chicago to bowl at the iconic Archer-35th Recreation. Each year the number of entries grew making the Petersen Classic a bowling tradition.
The low scoring generated all kinds of folklore. For example, it’s been claimed that the tournament pins were stored in the open on the roof to make them water-logged. Or that the first pair of lanes went uphill at a 6% grade. At the other end of the house it was noted that the last pair was 6 feet longer than standard. The approaches were coated with shellac, causing bowlers to stick. It was rumored that Louie Petersen had a special button behind the counter so he could order an equipment breakdown when someone was bowling well. And so goes the folk lore.
If anything, the legends grew more outrageous after Petersen died in 1958. He was succeeded by his son-in-law, Mark Collor, who seemed to glory in the bowlers’ complaints. But Collor knew how to read the bottom line. As the Petersen Classic got tougher, and the grumbling grew louder, the bowlers kept returning.
In Collor’s first year at the helm, entries passed 10,000 for the first time. That number kept rising steadily over the next two decades. By 1981, more than 36,000 bowlers were climbing the rickety stairs at Archer-35th to take their shot at the Petersen “Pot of Gold.” The event stretched over 10 months, from October to July.
More bowlers meant more money and now a contestant could collect $1,000 by finishing in 100th place. New features were added, like the optional doubles. Over the years, first prize passed $10,000, then $20,000, then $30,000. The peak was reached in 1987, when one man earned $55,000.
The “Pete”, as it had become known, truly was a long-standing tournament bowler’s destination event. But in 1993, the unthinkable happened as the Petersen Classic died. The reasons were simple. The 90-year-old building on 35th Street was falling apart and Collor was ready to retire. It appeared that for the bowlers of America, all that would be left would be the memories and nightmares.
The Petersen had been buried once before in 1934, only to rise again after four years. But this time, the resurrection came more quickly as a group of private investors quickly negotiated to purchase the tournament and its assorted physical properties. They moved the site 30 miles northwest, to Hoffman Lanes in suburban Hoffman Estates, Ill. In the summer of 1994, the latest version of the venerable Classic made its debut.
As much as possible, the new owners tried to recreate the feel of old Archer-35th. The giant posters of past champions and all of the other hokey decor was retained. Lane conditions were still tough and scores still low. With the move to a commercial bowling center that had a traditional fall league schedule, the tournament changed from an October through July event to a summer-only tournament running from April through August. Although entries were fewer due to the shortened schedule, the “Pete” had once again survived.
When AMF purchased Hoffman Lanes and took over the tournament in 1998, it continued the time-honored Petersen formula. After several years at AMF Hoffman Lanes, the Petersen was moved for one year to AMF Bolingbrook in 2014. In 2015, the Petersen moved once again – this time to the Brunswick Zone in River Grove, Illinois. After a successful six years in River Grove, the Petersen will be relocating starting in 2021 to the Bowlero location in Wauwatosa, WI. This new location is a mainstay for hosting high profile tournaments in Wisconsin and offers bowlers – especially out-of-towners – a multitude of dining and entertainment options.
Even with the frequent moves and a shorter 3-1/2 month schedule, the “new” Petersen has built its own loyalty. Year after year, the hardcore bowlers and squad sponsors return. A recent Squad Organizer commented, “When they first moved, I wondered if it would be the same but they’ve done a fantastic job making it look like the old place. It’s still the Petersen. They ring that bell, and they open that golden door, and it’s like stepping back in time. It’s the fairest tournament around —nobody has an advantage. I can do just as well as any past winner. That’s why I keep coming back. That’s why my bowlers keep coming back.”
The Petersen lives on. Louie would be proud!
Some historical content courtesy of Luby Publishing / Bowlers Journal.