People who struggle with addiction often turn to Alcoholics Anonymous to help them kick the habit, but a Virginia man is touting another cure – bowling. Bob Perry is the subject of a new book that chronicles his trip to the top of the nation’s competitive bowling mountain, his literal fall into the gutter and his remarkable return to the sport. Sandy Hausman spoke with him at the Kegler Lanes in Charlottesville.
Bob Perry was a junior bowling champ in New Jersey at the age of 12 – scheduled to show his stuff in a national broadcast when he was blinded in an accident. Vision returned in his right eye, but he lost sight in his left and gave up the sport.
At 15, he decided to try again – taking the summer to get his game back.
“I couldn’t play baseball, because I couldn’t hit the ball," he explains. " I couldn’t play basketball, because I couldn’t see anyone on my left side, and I just loved bowling too much.”
He spent at least eight hours a day at the local lanes and grew into a national champion – earning a living through the sport from the age of 16.
“I was making a lot of money for that time. I was making probably $30,000 a year legitimately.”
But bigger bucks beckoned from illegitimate sources.
“This guy walked up to me," Perry recalls. "He was called Ruby Red, and he says to me: ‘Money Bowler!’ He always called me ‘Money Bowler.’ He says, ‘I heard if we beat you that we could win a lot of money.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to have a lot of money to win a lot of money.’ So he took thousands of dollars out of his pocket, put it on the table, and he said, ‘Is that enough?’ And I said, ‘No.’ Then he goes, ‘How about this? Is this enough?’ And he literally covered the entire table with big wraps of hundred dollar bills.”
A match was arranged for the following Sunday, and Perry – faced with immense pressure – began drinking heavily. On Friday, his own wise guy caught up with him.
“He got me to his house that Friday night, and I had to stay there for two days – no drinking, no nothing.”
He began to feel the effects of withdrawing from alcohol, and by Sunday night he was a mess.
“When I got to the bowling alley, I guess every degenerate gambler in the world was there. There was over a million dollars in the bowling alley,” Perry says.
He went straight to the bar but was told it was closed.
“I bowled the first match, and the bet was $6,000. I wasn’t even close. He killed me. They said, ‘Are you alright?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I just need to warm up.’ The next bet was $13,000, and I got killed again. John Gotti walked up to me and says, ‘What’s going on here? Are you tanking me?’ I said, ‘No, I need a drink.’ He said, ‘Go to the bar and get one.’ I said, ‘The guy won’t sell it to me.’
Mobster John Gotti went to the bar and returned with a bottle of vodka. Perry says he downed it in three frames – during which time his game improved dramatically.
“I proceeded to win the next ten in a row, and we won $140,000 in 1970. I got out in the car, and I sat behind the driver’s wheel, rubbed my hands together and said, ‘How much do I get?’ And Gotti put my head through the window of the car.”
The mobsters figured they could have made a lot more if he’d spent the week practicing instead of drinking. Eventually, booze, drugs and mob connections would ruin his life – landing him on the street or in homeless shelters for more than six years. Then religion, bowling and a desire to help others would bring him back again. In May, he’ll mark 24 years of sobriety and celebrate a new chapter of life in Virginia. His story is told by Charlottesville author Stefan Bechtel in a new book called Redemption Alley.