By Gianmarc Manzione
Originally published in Bowlers Journal International
A lot has changed in the Brooklyn Richie Hornreich still calls home. Though the streets he walks bear the same names today as they did when he made his name as one of the kings of action bowling, they only are the names of memories now. They are placeholders for the irretrievable Brooklyn of his youth, where a nickel bought you a candy bar, any Brownstone stoop was a front row seat to a stick ball game, and the pompadour is almost out of style.
The 802 Club on 64th Street and 8th Avenue, where PBA Hall of Famer Johnny Petraglia and his friends would sneak in so many times as teenagers, is a medical building now.Leemark Lanes on 88th Street, where Richie says he spent more time than his own home as a kid, is now a six-story parking garage for Century 21. And Melody Lanes in Sunset Park now is the only place in Southwest Brooklyn where you can bring the kids for a few games of bowling on a Sunday afternoon.
If the neighborhood’s status as a legendary mecca of action bowling proves anything, it is that Brooklyn, for all its fame and history, is no less susceptible to change than any other town.
The one thing that endures to this day, though, is the respect Richie earned among some of the greatest bowlers ever to take the lanes.
“Richie was the boy wonder,” Petraglia says. “When he was 16, he got invited to bowl the World Invitational because of what he had already accomplished at that age, and he made the finals with guys like Don Carter, Dick Weber, Carmen Salvino.”
Barry Asher, a 10-time PBA titlist who ranks 47th on the list of the 50 Greatest Players in PBA History, chuckles as he recalls Richie.
“There was an article in the bowling paper when Richie and I were 12 about how good we were and how there should have been a match between us. I think he would have crushed me.”
“He’d bowl anybody,” says PBA Hall of Famer Teata Semiz. “He wasn’t afraid of anyone. He threw one ball, and he never choked. Whenever he needed a strike in the 10th to win, it never crossed his mind that he might throw a bad shot.”
Says former action bowler Red Bassett: “Richie was crazy. One night, he and Mike Limongello were bowling a match for quite a bit of money. Richie’s up, and he needs a strike in the 10th to win. He picks up his ball, turns around to the thong of people watching the match, and says ‘Cuckoo, Cuckoo, Cuckoo,’ just like that. It was 3 a.m., and he did three cuckoos. Then he turns back around and BANG! Throws a strike. Richie had a clear head; that’s the truth.”
But if this is your first time hearing about the legend that is Richie Hornreich, blame it on the ponies.
“He loved the ponies,” PBA Hall of Famer Mike McGrath recalls. “He would win five grand at the bowling alley and lose six grand at the horse track.”
Says Petraglia: “That’s what killed him. he loved to gamble.”
There is no shortage of tales about Richie’s hunger for the thrill of another night at the races or the craps table he calls his “downfall.”
The inheritance from his father’s trucking business, depending on whom you ask, amounted to something in the range of $500,000. Richie blew it all in Vegas in less than a year.
“Ya know, if I find money in my pants when I take them off to go to bed at night,” Hornreich once told fellow action bowler Pete Mylenki, “I can’t sleep, because I know they’re gonna walk out on me. I gotta go empty those pockets before I can sleep.”
Maybe that sounded like a joke to Mylenki. But for a guy who spent rainy days betting on which raindrop would slide down the window the fastest at Bay Ridge Lanes in Brooklyn, Hornreich likely revealed his bedtime anxieties with very little laughter.
“Well, gamblers bet on anything,” says former action bowler Steve Harris. “The point was the action, not what type.”
If you were in on the action in those days, you bet on anything. Throwing pencils at parking signs, flipping matchbook covers, betting on who would have the most attractive woman sit next to him on the subway.
“If some huge older woman would sit next to one of us, we’d fall on the floor laughing,” Harris recalls.
50 years later, it is a match against Mike Limongello that Richie remembers as vividly as if it happened last week.
“I’ll never forget it until the day I die,” Richie says by phone in his thick Brooklyn accent. “I was subbing for a guy at Garden City Bowl one night. Sure enough, who walks in? Mikey and his crew, looking for action.
“He beats me 220-170 the first game, and then he beats me 230-180 the second game. I said ‘Mikey, if you wanna continue, we can’t bowl on this pair. I got nothing here. Let’s move over a pair to the right or left. So we move a pair left, and we start shooting 250s and 260s.
I was in the 260s, he was in the 250s,” Richie makes sure to note. “And then my thumb rips open. I look at Mikey, blood gushing out of my thumb, and I say ‘I can’t bowel, but I am not gonna quit on ya. Bet whatever you want and I will bowl one last game, blood and all.’
“So we bet $2,500. I started with the first 10 strikes. I left a 10 pin in the 11th frame, and I lost the game! he started with a spare and then had the next nine in a row, and when I left the 10 pin I knew I had lost. I punched the score table with my bowling hand, which sprained my thumb. It kept gushing blood. Sure enough, Mikey gets up and throws two strikes–boom, boom–and that was the end of the match.”
“I wouldn’t trade my life for anything,” Richie insists. “A lot of fond memories and great experiences. Too bad I wasn’t smart enough to learn from some of them, but what are you gonna do? You did it and that’s it. And if I had to do it all over again, I would.”
And whenever anyone asks why “The Horn’s” brilliance on the lanes never translated into success on the PBA Tour, the answer varies only slightly. Some think he did not have Petraglia’s fiery drive. others maintain that the action and the PBA Tour were two entirely different beasts. But no one doubts that Richie’s name could have been uttered in the same breath as Weber’s, or Anthony’s or Salvinos’, or Roth’s.
“Yes, I agree–he could have been one of the greats,” Petraglia says. “But Richie toured for three weeks and he hated it. Bowling for Richie was another way to gamble, and the tour was not his way to gamble. He wanted to put it all on the line in head-to-head matches against the best.
“If you got Richie and Mike Limongello in the same room and gave them 10 grand each, they would be in the room for about three seconds. That’s just how they were.”
PBA Hall of Famer Ernie Schlegel has another way of putting it.
“If Richie and Mike saw two cockroaches crawling up the street, they’d want to bet on which was the fastest,” he jokes.
Three weeks. 21 days. That is the length of time that endless blocks of qualifying and even longer periods of downtime in between managed to capture the attention of one of the greatest action players ever to pick up a ball.
“I could make as much money in a game of action as I could in an entire tournament on tour.”
How unsurprising, then, that stories of the fleeting instant Richie spent on tour have nothing to do with the games he bowled. Rather, it is the time spent looking for action in between that friend Pete Mylenki remembers most.
“In those days, the second tour stop was Vegas,” Mylenki recalls. “Richie had found a sponsor, a shylock who gave him 13 checks. One for each tour stop. Richie cashed all of them at once at the cashier’s cage in the casino. He blew all the money and escaped again. The fact that a shylock might be looking to break his legs didn’t matter to him.”