When Crystal Lake resident Frank Clay began competing in the United States Bowling Congress Open Championship, the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn, Dwight D. Eisenhower was President of the United States, and Disneyland had just opened in Anaheim, California.
That year was 1955. Fifty-nine years later, Clay has yet to miss an open – in May he made his 60 straight appearance – becoming only the 19th bowler in tournament history to reach the milestone.
“It just kind of happened,” Clay, who recently turned 84, said of the streak. “I never dreamed that I would get this far, as far as consecutives are concerned.”
Clay began bowling in the late 1940s in Chicago. Needless to say, he was drawn to the sport instantly. Before long, he was competing all over Illinois, and even out of state on occasion.
Clay began to compete so much that his wife, Janet, joked that she became a bowling widow.
“When I had children, I couldn’t go with him or anything,” she said. “Three nights a week and sometimes weekends he’d be gone. But I let him do it, it was a good thing for him.”
As most sports have, bowling has changed over the years. Clay noted that when he began bowling, it was more team-oriented.
Clay would mostly compete in teams of five, and they would often bring two teams with them. The team aspect went beyond competing, however.
“It was like a family, it was really a team sport at that particular time, more so than what it is now,” Clay said. “You bowled as a team, you stuck together as a team, and you traveled as a team.”
The other major change to bowling has been the equipment. In Clay’s early years of bowling, even the most competitive bowlers would bring one ball to a competition. Nowadays, it isn’t out of place for bowlers to bring up to four or five bowling balls to rotate through.
This advanced equipment, in Clay’s eyes, has made the game easier.
Amid the changes, however, Clay has consistently found himself in a bowling alley, which, in itself, is no small achievement. Clay noted the obstacles that can prevent someone from making tournament after tournament.
The closest Clay came to breaking his streak of 60 consecutive USBC Open Championship appearances occurred this year. One day before having to fly out, Clay found himself in a hospital getting an operation to place three stents in order to clear a heart blockage.
The next day, Clay boarded a flight to Reno, Nevada, set his consecutive streak at 60, and left one final goal for him to accomplish in his bowling career.
“I have one more goal that I have to reach that I set for myself, and that is to reach 100,000 pins in the national tournament,” Clay said, and then joked that if he reaches that goal, his next will be to reach 72 consecutive years participating in the USBC Open Championship.
But for now, Clay’s magic number is 1,746, the number of pins he needs to knock down to reach 100,000 for his career.
“The body will tell me whether I can or not,” he said. “Whether I can last that long, the good lord will let me know.”