Why you should care
Because you may not love bowling, but you do love a spectacle.
If you’re over the age of 35, have seen REO Speedwagon live more than once, and routinely set your DVR to record things like the PBA Xtra Frame Iowa Midwest Open live from Council Bluffs, you know who Pete Weber is. For the other 320.8 million of us, he is the mustachioed professional bowler you might have mistaken for an amphetamine-numbed, third-understudy Willy Loman in an ’80s porn version of Death of a Salesman, or a less cherubic, less dangerous Jeffery Jones. He also happens to be one of the greatest bowlers alive and the spasmodically beating heart of the Professional Bowling Association. Later this year, he gets his own ESPN 30 for 30.
Weber has spent virtually his entire adult life under the tepid lights of the PBA. The sport’s youngest-ever professional at 17 years old, he was a living legend by 24. No one had ever won so much, so soon, so classlessly. Weber introduced trash-talking, the crotch chop, and wraparound, Mark McGwire-inspired Oakleys to professional bowling around the same time he introduced himself to the eight ball and the fifth of bourbon.
That Weber’s own father — the universally adored, silver-maned, cardigan-wearing mailman turned bowling legend Dick Weber — had founded the professional circuit and acted as its de facto spokesman for nearly half a century only added to the legend. For though Pete inherited his father’s bowling talents, he actively rejected everything else his father stood for — professional camaraderie, dignity in victory and defeat, a vaguely convincing show of sobriety — like the petulant teen he actually was. Despised by his fellow pros, Weber’s eventual implosion from a Caligula-size appetite for coke, booze and women was as inevitable as it was epic. From million-dollar prize winner in 1989 to scraping by on $4,500 in 1995, Weber found himself too irrelevant to be hated.
Weber’s second chapter has largely been made possible by the death of the game his father more or less created in the public consciousness. Robert D. Putnam, in his exhaustively researched Bowling Alone, documents the rapid decline of American social capital through the prism of bowling. More Americans bowl today than ever before, but they are no longer bowling in teams; they bowl alone, treating the game as a kind of kitsch oddity rather than a passion or a socially driven activity. The decline in team bowling has sparked the closure of literally thousands of alleys across the U.S., which has further eroded the game’s standing in a death spiral that seems unlikely to be arrested. Indeed, no sport seems more trapped in a bizarre, living time capsule than bowling. Its 1950s shirts, shoes and general working-class aura have become a kind of ironic, winking, vaguely smug wearable fashion, like the workwear-inspired trends that dominate menswear or the mock pompadours worn by nouveau greasers. People love bowling now the way they love monocles, Tang and fondue parties. It’s not a love that inspires loyalty.
But from the ashes of his father’s dream soars Pete Weber. Marginally “cleaned up” for regional and occasionally national TV — the sport’s lifeblood now — Weber has taken the PBA from the 1950s to … well, the 1990s, at least. The “I Wear My Sunglasses at Night / You Got It Made With the Guy in the Shades” mantra that has led Weber to bring his Oakleys, occasional flavor-saver mustache and open-collared, Parrothead button-downs to the most reclusive and bizarre corners of the American sporting landscape has also made the rest of the world take notice, if only with passing amusement.
Weber hasn’t exactly rebuilt Putnam’s eroding social capital or his father’s PBA, but he has put bowling back on the grid with performances that combine vitriol, baffling sartorial choices and sheer stupidity with genuine talent and determination. For though Weber’s sport has fallen into virtual irrelevance, his personal stakes — meeting perceived parental expectations; drug and alcohol abuse; depression; loneliness; a quest for self-worth defined starkly by “winners and losers” in a way real life cannot (thankfully) match — are universal. It’s no surprise Pete Weber is professional bowling: He’s at once its biggest cartoon and its most genuine man. He has filled his father’s shoes at last.