By Barry Sparks, Feb. 2012 Issue of BCM
When PBA Hall of Famer Don Carter died on Thursday, Jan. 5, his accomplishments were well documented by the media: one of the founders of the PBA, six-time Bowler of the Year, first bowler to win every major tournament in his era, first athlete to sign a million dollar promotional contract and 11th ranked bowler in the “50 Greatest Players in PBA History” poll conducted in 2009.
Of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Carter’s achievements. His list of achievements is longer than the weekly grocery shopping list for a family of five.
One record that Carter holds, however, went unmentioned. His name appeared on more bowling centers than any other PBA player in history. Carter was an entrepreneur, and at one time during the 1980s, there were 13 Don Carter bowling centers spread across Texas, Louisiana and Florida.
Today, however, the only center to carry the name of one of the greatest bowlers ever is Don Carter Lanes in Rockford, Ill. It also was the first center to use Don Carter’s name. The 42-lane facility was built in 1959 and is thriving today under the same name.
Proprietor John Sommer says his father, John “Bob” Sommer Sr., and Ira Bell, a Budweiser distributor, were original partners in the center. They named the center after Carter, who held a small percentage of ownership in the center. It was a testament to his superstar status and name recognition. Carter was frequently seen on television, competing on the PBA Tour and shows like “Jackpot Bowling” and “Make That Spare.” He inspired millions of bowlers.
“Don was my idol when I was growing up,” says Sommer. “I worked at the center as a kid and I would see him occasionally, but he wasn’t a very active owner.”
Sommer says Carter brought the famous Budweiser team to the center several times. Of course, it generated lots of media attention and buzz among league bowlers. It was akin to Mickey Mantle bringing the New York Yankees to town.
“We take a lot of pride in being the original Don Carter Lanes,” offers Sommer, who explains that the center was never part of the Don Carter chain of bowling centers. “I know many younger bowlers don’t know who Don Carter was, but his name has great recognition among older bowlers. His name is going to be around for a long time because I’m never planning to change the name of the center. It’s always going to be Don Carter Lanes.”
Sommer chuckles that customers unfamiliar with PBA history often assume that he’s Don Carter since he’s the owner.
Sommer says Carter was always friendly and he marveled at his ability to recall names. “He always remembered you,” he adds. “At trade shows, it seemed as if he called everyone by name. He really liked people.”
John “Junior” Powell, who was an investor and partner in several Toledo-area bowling centers, partnered with Carter on a number of centers nationwide. Many of them were called Don Carter All-Star Lanes.
The popular Carter, who retired from PBA competition in 1972 due to bad knees, was probably most closely associated with Don Carter’s Kendall Lanes in Kendall, Fla. With 72 lanes, the center was one of the largest on the East Coast. The center also featured a bar, grill, billiard tables, video games and a fun, entertaining atmosphere. Every bowler received a free pair of socks with rental shoes.
Unfortunately, the center closed in 2006, a victim of South Florida’s booming population, rapidly increasing land values and shortage of viable space for new business or business expansion.
“Paula and I really miss Kendall Lanes because we practically lived there for 30 years,” Carter told Dick Evans, bowling columnist for the Miami Herald, at the time. “We would hang there a lot because it was close to our home. We had a lot of close friends and miss seeing them all the time.”
Woolbright Development purchased the site occupied by Don Carter’s Kendall Lanes with plans to develop a 67,000-square-foot shopping center that included Staples, Walgreen’s, Citibank, Starbucks, Panera Bread and other stores.
Evans lamented the fact that the closing of Don Carter’s Kendall Lanes and Cloverleaf Lanes in 2006 left Miami, a city of two million residents, with only three bowling centers.
Joe Schumacker, president of BPAA at the time, said “The way land values have exploded, it has become a big, big problem for owners of bowling centers to refuse lucrative offers.” It was speculated that developers offered $10 million to $12 million for land the Don Carter chain owned at the time.
As a PBA competitor, Carter was quiet and unassuming. He exhibited the same characteristics as a proprietor, preferring to leave the day-to-day operation and details to others.
The Don Carter name is never expected to lose its luster. The PBA Senior Don Carter Open will be held April 17-21 at Carter Family Bowl, Winter Garden, Florida. Carter was the first bowler to have a PBA tournament named in his honor.
Storm Products, Inc., planned to debut a new Don Carter signature ball soon, according to his son, Jimmy.
Like other superstars — Muhammad Ali, Wilt Chamberlain, Ted Williams, Joe Namath and Jesse Owens — Don Carter’s name will always evoke memories of greatness.