For Barry Sparks, it bordered on the unbelievable.
In a publishing world bursting with books of nearly every sort, no one had ever written a biography about the best-ever performer in a sport that is fervently followed by millions of Americans.
So, the York County author decided to do something about it.
After devoting three years of his life, conducting more than 100 interviews and researching more than 1,500 articles, Sparks has produced a work that he hopes will fill that void: “EARL: The Greatest Bowler of All Time.”
The “EARL” in the title refers to Earl Anthony. Of course, if you know anything about bowling, you already knew that.
“It was mystifying to me why someone who was considered the greatest athlete in his sport didn't have a biography,” Sparks said. “Consider if Arnold Palmer, Hank Aaron, Peyton Manning, Jimmy Connors, Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky didn't have biographies. I thought it was an injustice that Earl didn't have a biography. My goal was to change that.”
Remarkable story: Anthony’s story is rather remarkable on several levels.
The left-hander from Tacoma, Washington, didn’t pick up a bowling ball until he was 21. He didn’t become a full-time competitor on the Professional Bowlers Association Tour until he was 31 — an age when many athletes are considering retirement.
Still, during a standout run from 1970 to 1983, he won 43 PBA titles. The Bowling Hall of Famer was named the PBA Player of the Year six times — three times before a major heart attack in 1978 and three times after.
In 2008, Anthony was named the greatest bowler in the PBA’s 50-year history by a panel of bowlers and media members.
Given that background, it’s hard to fathom that no one had previously tackled an Anthony biography.
Sparks, however, was the right man to take on the project. He has covered bowling for more than three decades (including, full disclosure, here at The York Dispatch). He’s also written two biographies previously: “Frank ‘Home Run’ Baker: World Series Hero and Hall of Famer” and “Rick Riordan.”
Enjoyable experience: The 293-page book on Anthony from Luby Publishing, however, was Sparks' most enjoyable book experience thus far, largely because he retired from his full-time job at WellSpan in 2015, giving him much more time to devote to research, interviews and writing.
“Having more time made writing ‘EARL’ much easier. It was one of my top priorities, rather than my fifth or sixth priority, like Frank ‘Home Run’ Baker was,” Sparks said.
He also said his most recent writing experience was much different because there were lots of people still alive who knew and competed against Anthony, unlike the Baker book.
Because of that, he called the Anthony book “an ideal project for me.”
'Ideal superstar': It also helped that Sparks clearly grew to like his subject — a man he described as both a “fierce competitor” and “true gentleman” who was “feared and respected by his peers.”
Sparks said the fan-friendly and media-savvy Anthony was the “ideal superstar.”
“He was one of bowling’s greatest ambassadors,” Sparks said.
Anthony died in 2001 at age 63 when he fell down the stairs at a friend’s house and hit his head on a marble floor. Anthony’s memory, however, has lived on. It will undoubtedly be given a boost by Sparks’ work.
Sparks believes that no one previously had done an Anthony book because it was too difficult and time-consuming, plus publishers generally aren’t as interested in books on bowling when compared with football, basketball or baseball.
Frankly, bowling isn’t considered the sexiest of sports. It’s almost never featured on ESPN’s SportsCenter. Still, Sparks said when Anthony was in his prime, an average of 12 million to 14 million viewers watched the PBA Tour on CBS on Saturday afternoons, when it was No. 1 in its time slot. There were also 9 million league bowlers at the time.
So clearly, there were, and are, lots of folks interested in both bowling and Anthony. Sparks is hoping his book will appeal to those people. So far, he said, sales of the book have been encouraging.
Local angles: During his research for the book, Sparks interviewed three men from the York County bowling community: Terry Brenneman, proprietor of Colony Park Lanes and Laser Alleys and owner of Bowlers Supply; Jim Plessinger, former proprietor of Suburban Bowlerama; and Mike Bair, proprietor of Hanover Bowling Centre.
Brenneman hosted Anthony at Colony Park Lanes for an event in 1983. Plessinger competed on the PBA Tour from 1975 to 1980. He knew Anthony and competed against him. Bair also competed on the PBA Tour in 1980, and he once bowled against Anthony in a doubles competition.
In addition, Sparks spoke to 23 Bowling Hall of Famers and also enjoyed the cooperation of Anthony’s family.
In the end, after thousands of hours of interviews and research, the finished work is out, and Sparks has accomplished his goal.
The best bowler ever now has his own biography — just like Jordan, Gretzky, Aaron and the other greats in sports.
— Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Barry Sparks’ latest book can be purchased at www.earlanthonybook.com, with 10% of the proceeds donated to the Earl Anthony Scholarship for youth bowlers. Sparks will conduct book signings at area bowling centers in the near future.