Andy Varipapa was born March 31, 1891 in Carfizzi, Italy, a small community in the southwestern region of Calabria. After his father’s death in 1902, he and his family moved to the United States where they settled in Brooklyn, NY. He worked as a machinist in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War I and began bowling in his free time.
Before becoming a professional bowler, Andy played baseball, golf, and even had a try at a boxing career. He also sold insurance before the Depression forced him out of work. At that point, Andy found a job as manager of a bowling alley and immediately found his niche in life. He started his bowling career in the late 1920s and quickly made a reputation for himself in the sport, becoming one of the first pro bowlers in the country after coming to the attention of the New York sportswriters at age 38 in 1929.
While establishing himself as one of New York’s best bowlers in the 1930’s, winning three New York City All-Events titles as well as a New York State All-Events title, he was becoming more well-known nationally as a skilled trick shot artist, so much so that he traveled to Hollywood in 1934 to make the first bowling short film, “Strikes and Spares”. It was the first of 17 films on bowling that he would make over his career. Andy was a trailblazer and goodwill ambassador of his sport, traveling around the country at the height of his career in the 1930’s and 1940’s giving clinics and exhibitions. During World War II he conducted clinics at several military bases, and along with fellow pro bowler Joe Norris traveled to Europe to entertain the troops stationed overseas.
In addition to his trick shots, he had become an accomplished professional bowler. In 1946, at the age of 55, he won the prestigious BPAA All-Star competition (predecessor to the U.S. Open) in a grueling 100 game format, making him the oldest winner ever. He became the first to win two years in a row when he repeated in 1947 in spite of a dramatic comeback by Joe Wilman, who had won the All-Star in 1945 and where Andy finished third. In 1948 he came close to a three-peat, finishing second to winner Connie Schwoegler. In the history of the All-Star and U.S. Open, no bowler has yet to duplicate Andy’s consecutive three year accomplishment.
Andy also won the BPAA National Doubles title in 1948 with Lou Campi, and they repeated as champions again in 1949. Andy’s achievements on the lanes earned him the title “1948 Bowler of the Year,” and was named to the pre-1950 First Team by Bowling Magazine. A runner-up in the 1952 Masters at age 61, Andy made up for it in 1959 when he tossed nine strikes in a row on Milton Berle’s Jackpot Bowling to take the $9,000 prize.
The 1950’s was a time of increased national publicity for Andy. While continuing with his competitive career, he also toured the country as a member of the Brunswick Advisory Staff of Champions and garnered several advertising endorsements from well-known companies such as Goodyear Tire, Equitable Life Insurance, Rheingold Beer, Pennzoil, Pepsi-Cola, and Wrigley’s Gum. In 1950, he published the pamphlet Better Bowling, which was expanded in 1952 into Andy Varipapa’s Quick Way to Better Bowling. In 1951, with the Cold War heating up, Andy once again teamed up with fellow pro Joe Norris and traveled overseas to entertain the troops deployed to the European Command. Joining them on this trip was Andy’s good friend and National Billiards Champion Willie Mosconi, who along with Andy performed their respective trick shots for the soldiers. He was also no stranger to the new medium of television, appearing as a celebrity guest on the popular “What’s My Line” show. In 1957 he was inducted into the bowling Hall of Fame.
While the creation of the Professional Bowlers Association in 1959 was arguably the most beneficial and ground-breaking organization for the growing cadre of professional bowlers, it came too late for Andy to reap any of its benefits. Competing with talented 30-year-old bowlers such as Don Carter and Dick Weber was a very tall order for the 68-year-old Andy. But being the fierce competitor that he had always been he wanted to give it a try. Coming into the PBA with the second wave of charter members along with his son, Frank, he participated in about six tour stops during the early years. But Andy quickly became a realist and while bowling with Frank in the PBA Houston Open one week before his 71st birthday in March 1962, he admitted to him that he could no longer compete at the level he expected of himself and retired from competition at the end of the tournament.
Retirement, however, did not keep Andy out of the limelight. The 1960’s saw him get more involved in the next phase of his bowling-related career as a goodwill ambassador for the sport with increased clinics, exhibitions, and public appearances on behalf of Brunswick, AMF, and other members of the bowling industry. In 1965 Andy starred in a Schaefer Beer commercial that showcased his many trick shots. Also in 1965 AMF sponsored Andy as he embarked on a 14-country European exhibition tour. And in 1968, with the PBA National Championship being held at the new Madison Square Garden Bowling Center, Andy demonstrated his trick shots on the streets of New York City on a specially-constructed lane outside the Garden. In 1969, at the age of 78 and with arthritis giving him difficulties in his right hand, he taught himself to bowl left-handed. Within two years he averaged 180, a testament to his skills and longevity.
Andy’s national status had enabled him to meet all the U.S. Presidents from FDR through Reagan, with President Truman inviting him to the White House to demonstrate his trick shots after winning the All-Star in 1946. And in 1970 President Nixon appointed Andy to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. Ten years later, in 1980, President Carter would be on hand to induct Andy as the first professional bowler into the Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame. Before the 1980’s were over he would be joined in the Hall by fellow PBA greats and good friends Carmen Salvino and Johnny Petraglia.
Throughout the 1970’s Andy continued to make exhibition appearances and attended the Hall of Fame ceremonies at the annual ABC tournaments. And in 1981, when he turned 90, the media rediscovered Andy, inviting him to appear on ABC-TV’s “That’s Incredible” to discuss their broadcast of his trick shot films and to perform a live exhibition himself. Later that year Brunswick honored him with a testimonial at their World Open in Chicago. Three years later, at the age of 93, Andy passed away peacefully in his sleep.
Although that was over 30 years ago, Andy has once again entered the public’s focus thanks to the telecast of the 2015 Wheaties commercials highlighting his trick shots. In addition, he was voted #1 by the fans in the trick shot competition sponsored by the PBA. The book Andy published in 1952 – Andy Varipapa’s Quick Way to Better Bowling – was republished in 2015 with a new cover that included photo footage from the Wheaties commercials.
Bowler’s Journal examined all this recent media attention and perhaps said it best with the extensive article they wrote in their July 2015 edition titled “Andy Varipapa…The Man We Refuse To Forget”.