“I got a sense Billy Hardwick was a man who, once he set his mind to something, would let nothing get in his way,” said Gianmarc Manzione, author of many bowling articles. “When I finally met him in person, how rapidly he spoke and walked reinforced this conception.”
Billy Hardwick grew up on Casanova Drive in San Mateo, just around the corner from his best friend, Len Nicholson, and mere minutes away from Bel Mateo Bowl, a place where Hardwick would spend countless hours honing the skills that would one day make him one of the greatest bowlers in history before he died of a heart attack Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013 at the age of 72.
Nicholson was a junior at Hillsdale High School when he met Billy, who was a year younger. Billy was very competitive, but he wasn’t very athletic. He tried out for the football team, and the coach put the 5-foot-3-inch, 95-pound Hardwick as linebacker to block Nicholson, but he slipped as he was running at Len. Of course Len and all the guys laughed at him, and Billy swore that he would beat them all someday.
Well, it didn’t take him long to make his words come true. That summer, Bel Mateo Bowl opened up, and Len and Billy, the biggest guy and the smallest, were put on the same team on a league.
Billy wasn’t a natural when it came to bowling, either. He wasn’t graceful with his approach, often losing balance or leaning to the right. But bowling is a game of consistency and Hardwick was consistent in the most important aspect, getting his ball into the pocket where he had the best chance to strike.
“His accuracy was uncannily awesome,” Nicholson said. “Within two years, he was beating us. By 1960, he was the best at the alley, and he was famous throughout the Bay Area. People would come from all over just to challenge him, and he would beat them all.”
Hardwick’s style was unusual in another way. When he was a junior working at Bel Mateo Bowl, Hardwick stuck his hand into an ice machine and cut the tendon in his ring finger — of course on his bowling hand. So, he began holding the ball with his thumb, index and middle fingers, which earned him the nickname, “the man with the golden claw.”
In 1961, Billy got 20 of his bowling acquaintances to sponsor him on the newly formed PBA Tour. The results were shocking — Hardwick went 0-17 that season. He didn’t make a dime. He came home to San Mateo and Len and his friends asked him what he was next. They thought he was crazy when Billy said, without hesitation, “I’m going to work on my game and go back out there next year and beat them all.”
In 1963, Hardwick won three tournaments on the Tour, including the PBA National Championship. Hardwick was named PBA Player of the Year for 1963, and never looked back for the rest of the decade. He won the inaugural Firestone Tournament of Champions in 1965, beating Joe Joseph and Dick Weber in the finals. Hardwick would cap the decade with another Player of the Year Award in 1969, a year in which he became the first bowler to win the triple crown by winning the BPAA All-Star Tournament and won seven tournaments in all. Hardwick won nearly all of his 18 professional titles during the years of 1963-1969.
In addition to being one of the top bowlers on the lanes, Hardwick was popular with audiences.
“He was a fan-favorite everywhere,” Nicholson said. “He had talent and charisma. He’d sign autographs morning, noon and night.”
There was a stretch of years where Billy had stopped bowling due to the rheumatoid arthritis with which he was born. During that time, a woman wrote the PBA asking where Billy was. They replied, and she sent a bracelet she said helped her arthritis. Hardwick did receive that bracelet and he swore it worked, made him virtually pain free, Nicholson said. You couldn’t get it away from him.
Nicholson, Billy’s best friend for 57 years, said his greatest memory of Billy was watching him develop into one of the greatest bowlers every night at Bel Mateo Bowl and then seeing him be inducted into the PBA Hall of Fame in 1977.
“It was hard to believe this little scrawny kid with the determination of a giant could make it that far,” Nicholson said.