It’s a long time to do anything, even something you enjoy to the hilt.
For a frame of reference on how long Brian Hirner has been involved with the game of bowling, the Joliet resident reminds us that his dad, Tony Hirner, got him started as a pinsetter at Lockport Lanes at age 13.
A few years later, in 1958, Hirner bowled in his first Joliet city tournament at age 17 and won the all-events title.
When he steps onto the approach at Riverfront Lanes in Wilmington at 8:30 a.m. Sunday to participate in the team division of the 78th annual Joliet Area City USBC BA Tournament, that will mark a full six decades competing in the event.
“Sixty years, how about that,” said Hirner, 77 and a member of the Joliet and Illinois bowling halls of fame. “I don’t like thinking about that many years that much. I still remember my first tournament in 1958. It has been a big thing in my life.”
Hirner bowls regularly on Wednesday nights now. The team he will be with Sunday has brought together five former kings of Joliet area bowling. Hirner is a five-time king, winning the crown in 1970, ’71, ’81, ’87 and ’88.
He also won five Joliet Bowling Association titles pre-1979. Since 1982, the time during which association president Joe Pomykala has records, Hirner won team scratch titles in 1982, ’83, ’84, ’86, ’87, ’93, ’95 and ’97; team handicap in 1987 and 2001; doubles and scratch handicap in 1983; singles scratch in 1996, 2001 and 2007, and singles handicap in 1996.
A DIFFERENT GAME
When he was winning all those titles, the game was different than it is today. For example, there’s the 900 series that Lockport resident Sam Esposito rolled about a year ago at Strike N Spare II.
“A 900 series? Nobody would have ever dreamed of a 900 back in the day,” Hirner said. “ If I ever was headed toward a 900 series, my knees would be knocking so much I probably wouldn’t be able to bowl at all.
“An 800 was super big years ago. I remember when I shot my first one, how exciting that was. Back in the day, there was more of an emphasis on accuracy than there is now. Now the game is power.”
Another difference was the number of bowling houses in Joliet proper.
“When I started bowling, there were seven alleys in Joliet,” Hirner noted. “Now there’s one [Town & Country]. Bowling used to be bigger. It was on TV regularly. But one good thing that has happened is bowling is an accepted sport in high school and college these days. Teams in Joliet have done real well, the high school kids.”
Hirner said he used to bowl most often at Jahneke Lanes and Bowl Era and also bowled frequently at Rivals.
“When the Kontoses started Town & Country, that was really out in the country,” he said. “The lanes and the McDonald’s, I remember both of them were out in the country.”
Hirner, who worked at Caterpillar for 32 years, carried a PBA card for 20 years.
“I was doing that part-time while I worked at Caterpillar,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to win two PBA tournaments, which I am proud of. One was in Green Bay and one in Chicago. That was sometime in the 1990s. I don’t recall exactly when.
“I bowl one night a week now. In my prime, when I was on the PBA tour part-time, I bowled three, four, five times a week.”
Hirner ranks with, and has bowled with, some of the best in Joliet’s storied history.
“I bowled quite a bit with Jimmy Stefanich,” he said. “He was the best in the country, the PBA bowler of the year once. That’s something that is really difficult to achieve. He bowled a 300 game on TV.
“When I won the all-events in the city in 1958, Jimmy was on that team. Mickey Spiezio was, too. He just passed away. I have bowled with some of the greats.”
He mentioned Bill Stukel as instrumental in furthering his career. “I bowled on his team,” Hirner said. “Cliff Tolle, Mel Eaton and Billy Randolph were some of the others who were important to me. And, of course, my dad, who got me started. They all encouraged me a lot.”
Hirner said he would be remiss if he did not mention two longtime publicists of the game locally.
“Two people who really helped promote the game in Joliet were Don Ladas [through WJOL Radio and the Will County Sportsman] and Mary Jane Sporar [through the Herald-News],” he said. “They were terrific with what they did.”
Their length of service promoting the game rivals Hirner’s six decades in the city tournament.
“Fortunately I had a little athletic ability,” Hirner said. “We lived in Lockport for 30 years, then we moved to Joliet. I played baseball two years at Lockport and golfed a couple of years there. I pitched one year at JJC, although I don’t remember getting in many games. I got a uniform, anyway.
“Bowling, though, always has been my No. 1 sport. It has been a big part of my life. All my best friends are through bowling. I never had children, so I was able to close the door and take off on trips to bowl.”
Of course, he also accomplished plenty on the lanes right here at home. He is a Hall of Famer by any standard.