LAS VEGAS – Bowlers who reach the prestigious 50-year participation mark at the United States Bowling Congress Open Championships generally fall inside of a spectrum.
On one end, you have bowlers who hit 50 years consecutively. On the other end, you have bowlers who miss years here or there for various reasons, and it takes a little longer.
Joseph Mortellaro of Corfu, New York, squarely is on the latter end of the spectrum.
Mortellaro has had to withstand a heart attack, knee replacement and shoulder surgery over the last 15 years to reach the 50-year plateau at the USBC Open Championships, but he finally made it. And, to him, it means the world.
He made his ceremonial march to the lanes Friday and returned to the South Point Bowling Plaza for doubles and singles Saturday afternoon.
“I’m the only one from my area who has reached this mark,” said Mortellaro, who began his journey at the 1956 Open Championships in Rochester, New York. “I knew I could hit this mark, and I started looking at it back in 2003 after my 36th year. Then, that’s when the health issues started. I missed two years (2008 and 2009) because of all that. Otherwise, I would’ve been doing this the last time we were here in Las Vegas.”
Mortellaro got involved in the game of bowling the same way a lot of bowlers from his generation did, setting pins at the local alley.
In 1962, at 26 years old, Mortellaro opened his own pro shop and ran it for 48 years. He retired in 2010.
Although he continued bowling and was able to maintain a 200 average after retirement, Mortellaro thought his bowling was coming to an end.
“I wanted to quit,” said Mortellaro, who received a chevron, plaque and diamond lapel pin to commemorate his entry into the tournament’s 50-Year Club. “I thought I was ready. But, the guys I bowl with, my teammates and my nieces and nephews, they are the ones who kept pushing me and motivating me.”
Unsure of whether he was going to make it to Las Vegas this year, his friends and family stepped up to make it happen.
“My problem is, I get tired too quick,” said the 82-year-old right-hander. “But, these guys, they got me a scooter, so I don’t have to walk everywhere. They carry my bowling balls for me. I haven’t bowled in three months because I’ve had all these problems.”
Of all the cities and venues Mortellaro has been to while bowling in the Open Championships, it’s the one closest to home that is his favorite.
“Syracuse is my favorite tournament city,” Mortellaro said. “I always bowl well there because it’s close to home. I’m comfortable. My highest all-events score (1,890 in 1973) came in Syracuse.”
When looking back on all the memories of his tournament career, there are a few that stand out.
“Bowling at the 1995 event in Reno, at the National Bowling Stadium, was unbelievable,” Mortellaro said. “To be there when it opened, it was just amazing. And bowling with my teammates. At one point, we had 30 guys going to the Open Championships.”
Reaching the 50-year mark is a proud achievement for any competitor, but what stands out to Mortellaro is his tournament average.
Mortellaro’s 2019 performance included a 428 series in doubles, 340 in team and 302 in singles for a 1,074 all-events total. His career pinfall at the Open Championships is 80,985 for a 184.9 average.
When looking to the future, Mortellaro says his health will be the determining factor on whether he returns to the championship lanes.
“I still enjoy this sport,” Mortellaro said. “I love coming out here and competing with family and friends. But, in all reality, its up to my health. I want to say, ‘yes for sure I’ll be here next year,’ but it all depends on my health.”
Mortellaro is one of 23 bowlers scheduled to reach 50 years of participation this year in Las Vegas.
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