At a time when bowling was a game of accuracy and finesse, the late Joe Donato’s exploits on the lanes were legendary.
Arguably the greatest bowler in Schenectady history, the fun-loving Donato was a devoted family man who loved the New York Yankees, especially Joe DiMaggio.
And he loved the game of tenpins even more, whether it was as a fierce competitor, proprietor or promoter.
That’s why Donato will be the first bowler inducted into the Schenectady City School District Hall of Fame at the 15th annual SCSD Hall of Fame and Reunion Dinner Monday at Proctors.
“To me, this is a great honor for my dad, and for me personally,” said Donato’s son, Tom. “All my local heroes are inducted into the Schenectady City School District Hall of Fame. This is a huge thing for me. That’s why we put my dad up for this honor. There is no bigger honor, in my opinion.”
Donato attended Mont Pleasant High School before enlisting in the Navy during World War II. He later became a charter member of the Professional Bowlers Association, finishing fourth in two PBA events.
A man of ‘firsts’
Known for many “firsts” in the sport, Donato was the first man to be inducted into the Schenectady Bowling Association Hall of Fame, the first competitor to roll a perfect game on the “TV Tournament Time” show, where he made more than 50 appearances, and the first bowler to make all five spares on ABCs “Make that Spare” show.
He set world records for both four-game and six-game matches, and was selected as one of the top 10 bowlers in the United States in 1961. Selected 53rd on The Daily Gazette’s 1994 list of the top 100 Capital Region sports figures of the previous 100 years, Donato was named the Mont Pleasant Athletic Club Athlete of the Year in 1959.
He managed Turnpike Lanes, which later became Town & Country Lanes, Mont Pleasant Lanes, Scotia Lanes and Holiday Bowl in Santa Anna, Calif., before serving as proprietor of Sportsman’s Bowl for 40 years.
While at Sportsman’s, Donato showed his promotion skills by creating the “Great, Greater and Greatest Tournament” to benefit local charities and originating the Elmer Ciccone Memorial Pro-Am, which invited the top 14 touring PBA members each year.
Donato also formed two of the area’s top scratch leagues, the Capital District All Star league and the Schenectady Major league.
“My father was the first guy named to the AMF staff in New York, and he was named the bowler of the year in our area for eight straight years,” said Tom Donato. “There is no question that he won everything there was to win on the local front, including seven U.S. Open qualifiers. The only thing he didn’t do was win a PBA Tour event, but he wasn’t out there on tour that long.”
Donato knew such bowling luminaries as Dick Weber, Don Carter, Carmen Salvino and Billy Welu, and he became good friends with all of them.
But one of his greatest thrills had nothing to do with bowling.
A visit from Joltin’ Joe
“My father just loved the Yankees, especially Joe DiMaggio,” Tom Donato said. “One day, he invited Joe D over to the house, and I’ll never forget it. My mom made linguini with garlic oil and anchovies. My dad just kept looking at Joe D and finally said to me, ‘Tom, do you believe that the one and only Joe DiMaggio is at my house?’ Joe DiMaggio couldn’t stop laughing. It was one of the greatest days of my father’s life.”
Tom Donato also recounted the day that his father was bowling in a PBA Tour event in Dallas, and had a chance to play some golf before returning home.
“He was supposed to play with Billy Welu, Don Carter and Mickey Mantle, but he decided against it. He told me later that if it were Joe DiMaggio instead of Mickey Mantle, he would have played.”
Donato was respected by the entire bowling community for his skills.
“I bowled against him, and I bowled with him,” said Morris Cramer, another Capital Region bowling standout who was influential in helping to start the PBA Tour.
“In 1949, he was the outstanding bowler in Schenectady, and we had a big money match. He also bowled in the Albany Classic with me and Johnny Walther. We won every year that our team was together.
“Joe was a bowler’s bowler,” Cramer said. “He ran a bowling alley, and he learned how to promote the game. I think if he could have made a living out there, he would have stayed out on tour longer. He was a friend, competitor and teammate of mine.”
Karl Wolf, the former proprietor of Imperial Lanes in Amsterdam and Saratog Strike Zone (formerly Hi-Roc Lanes) in Saratoga Springs and who still runs the pro shop at Strike Zone, was a huge fan of Joe Donato.
“Nobody meant more to the game in the Capital District than Joe Donato,” said Wolf.
“He gave me my first job in bowling after I was working at GE. He hired me as a lane mechanic, and Joe taught me everything about the business, including how to drill bowling balls. He was a great ball-driller. He was very meticulous. He knew a lot about weights and off-balance drilling before everybody else did, and he passed those things onto me.
“Every time I drill a ball or throw a ball, I think about Joe Donato. He was such a nice man. He did things with his pro-ams and donations to needy causes that not a lot of people knew about. And I’ve still got a big picture of Joe in his AMF uniform hanging in my pro shop.”
Schenectady Bowling Association Hall of Famer Frank Cornicelli knew Donato for most of his life.
“I knew him since he was a teen-ager. He was always a good bowler. We used to bowl against him and his team, and we could never beat him.
“Bowling was his life,” Cornicelli added. “He just loved the game, and he felt he was as good as anybody. He believed it, and his bowling showed it. Absolutely, he was one of the best this area has ever seen. He fit right in with guys like Johnny Walther, Morris Cramer and Joey Schmidt. He was one of the Capital Region’s elite bowlers, but he was also very witty and funny.”
Former PBA touring pro and current pro shop operator Kenny Hall said he learned quite a bit from watching Donato bowl and dealing with all kinds of people.
“The thing I noticed about him was his air of confidence. He never self-doubted,” Hall said.
“He always believed he could do what he had to do on the lanes. A great example was when he shot that 300 game on ‘TV Tournament Time.’ Even when things were going bad, he was a tough competitor. He always had that belief in himself. That’s one of the things I took from him. Without being cocky or arrogant, he let you know that he could get the job done.”