Sent in by Fraser Hambly:
You may or may not know the earlier history of Francois before he moved to B.C. - so I'll ramble on a bit first. He and 10 - 20 duckpinners from the Montreal area and parts of New England came to bowl 5-pin tournaments in the Toronto area from the mid 60's to the mid 70's. They had the vast majority of their success at O'Connor Bowl, as these were by far the fastest (most oil) of the lanes we played. In fact, at Albion Bowl (extremely dry lanes) I don't recall them ever being in contention and they soon gave that pursuit up.
You might wonder why they were so successful on fast lanes as opposed to dry. The story goes that they bowled money games (numerous bookies on the premises) and that they played all day on Saturdays and Sundays. Supposedly, the lanes were dressed first thing in the morning, again at noon, and again at 6:00. With their slow backhand delivery, the lanes needed to be fast and to ensure consistency, the bookies wanted the lanes done this way. Apparently the amount of money gambled was astronomical, and there is no doubt that Francois picked up some of his interest in gambling here. Francois and Andre Morrisette were the 2 top bowlers from the Montreal area and Bill Topraini from New England rounded out the top 3. On extremely fast conditions, Andre and Francois were a toss-up, but I think I would have to give a very slight edge to Andre. On any other condition, Francois was definitely better. As you well know, Francois could throw the ball many ways and adjust speeds. Francois and Andre were undoubtedly the most accurate bowlers I ever saw, although they needed very fast lanes to show this. I once saw Andre pick 8 headpins in a row (on demand) in a practice session for the CBC show at O'Connor Bowl. In a tournament at O'Connor, I once saw Francois miss the left pocket twice only (1 headpin, 1 miss) in a 5 game set.
Anyhow, let me tell you more about that 5 game set. In a tournament at O'Connor, I was on the same lanes as Francois and he was really struggling for the first 4 1/2 games. He struck out the last 5 frames to get to around 1200. He proceeded to announce to everyone that he had found it and that he would bet anyone the last 5 games. Francois was not that well known to the other bowlers from the Toronto area yet. As you are probably aware, there was a lot of gambling on bowling in those days. I would say that at least 20 bowlers (including me) took him up on a bet for the last 5 games. The wagers in those days were often per pin, and his wagers would have been either 10 or 25 cents per pin. He proceeded to shoot the 5 game block I described above, shooting 1600 plus! To give you an idea about how much money he made, let's say the average score of the players he bet was 1300 plus (probably wasn't that high), he would have won by 300 pins x 20 bowlers x10 -25 cents a pin - 10 cents x 300 x 10 bowlers = $300 ; 25 cents x 300 x 10 bowlers = $750 ; $300 + $750 = $1050 !!! (I believe he also finished 2nd in the tourney.). That figure don't forget is mid 1960's, and was a lot of money at the time. Interestingly enough, a couple of years later, I was bowling on the same lanes again with Francois and he was struggling the first 5 games before having a big finish. He again announced that he had found it and would take all bets for the last 5 games. He still got approximately 20 bowlers to bet him again - not me this time - and he shot 1600 plus again and made another small fortune.
Francois was not out to take advantage though. He told you what he was going to do and was able to back it up. He was also very helpful to anyone who wanted to learn how to throw the backhand delivery. He spent quite a bit of time with me and I was able to shoot a couple of 400 games in practice. However, because of our varying lane conditions and the toll the style took (had to get very low), I abandoned it. I always enjoyed watching Francois bowl, as he was very animated, and because his English was better than most of the rest of the Montreal bowlers, he was easy to talk to.
One other comment about the year he had that phenomenal average. The story we heard back here was that after his poor start he made all these bets that he would average over 300 as you state, but that he had a deal with the proprietor to dress the lanes exactly the way he wanted and that the proprietor got part of the profits. Please comment on this.
I know all this is very rambling in nature, but hopefully you can use some of it for your site. Francois Lavigne was truly a legend and a fine man and his passing meant the loss of a truly unique and skilled individual.
Yours in bowling,
Sent in by Ray Marco:
I entered the first qualifying round at the Chinook Autumn Open cash tournament at Calgary in 1974 and here was this short guy with long black hair warming up. Only I'd never seen anyone throw a five-pin bowling ball like him. He took a long approach, using almost all the wood, got very low and cupping the ball let it go with backspin. I thought at first he was goofing around to loosen up, but no. He moved across the lane trying different angles to the headpin; held the ball slightly different to make it hook slightly or backup slightly and despite all his moves and changes he kept on hitting the middle ball after ball. I was in awe of what this guy could do with a bowling ball. He had an audience in the warm-up, for crying out loud, and then one of the guys who knew him made a comment and I saw him smile and reply in English, but with the French accent.
I found out his name was Frank Lavigne and I agree with Calgary's Don Sim who recently said "Frank was the best there ever was."
Frank qualified for the semi-finals of the Autumn Open, making the top 40 and he was not the high qualifier because he was, I think, fine tuning his game during the qualifying round and storing the information waiting for the finals. Then he made the top 16 in the semis and advancing to the 15-game round robin final.
Then I witnessed something incredible. He got better and better as he got closer to the big money. He was in a zone where he would hit not only the headpin, but the same side of the headpin in the exact same spot over and over frame after frame and when he got a strike there would be three or four pins left lying on the deck! Much different than today when you see so many players blast the pins into the pit. Frank was a craftsman at the game, not a rocket launcher. When he got a corner pin, he'd go right down the line to pick it and he was so accurate that the crowd gasped when he missed one.
The other thing I noticed was that Frank often bowled enough to win his match, if his opponent threw 220 Frank got 240, if his opponent got 320 Frank got 345, for instance. Not all the time of course, nobody's that good, but so often it was spooky. Was he saving himself for tougher games later in the day? Of course Frank won the tournament and in those days the victor received a gold jacket to commemorate the win.
Then I saw him again at the Rose Bowl in Edmonton at Bonnie Doon Lanes later the same winter. Once again he studied the lanes, qualified in the top 32 to advance to match play and once again he topped the field to win the tournament.
The next fall Frank was back at Chinook. Like déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra said, Frank won the event for the second straight year. Then he goes up to Edmonton and wins the Rose Bowl for the second time!
The next fall the Chinook Lanes in Calgary get flooded just before the Autumn Open. What to do? The event is moved to the Fairview Lanes in north Calgary. Frank has bowled in the Fairview Masters before, an 18 game medal play event, and has not been a contender to win. Calgary's Stan Black, who throws a slow, smooth backup shot is the top dog at Fairview. Frank comes out on the Friday and practices, trying to find a line on these much dryer lanes (see Fraser Hambly's story here about the backspin-duckpin ball on dry lanes). The Autumn Open begins and Frank barely makes the 40 man cut to get into the semi-finals. In the 8 game semis he's still trying to find it. Four games in Frank says to Bill Thomas, also from Vancouver, that he's found it, the ball is starting to move for him and no one will beat me now. Quite a boast! But Frank backed it up, even at Fairview where he'd had little luck in the past. He kept it into the finals and for the third straight year he beat all comers to take the big cheque home.
I had the privilege of having breakfast with Frank at a tournament in Kamloops a few years later. By then Frank had switched to the hook ball because his knees would not let him get low enough to throw the backspin-duckpin ball. He was modest about his bowling accomplishments and a total gentleman. He said he envied players who could go into any house and just throw their normal shot and average 270 to qualify. It was always much harder for him throwing the backspin ball because he had to study and read the lanes to be effective.
No other five-pin bowler has averaged 329 for a season as Frank did. Only Bruce Morter from Edmonton has won three big cash tournaments in a row (at the Brewhouse Jubilee Ford event in Saskatoon). Oh, and Bruce won seven titles at the Chinook Autumn Open in ten years and finished second a couple of times. The only other bowler in that league is Fraser Hambly himself from Ontario whose accomplishments over decades is legendary. So there you are, I say these three are the best five-pin bowlers ever. Frank didn't do what Bruce and Fraser did in the Provincial and Canadian Open championships or the Masters. But then there's Frank's 329 season average and his awesome accuracy. Then again, Fraser cornered a bad guy on the freeway in Toronto and got national coverage in Maclean's magazine! So, argue on; who's the greatest?.
Frank, who died two years ago, will be missed. We shall not see his like again. I feel honored and privileged to have seen him bowl in his prime and spend a little time together.