The California branch of the United Stated Bowling Congress profiled Juanita Blocker after she passed away in 2015. Among the highlights included below are: Juanita Blocker’s family migrated from Houston to Los Angeles in 1921 when she was three years old; Blocker was a multisport athlete who played for the California Eaglettes, a softball team sponsored by the California Eagle, an African-American newspaper; she was the first black member of the Professional Women’s Bowling Association; and she averaged over 185 per game.
“Juanita Blocker ‘A Trailblazer’ Passes Away at 96” by Phyl Knoll
Our dear friend Juanita Julia Blocker was born July 15, 1918 in Houston, Texas. Not long after, Juanita’s father James, gave up his career in show business, took a job with the railroad, and relocated in Los Angeles. Her mother Lenore and Juanita followed in 1921 and Juanita had called Los Angeles “home” ever since.
In her early years, Juanita showed evidence of a born athlete. By the time she graduated from Jefferson High School in 1936, Juanita had been a member of the Track, Basketball, Softball, Volleyball and the Tennis teams. Besides being an athlete Juanita showed her talent as a student leader and subsequently, was the first black student to be elected to the Jefferson High School Student Government. Juanita attended (LACC) Los Angeles City College, played and coached Basketball and graduated in 1942 with a degree in Physical Education and Recreation and was immediately hired by the Los Angeles County Department of Parks & Recreation as one of their Leaders. Volleyball was one of the sports Juanita played and coached at the parks and, of course, in those days the nets were held by portable Volley Ball Standards. After suffering an injury from a fallen standard, Juanita invented a safety device to secure the standards, for which she received a monetary award. Those devices were then installed in all Los Angeles County playgrounds and centers. Besides coaching sports, Juanita possessed a talent in art projects and writing. Under her close eye and tutoring her students would many times, come away with First Place Blue Ribbons from the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona for their artwork and poetic writings.
The sport of bowling came into the picture in the 1940’s when while attending LACC, Juanita would often go into what was then, Vogue Bowl at 49th & Central, and spectate the bowlers. It wasn’t long before she was convinced “I can do that” and thus the beginning of Juanita’s bowling career, and, first encounter with a sports headliner. During one of her practice sessions, a huge black gentleman stepped up and offered to coach her. Lo and behold, it was none other than Joe “The Brown Bomber” Lewis, the heavyweight boxer. Lewis who owned an east coast bowling alley (as they were called then), hung out at Vogue Bowl with a close friend Ernest Whitman, a professional singer and movie actor. Juanita loved “this game” and proved to be one of the few black women to average 185 and better. The Parent Senate of the (TNBA) The National Bowling Association was formed in 1939 and Juanita joined the organization in hopes to use her bowling talents to open some doors for the TNBA. Unfortunately, until well into the 1950’s the black bowling athlete received little recognition and no opportunity to take their sport to a professional level.
Although Juanita pursued her game of bowling, she remained involved in other sports, because if you were good, you made the team. She was recruited to a women’s professional basketball team sponsored by the popular “Dad’s Rootbeer.” Their team traveled up and down the coast of California and as far away as Phoenix, Arizona, competing against women military teams. As far as Juanita knew, they were the only black female team in this travel league. Juanita recalled the excitement when with the influence of singer Nat King Cole and Charlotte Bass, owner of the California Eagle Newspaper (later known as the Los Angeles Sentinel), their team received an invitation to play the pre-game show to the famous Harlem Globe Trotters at the Los Angeles Olympic Stadium.
When basketball season was over, Juanita spent more time on her bowling game but was also playing shortstop and second base for the California Eaglettes, a Los Angeles Parks & Recreation Women’s Softball Team. They were sponsored by the California Eagle Newspaper and Nat King Cole. Juanita held a batting average of 275-285 and was largely feared by her opponents for her “steal-and-slide” techniques. Juanita utilized her talent for the game and coached other players. One particular player she coached was none other than Richard Williams, father of the well-known professional Tennis Stars, Venus and Selena Williams, of Compton, California. Unfortunately, all that vigorous activity took its toll and she was later in life reminded every day by the pain she endured in both her ankles.
Juanita played Tennis as well. She was third-seeded to the then well known, Pauline (Bobbie) Betz, a Wimbledon Champion. In fact, Juanita held the honor of being the only player who then could beat Betz. Ironically, Juanita was coached by none other than…. Pauline’s mother, Stella Betz!
Prior to 1950, (ABC) the American Bowling Congress, and the (WIBC) Women’s International Bowling Congress Rules banned non-caucasians from bowling in their events, but that did not discourage Juanita from becoming a bowler of note. She knew the game well and wanted to become a Certified Bowling Instructor. While working as the Manager for Studio Bowling Academy, Los Angeles, (since closed) owner Victor Bernath sent her to Instructor’s School where she was tutored by the best: National Hall of Famer Buddy Bomar, Bill Bunetta and California’s own, Helen Duval. It wasn’t long after that Georgia Veach, Founder and President of the (PWBA) Professional Women’s Bowling Association accepted Juanita’s application for membership. She had the honor of being the first black woman member of the PWBA on the west coast during the 1950’s and 1970’s. Juanita applied for sponsorship from AMF, but they were not sending black bowlers on tour, so armed with a 189 average and the sponsorship of PWBA members, Donna Zimmerman and Merle Matthew (since deceased), Juanita put her busy schedule on hold and hit the “pro trail” as a member of the Greater Los Angeles Women’s Traveling League. The schedule required visiting 28 different centers per season, which at that time, was no easy task. Bill Stennis, owner of the well-known Golden Bird Restaurant chain, sponsored their team and Juanita proudly recalled bowling with teammate Georgia Veach and crossing lanes with the famous bowling pro Marion Ladewig. While traveling to tournaments across the United States Juanita endured anxieties and indignities most of us cannot even imagine. Times when she could not practice bowling until after midnight until all “other” bowlers were through. She was unable to eat at the bowling alley café counter where the “other” bowlers were seated. Juanita was blessed with an innate understanding of the times and the importance of which it took to break barriers. And, she did. Juanita set numerous records. Over 300–400 trophies, medals, plaques, certificates, ribbons, and more. The first 720 series she shot at Hollywood Legion Lanes, (since closed) and held top honors with WIBC for some time.
Following her pro tours, Juanita devoted herself to all other facets of the bowling game. She was the resident Certified Instructor from 1971 to 1981 at Southwest Bowl at Western and Imperial, (which has since closed). Many of her students were from Southwest College across the street, several who were of foreign cultures and had little athletic ability. Although there was a language barrier, Juanita made her actions speak for her and helped pave the way for those youth to be able to enjoy the game anywhere. Juanita was instrumental in convincing the Los Angeles Board of Education to give grade credits to high school and college students who attended her classes.
In 1961 Juanita joined the Los Angeles “600” Bowling Club and was eventually elected to their Board of Directors. In 1962 she was elected to the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles Women’s Bowling Association (LAWBA). Although Juanita was a “natural” in any sport she engaged in, she also possessed a wonderful talent for writing about sports. She was handsomely rewarded in many areas. In 1963 she was given her own sports column which appeared weekly in the Los Angeles Sentinel Newspaper for over 35 years. In all that time, she remained the devoted publicist to her Los Angeles organizations and the TNBA. It was during this same era that Los Angeles Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, (since deceased), presented Juanita with a “Writ of Commendation” for the poems and odes she composed about the newly dedicated Olympic Style Swimming Stadium at Will Rogers Park. It was this same year, while still managing Studio Bowling Academy that the Annual Press Conference and the Los Angeles Sentinel voted Juanita as the “Woman of the Year in Sports.” In 1987, when she retired from the Parks and Recreation, she received “Special Recognition” from Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and Councilman Gilbert Lindsay, for all the dedication she had shown to bringing out the talents of the children she had coached in sports and tutored in art projects. In 1988, she was the first black member inducted into the LAWBA Hall of Fame and was made a Member Emeritus. In 1999, Juanita was elected to the Southern California Bowling Writers Hall of Fame. In 2004, she received the “Distinguished Service Award” from the United States Bowling Congress (USBC), California Association.