Mark Roth, top bowler who brought power to the sport, dies at 70
By Richard Sandomir
Mark Roth, whose explosive power game made him one of bowling’s all-time greats and the second to earn $1 million in career earnings in the sport, died Friday in Oswego, New York. He was 70.
The cause was congestive heart failure, his wife, Denise Roth, said. Since 2009, he had two strokes — the first ended his career — and two heart attacks and was in a long-care facility at his death.
Roth was a star of the Professional Bowlers Association in the 1970s and ’80s and a mainstay of its PBA Tour. He won 34 titles, a record eight of them in 1978; earned $1.5 million on the tour; and was named the PBA’s player of the year four times. He was inducted into the association’s Hall of Fame in 1987 and in 2008 was voted its fifth greatest player.
Roth brought a nearly violent approach to bowling, one that he once compared to “ripping the cover off the ball.” By turning his wrist severely as he released the ball, he created great speed and spin, causing the ball to hook toward the strike pocket.
“Sometimes I throw rockets,” Roth told Sports Illustrated in 1978. “My ball can even overpower lane conditions at times.”
Marshall Holman, a longtime rival of Roth’s, said in a phone interview, “Mark brought power and accuracy together, which made him so dynamic and arguably the best spare shooter the game has seen in the past half century.”
Roth’s most famous spare — knocking down the remaining pins with the second bowl thrown in a frame — was during a tournament in 1980 in Alameda, California. He became the first bowler to convert the notoriously difficult 7-10 split — knocking down the two pins in the opposite corners of the back row — on national television.
“He had a little grin on his face,” said Holman, who was practicing on a lane nearby. “But I was going nuts. It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.”
The aggressive torque of Roth’s release caused his right hand to grow callused and his thumb to bleed. At first he soaked his thumb in foot soap, but he later alleviated the problem somewhat by altering the angle of his ball’s thumb hole so that he could release the finger more easily.
Mark Stephen Roth was born April 10, 1951, in Brooklyn, New York. His mother, Hilda (Rocker) Roth, was a legal secretary, and his father, Sidney, was a postal worker. Bowling began to dominate his early life after Rainbow Lanes was built near his home.
At age 13, he was averaging 160; at 17, his average was up to 195 (he often averaged in the 210s as a professional). He also worked at the bowling alley, first as a pin boy and then as a mechanic operating the automatic pin-setting machines. He bowled for Sheepshead Bay High School’s team and traveled to other bowling centers in addition to Rainbow for doubles matches, sometimes with Johnny Petraglia, who would also be inducted into the PBA Hall of Fame.
“I got thrown out of lots of places,” Roth told Sports Illustrated. “They got tired of me winning, so they said, ‘Get out and don’t come back.’ ”
After graduating, he bowled in some local tournaments until he earned enough money to go on the PBA Tour in 1970. But his unorthodox, self-taught style had its doubters.
“Before I went on tour, people said, ‘You’ll never make it. You won’t last three years,’” he told Bowlers Journal in 2018. “I was so determined to shut these people up.”
“The same thing happened on tour,” he added. “They said, ‘You’ve got to throw it straighter,’ and do this and do that. I was determined to do it my way, and that was it.”
His success came gradually. In 1970, he earned only about $1,000, and he didn’t win his first title until 1975, at the King Louie Open in Overland Park, Kansas. He won three tournaments in 1976 and four more the next year. After taking eight tournament titles in 1978, he won six more in 1979.
In 1984, one of his four victories, at the Greater Detroit Open, pushed his career earnings above $1 million; with that he joined Earl Anthony as the only other bowler to reach that level at the time. It was a particularly notable achievement for a sport whose prize money is modest compared with that of other sports.
Roth and a partner purchased Rainbow Lanes in 1984, and he remained an owner until the mid-1990s.
He won his final tournament on the PBA Tour in 1995, earning a $45,000 first prize at the IOF Foresters Open in Mississauga, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto. He joined the association’s senior PBA50 circuit and won one title in 2001 and a second in 2002.
“What Mark did seemed impossible when he did it,” Tom Clark, the PBA commissioner, said, referring to Roth’s power game. “Technology has evolved to make balls hook more and hit with more power — doing what he did naturally.”
Roth had a severe stroke in 2009 that partly paralyzed his left side; through physical therapy he was able to walk with a quad cane, bowl occasionally and give lessons at a bowling center in Liverpool, New York. He regularly attended the annual Mark Roth-Marshall Holman PBA Doubles Championship, held in various venues.
“He should have been bowling on the senior tour the last 12 years,” Denise Roth said.
He married Denise McKinney in 2003. A previous marriage, to Jacqueline Dente, ended in divorce.
In addition to his wife, Roth is survived by a daughter, Stephanie Roth, from his first marriage; a stepdaughter, Kimberly Gorton-David; a stepson, Mark MacIntyre; three step-grandsons; and one step-granddaughter.
Roth was known for being shy and quiet. But in 1978, Sports Illustrated was on hand to observe his eccentric morning hotel room ritual before he headed out to a tournament: He would shriek, pound his fists on the bed, stomp his feet, repeat the word “Firp” over and over and slam a pillow against the wall, letting its feathers fly.
“I do it because it makes me feel better and it helps my bowling,” he said. “It took a while before I tried my routine on the tour. Since I started it, I’ve bowled better.”