by Dave Williams
It’s amazing what you can find on the internet. After last week’s column about possible sponsors for PWBA tournaments, I decided to look for more information about one of the former stars of women’s professional bowling both on and off the lanes, Leila Wagner.
What I discovered is that Leila is now a realtor. She started her “second career” in 2003. She’s a licensed agent in both Maryland and Florida, where she now lives. When I saw her picture, I knew that it was her. If it’s possible, I think that she is even more beautiful today, at age 62, then when she was a beauty queen living in the state of Washington.
I remember the first time that I met her at AMF New Frontier Lanes in Tacoma, Wash., in the mid-1970’s, after she had just won a youth bowling tournament. I was stationed in Tacoma at the time and working for AMF as a Promotions Specialist. Eddie Hurd, the general manager of New Frontier, introduced me to her and I couldn’t even put two words together, let alone a sentence. She was stunning.
When I reached her by telephone earlier this week, I recognized her voice immediately. After a brief introduction of who I was and why I called, we carried on a congenial conversation about her Hall of Fame career in bowling. She was actually born in Lynwood, Calif., but moved with her family to Seattle at an early age. That’s when she began to excel in the game of tenpins.
“I bowled and later worked at Leilani Lanes, which held a PBA stop for many years,” stated Wagner. “It was after a girl scout outing in which I rolled 3 strikes as an eleven year old that I became hooked.”
In a September, 1987 article from Sports Illustrated, Leila recalls that when she started on the women’s tour at age 18, she feared anything and everything. But by 1982, her fourth year as a pro, she was averaging 219, the fourth highest that year, according to the S.I. article. Her first title came four years later, in the 1986 Hammer Western Open at Narrows Plaza Bowl in Tacoma, Wash., in front of her family and childhood friends.
“I left Seattle at the age of 22,” said Wagner during our interview. “That’s when I moved to Texas and went to work for American Airlines.” Her second title was in front of her new found friends and fans, in the 1989 Metroplex Open at AMF DeSoto Lanes (then known as Advantages Bowling Center) in DeSoto, Texas.
Wagner met her husband, Marty Fischbach, while working for American Airlines. The S.I. article reveals that Fischbach is a pilot for American Airlines, and the two met in 1985 on a flight from Burbank to Chicago. “It’s a corny story, but I’ll tell it anyway,” says Wagner. “It was a beautiful day for flying. Marty was the copilot and didn’t pay any attention to me until I told the captain that I was a pro bowler. Then he whipped his head around, because he wanted to see how a woman pro bowler looked!”
The two were married, and not long after came their first child, Ryan, in 1990. Two years later came Alex. Leila said that she took some time before coming up with the name Alex Michael Fischbach. “I was working for AMF at the time, so Alex had his own AMF monogramed shirts!”
I was curious about Leila’s time with AMF, because I didn’t remember seeing her around that often. “I worked for AMF from 1986 until 1997,” said Wagner. That made perfect sense, because when AMF made the move from New York to Richmond, Va., in 1986, the bowling products and bowling centers were separated. The bowling centers division, of which I was a part, merged with Major League Bowling Centers, a chain that was already owned by CCA Industries, the purchasers of AMF.
One of Leila’s favorite stories about her time with AMF was a visit to South America. “Our first stop was at a new bowling center in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The theme of the bowling center was a space oriented format, and the masking units were the Seattle skyline with the Space Needle, so I felt right at home.”
Wagner left American Airlines in 1989, and the pro tour five years later. It’s amazing to me how she was able to juggle a marriage, two sons and three jobs for all those years. She continued as an announcer on ESPN until 1997, which is also the year that she left AMF.
I asked Leila about her time with ESPN and Denny Schreiner. “I actually started with Prime-TV as soon as the tour landed the television contract,” said Wagner. “I remember practicing in front of a mirror for hours! Due to the Prime-TV exposure and experience, I got the position with ESPN.” Leila was with ESPN for 10 years. The chemistry between Wagner and Schreiner was notable, as it was with Mike Durbin and Schreiner on the men’s tour. “Denny was great to work with and was a big help, as was our producer and director,” stated Leila.
Whenever Schreiner had other commitments, Leila commented that she was often teamed with non-bowling announcers. “This was not accepted well by the women on the tour, as I was usually working with a male, and their lack of knowledge for the sport came through in the telecasts. The women on tour felt this was a women’s event. Why not use women from the tour that had knowledge of the sport?” It was then that ESPN took the advice of the tour members and moved Leila to the announcer role, and brought in Jan Schmidt as analyst.
I’ve mentioned a couple of times in this article about Leila’s Hall of Fame career. Many will say that she lacks the number of titles or body of work necessary to be eligible. But when you add to that resume the number of years of service on Prime-TV and ESPN on behalf of the sport of bowling, I would put her record up against any USBC or PWBA Hall of Fame member in the category of meritorious service.
The Halls of Fame will be calling… soon!
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