Richard “Dick” Ritger took full advantage of growing up above a bowling alley. He developed a silky swing that would take him to the heights of bowling, winning 20 titles over a 15-year professional career.
And after retiring from the pro bowlers’ tour in 1980, Ritger became one of the sport’s most prominent teachers and trainers.
Ritger, 81, died Aug. 27 at his home in River Falls, where he had lived since 1975.
Ritger’s dad owned Dave’s Lanes in Hartford, Wis., 45 minutes northwest of Milwaukee. The Ritger family lived in an apartment above the alley, which is still open.
Dick started bowling around the age of 5.
“His mother said he used to go downstairs in his pajamas when he was 6 or 7 [before the lanes opened] and set up the pins and knock them down,” said Judy Ritger, Dick’s wife of 60 years. “He was just a natural.”
Judy and Dick met when they were teenagers.
“When we started dating, it had to include a lot of dates at bowling alleys, even though I was not much of a bowler,” she said.
Dick graduated in 1960 from what is now the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, majoring in physical education and recreation — and bowling in several leagues while getting his schooling.
After being named Wisconsin Bowler of the Year for the third time in 1965, he joined the Professional Bowlers Association (PBA).
Ritger was a fixture on the PBA Tour, winning 20 titles.
He was inducted into the association’s hall of fame in 1978 and was ranked the 14th greatest PBA bowler in 2009.
Along the way, Ritger played a role in one of the PBA’s most famous moments: the culmination of the 1970 Firestone Tournament of Champions, nationally broadcast on ABC.
Ritger rolled an impressive 268 in the final match.
But his foe, PBA great Don Johnson, had a perfect game going into the 10th frame.
Johnson nailed two strikes in the 10th before his last ball — though firmly in the pocket — felled only nine pins, leaving him one point shy of 300 and a $10,000 perfect game payout.
Johnson fell to the ground, incredulous about the defiant pin. Ritger helped him up and shook his hand.
“I just felt so bad for him,” Ritger said in an interview earlier this year with RiverTowns, a news outlet for western Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota.
Ritger won the PBA’s annual sportsmanship award in 1970, and again in 1973.
“He was a great sportsman and a helluva competitor,” said Paul Lane, a longtime executive at bowling industry giant AMF and now a consultant. “He was one of the smoothest bowlers on the tour. He was about accuracy and precision.”
After retiring, Ritger quickly moved to teach bowling.
He set up Dick Ritger Bowling Camps, which are still operating. He developed a three-part video series — “The Feelings of Bowling” — that was distributed worldwide. And bowling associations from around the globe hired Ritger to teach their national teams.
“His training techniques were unique,” Lane said.
Ritger is survived by his wife, Judy; three children, Scott, Shari Hammer and Cyndi; 13 grandchildren; 14 great-grandchildren; and two brothers. He was preceded in death by his son Dan.
A private memorial mass has been held at St. Bridget Catholic Church in River Falls.