George Branham III Biography
Began Bowling as a Young Boy, Became First Black to Win PBA Title
In 1993 George Branham became the first African American to win a Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) title. He had bowled since the age of six and joined the PBA at age 24. In 17 years as a professional bowler, Branham won five major titles, including the sport's highest honor, the Tournament of Champions. He also rolled 23 games with a perfect score of 300 and earned $747,138 in prize money. When he retired from the game in 2004, he remained one of the world's top contenders and was still the only black bowler to become a PBA champion.
Began Bowling as a Young Boy
George Branham III was born on November 21, 1962, in Detroit, Michigan, to Betty and George Branham II. He started bowling at six when his father, an amateur league bowler, introduced him to the sport. By the time the family moved to southern California, Branham had become an avid bowler, though as a student at Sun Valley's Polytechnic High, he kept his hobby quiet. "No one in school knew I bowled, because when you're not a bowler, you don't want to hear about bowling," he told Sports Illustrated. Instead he joined Polytechnic's basketball team. Playing guard, Branham entertained thoughts of earning a basketball scholarship. When he stopped growing at five feet ten inches, he gave up that dream and turned back to his first love, bowling.
Branham's bowling heroes when he was a teen were top PBA players, such as Mark Roth. As he watched them on television, he realized that he wanted to pursue a professional bowling career. He had been coached by his father since he was a child and by the time Branham was 17, both men had realized that Branham was indeed good enough to become a professional. That realization was cinched in 1983 when he won the Southern California Junior Bowler of the Year tournament. The following year, at the age of 23, he joined the PBA and went on his first professional tour.
Became First Black to Win PBA Title
A professional bowler's life is led on the road, traveling to and from the various tournaments that lead up to championship title games. Branham told Sports Illustrated that he would, "eat, sleep, and drink bowling." Despite his dedication, Branham's first two years on the PBA tour were uneventful. He competed in tournaments but rarely finished high enough to be noteworthy. That changed in 1986 when he defeated his childhood bowling hero Mark Roth to win the Brunswick Memorial World Open in Chicago. The win made Branham the first African American to win a PBA championship. He went on to finish out 1986 with $59,000 in tour winnings.
In 1986 Branham had begun to appear on televised tournaments and by 1987 he had set a PBA record for the most consecutive wins to start a career on television, with a total of eight. They included another PBA title, the AC Delco Classic, in 1987. After the high of that win, Branham sunk into a six-year drought. "I was consistently cashing, but I was never winning," Branham told Sports Illustrated. In 1991 he earned $63,990. In 1992 that figure dropped to $45,770. He continued, "that got frustrating after a few years. I knew I had to change something, but what thing? Then I realized maybe I just had to wait my turn." It was not an easy wait. When a bowler is not winning, sponsorships dry up and the bowler is left footing their own expenses, including travel, hotel, and tournament fees. "When you go on tour, it's easy to get down on yourself," Branham told The Record in 1993; "…it gets tough when you go a few weeks without making any money."
Branham channeled his frustration into weightlifting and put on 20 pounds of muscle. He also left California and settled in Indianapolis. There he met Jacquelyne Phend. When she found out that Branham was a professional bowler, she was surprised. He recalled to Sports Illustrated that her reaction was, "You can make money doing that?" The couple married in 1990 and eventually had one daughter, Hadley.
Won Bowling's Top Title
In 1993 Branham returned to the ranks of tournament champions when he won the Baltimore Open, his third PBA title. During the 42-game tournament Branham bowled an average 231 points per game. The win qualified him for the Tournament of Champions held in Fairlawn, Ohio. The tournament is professional bowling's most prestigious title, on par with tennis's U.S. Open or auto racing's Indianapolis 500. In the first two rounds he averaged 238 in eight games including one 300 point finish, securing the lead qualifier spot. When he advanced to the final rounds, he only needed one game to cinch the title. He earned it with a 227 to 214 win. Branham pocketed $60,000 in prize money. He also went on to win the post-title "King of the Hill" match. It added $5,000 to Branham's winnings, bringing his 1993 earnings to $107,000, a career high.
"Obviously this is the biggest title of my life," Branham told The Record after winning the Tournament of Champions. "This is the result of six years hard work on my game and my life." Branham's win was also big news for black history—he was the first African American to win the PBA's top title. However in interviews Branham preferred to focus on his dedication to the sport, rather than the color of his skin. "I've worked hard and paid my dues, and I see this as a start, not the peak, of my career," he told Jet.
Over the next few years, despite playing well, titles eluded Branham. He averaged 244 points in the first six games of the 1994 Quaker State Open, emerging as an early leader. However, he was later bowled out of the competition. In 1995 he rolled two 300 games in a row and had a string of 27 consecutive strikes during the Peoria Open. Again he did not reach the winner's circle. It was not until 1996 that Branham pulled out of his losing streak and won the Cleveland Open. The win earned him his fifth PBA title as well as a check for $16,000. Unfortunately this would be his last major win. After a good showing in the 1997 PBA National Championships in Toledo, Ohio, Branham and his career gutter-balled. Once again, he entered a bleak period of constant touring and few wins. In an interview on the PBA Web site Branham pointed to problems with the organization as a partial explanation for his inability to win big. "I think it had a lot to do with what the tour was going through. It was kind of falling apart. So was I." It was a difficult time for Branham. "I was worrying about what I was going to do if the tour folded," he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "I was 38 with no college degree. It would have been like starting all over again."
Things seemed to be looking up for Branham in 2002 when he played in the Orleans Casino Open in Las Vegas. Branham's parents had retired there several years earlier and were on hand to watch Branham bowl. Playing under their watchful eyes, he also had to ward off worry. "Mom's always so nervous," he told the PBA Web site. "I tell her—calm down or you're going to have a heart attack. Just clap when I strike." She had a lot of reason to clap early on during the tournament. Branham took the first game of the tournament with a win of 245 to 238 over Parker Bohn. He went on to beat Bohn in the next two games. The three-game sweep shook up the professional bowling world as Bohn was the top-ranked bowler at the time. It also gave Branham hope. "I feel like I'm ready to win," he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "I would like to make it to the show (top five)." Despite his impressive debut in the tournament, he did not make it to the top five.
Later in the year Branham entered the PBA Banquet Classic, but a lower back injury forced him to withdraw mid-tournament. He bowled one more season as a professional before retiring from the tour at the end of 2003. Branham returned full-time to his family in Indianapolis and began to nurture dreams of opening his own bowling center. Whenever his name appeared in print it was always with the notation that he was the first African American to win a PBA championship. A less-noted fact was that, as of the close of 2004, he was also the only African American to hold that distinction. In a rare comment on professional bowling and race, Branham told The Record in 1993, "We can always use a little more color on the tour." What the tour could really use is another African-American champion, letting the "only" be erased from Branham's name and the history books.
Jet, June 7, 1993.
Las Vegas Review-Journal, January 23, 2002.
The Record (Bergen County, NJ), May 2, 1993.
Sports Illustrated, May 3, 1993.
"Parents Give Branham Boost; Shafer Still Alive," Professional Bowlers Association, www.pba.com/news/default.asp?ID=478&Type=0 (December 22, 2004).
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