Ennis, Frank

Frank Ennis

Career base: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

 

Accomplishments:

Won over 20 singles events in tournaments across the country. Among those wins were back to back wins in the Cleveland Extravaganza in 1974 and 1975;

There was a unique singles event in Baltimore Maryland where all players threw 102 darts for an average and I won just nipping “Primrose” Pete Polinski;

The Ultimate Challenge II, Hacienda Hotel, Las Vegas which had the largest singles payout in America, to that time;

Won over 20 mixed doubles with, still “The First Lady of Darts” in America, Helen Scheerbaum;

Competed three times in England as a representative of America.

 

“Naturally I started with American darts and I threw that in my basement at home when I was around 17 or 18 years old, that would be 1949 to 1950. My father used to play with friends in our basement and he was fairly good player and, as a lot of those players used to do in those days, he had a habit of leaping toward the board and going all the way up to the board with the third dart. That created a lot of good natured problems and people would say, we’re going to have to put a case of beer down in front of you because you’re not allowed to run up. We had a lot of well known shooters in the Philadelphia area, that were very, very good players with their first two darts, who also felt the need of running up the third dart to give them more confidence.

I started getting adept at the American game as an 17 – 18 year older, and was going around trying to entice other people into a game of darts, which the group of people I traveled with did at that time. I played all over South Philadelphia, where I was born and raised, and after I came out of the service I continued to have a strong interest in darts.

I played on a team for a guy named Eddie Faye, who owned a tavern and was one of the top names of that time. Richie Ulmer, Eddie Hall, Tommy Eagan, Eddie Faye were the guys on the team I played on. We won the championship of the Northeast Community Dart League, which a lot of known players were in, like Al Lippman, Ray Fischer and Bob Theide.

I got wide experience in the Northeast dart league and stayed there for many years. I gave darts up for a few years and then came back again. I was very friendly with Al Lippman and Al and I teamed as doubles partners in American darts for many years against other doubles teams who were interested in betting..

The first English dart tournaments that we could go to around the Philadelphia area, were in the early seventies, in New York. Ray Fischer and Al used to go to them and Al said, Frank, why don’t you go, you’re an excellent player. I said, well, I don’t know, you have to go away for the weekend, I don’t think that’s going to be very nice, you go away on Friday and you’re gone for the whole week end. Well, they enticed me for years, then in 1973, we had the first tournament here in Philadelphia, sponsored by Schmidt’s beer, up on Roosevelt Boulevard. I had about a month’s practice and, of course, the only thing I had to do was learn the numbers, the distance didn’t bother me even though the English board is five inches higher. I quickly adapted to that, but learning your numbers took a lot longer than that.

I have my own theory on developing a stroke. You see people throwing very awkwardly and never see the same release. I had a nice release in American darts and I thought it was important. I took that same release right into English darts.

You are not aiming your dart, you are focusing in on your target. I would bring the dart back quite far, beside my head, and I knew that if I was getting over anxious in certain situations, if I leaned too far forward, and I’m coming back with my draw wrong the dart would catch the edge of my ear, or it would catch my cheek, or the edge of my glasses, but when I’m lined up the way it was best for me to shoot, I wouldn’t touch anything. I started wearing glasses when I was about 45, but it didn’t make any difference to my stroke, because of the way it was. Another thing, an unorthodox release affects your stamina. I always thought the guy who had the most comfortable release was going to be able to conserve some stamina for Saturday and Sunday and their arm would not get as tired. An awkward stance and release, somewhere along the line affects the person and they are not themselves. Maybe it’s in the top eight, or top four or whatever. So I think anybody coming into the game should concentrate on the proper stance and release.

Also, make sure you have a great pair of shoes on. I could never shoot flat footed, that would tire you out. We all know that a good shoe makes it easier to walk, a bartender or waitress that walks all day has to have a proper shoe. So I would make sure my feet were very, very comfortable. My game, even in the American game was stamina. One time Al Lippman and I had a match, in Norm Findley’s place, that went on for eight hours and were playing for $10 per one inning game, which was pretty high stakes for that time. I got a victory out of that match, Al was up $100 on me and I got back and it went like that. Then at two am in the morning and I ended up with about $40 ahead. This is when Al and I decided to team up. I liked Al’s darts, he liked mine and we had confidence in each other’s game.

In November of 1973, when I started English darts I thought about using the wooden darts, but everyone seemed not to be using them, even Al Lippman, so I tried using an inexpensive $10 English dart. By the time I attended my first tournament in Cleveland, around April I’d had about five months experience with the English game and had that first set of darts. My first set after that was a 19 gram, brass dart with feather flights and I stayed with that for a long time, but I did switch to the plastic flight, after a while. Then I went to a 22 gram dart simply because I wanted a little more weight. I started using one I liked, with three ridges that seemed nice for me. That was the dart, with a couple of changes, that became my signature dart Fansteel produced for me. It came as 19, 22 and 25 gram models all in my style. That dart, at that time, was going for about $125 which was about what you’d pay for a set of golf clubs. I used a small aluminum shaft, made by Accudart, and a standard sized flight. I stayed with that dart combination, I didn’t make changes. I use them to this day.

The numbers really did come rapidly to me. I was able to figure out the combinations and so forth and that part was OK. I needed a little help in the beginning but in those days your partner would tell you, Frank you need such and such, but I usually subtracted the figures from what I had and I knew what the combination was for the darts I had in my hand. I tried to memorize combinations for numbers under 150, because you can go out from there. Of course you can go out from 170 on down too. So the numbers are a pretty important thing.

I used to think the three most important darts in a game were number seven, eight and nine, the third turn at the board. I used to tell guys there is nothing wrong with throwing sixty, you know, they will keep you in the game, you know steady darts. If the other guy threw a hundred or even a hundred forty, they might come back with a twenty six or something, and your two sixties would still have you in the game. Steady darts was my forte’, I always thought that I was consistent. I stayed away from bad darts. It was rare for me to throw under a forty, I thought there was nothing wrong with scoring sixty and who couldn’t put three darts in a single frame? That’s how I got to the third turn, those darts were rather important to me because many times those darts set you up for your out shot with the next turn, or at least you knew you were in the game. If you can come up with that big shot in that segment of the game, you’re in the hunt.

I used a gauge of fifteen darts, because if you can play your 501 game in fifteen darts you can play anybody in the country. Certainly you see guys going out on their twelfth or their eleventh dart but that’s when you’re really in the zone, or the top of the brackets of competitors. If you can stay around that fifteen dart game you can play with anyone.

When I say target, I mean the triple or double, I didn’t look at my dart or try to aim. I looked at the middle of where I wanted to hit, of course. I was probably a group dart player. The thing that differs from English dart players to American dart players is that we were used to moving around on the line. Once I got one dart in there I’d go over it or under it by aiming at the dart and moving over to let the dart land by the first one. I did the same thing in English darts, but you don’t see that in the good English players. When these guys do it, their three darts go one right after the other, boom right back there and they don’t break the continuity. If you’ll notice, American dart players stop between darts to decide where to place it. There may be players out there who try to aim the dart but I don’t think that’s what you need. Your hand and eye coordination is what you need and I find it very helpful to have that nice release.

The way I got my release set was that I didn’t move much. If you do a lot of moving around, with jerking motions while you’re throwing the dart you cause problems. Remember, we don’t have a very big target. I mean if you’re off a sixteenth of a inch it could cost you the game, so I always tried to keep my body as still as I could.

One thing I wish I had done was practice, but I found practicing difficult. I tried a few times but practice just wasn’t me. My game was where I thought I needed it, around that fifteen dart level so practice wasn’t for me. I was playing in leagues two nights a week and I was going away to tournaments on weekends, I went to twenty tournaments a year there for a while, and I thought that was enough. My practice was at tournaments and playing money matches.

When I was playing American darts my practice came from playing guys around where I was playing. I played in two leagues and I’d go out on Friday night also. On league nights we’d play after the league was over, too.

One of the problems in Philadelphia was trying to hold small tournaments in bars, like they did in California and in Boston. There were those little tournaments all over the place out there, for $500, $1000. If we tried that around Philadelphia no one would play in them because there were certain teams that would win and everybody was afraid to go against them.

In the Philadelphia American dart league I was playing with a guy named Jim Grady. He was a guy about 6’5″ and he knew where every game of darts was being played from New Jersey to Pottsville, Pennsylvania. I was around 23, 24 years old and we did very, very well. Jim would get in there and was very adept at getting a game started without being obnoxious. He had a lot of jokes he would tell and was a humorous guy and then he’d say, look we feel like playing some darts here and some of the people in the places knew Jim from before but he had this kid with him, me, and they’d think well, why not he has a young kid with him so we’ll have a chance. We traveled all over the area from Vineland in New Jersey to Pottsville up state and we were successful up there too.

There was a guy named John Gumbo, a big heavy set American darts shooter, well known around Philadelphia, and he was a guy who liked to hustle darts. He made a trip to Pottsville with us and we played a guy named Ed Guinther, who was one of the best I’ve ever seen. Jim and I were playing very well with 52s and 53s but this Guinther was up around 55 all the time. We played for a while and we lost around $480 and decided to quit when it was time for his bar to close. Ed Guinther decided he owed us a drink and we went to another place, after he closed his bar. It happens that John Gumbo had another $100 on him so we go to the other bar and Guinther was drinking his beers and shots and Jim Grady, being the hustler he was, he talked Guinther into playing me one inning games with no hockey line, which we played regularly in Philadelphia. And we started to play and went until seven in the morning and not only did we get our $480 back we emptied the cash register there and everybody else’s pockets because everybody up there would back Guinther. There had been other guys come up from Philadelphia, and had the same success as we did when they played the nine inning games. We wound up winning around $350 over the $480 we got back, and started to be concerned about being able to get out of there with the money. You can imagine how burned up these guys were in that bar. Not only Ed was loosing some money but these other guys lost too. So we made a quick exit.

Most matches happened because guys would approach me because they knew I liked to play for money, and other guys who were self promoters. They’d say, I’d like to see you and someone play against someone else. At that time we’d play best of 51, the first to win 26 games. Dan Valletto and I played Conrad Daniels and Ernie Rill and it ended up tied at 25 games each. This match had to have $5000 bet on it what with the side bets. All through the match we were alternating who was going first. When it became 25 to 25 Ernie Rill claimed it was their turn to go first but I didn’t want that, not give away three extra darts in that kind of game. It was ridicules that it wasn’t covered before the match, but it wasn’t. But Danny didn’t want to argue over it, and Conrad was letting Ernie be his spokesmen, so I reluctantly said OK. Let them go first. We lost the game and match.

I think money matches are a confidence builder for me and that helps in tournaments. There was more pressure in tournament play because a loss meant you were done for that event. I played with the same attitude as I did during league play when I was in a tournament, I wanted to play at my best. There have been players who really raised their game during money matches over what they would do in league.

I had good matches with Ray Fischer as a partner. We had a great match over in Trenton, in a place called Vets Tavern, which Conrad Daniels later bought. On back to back Fridays, Ray Fischer and I played Conrad Daniels and Bob Theide in English darts and Ray and I won both matches. Rosalee, Conrad’s wife, blamed Bob Theide for loosing, but that’s what you’d expect from someone’s wife, right?

I hated loosing, but I didn’t make a big deal out of it. If I threw three bad darts, the score keeper would hear my displeasure as I was retrieving my darts but the people in back couldn’t hear anything. The score keeper might get a little smile on his face because he found it amusing, but I didn’t. After the game was over, when I lost a game in the top 16, or top eight, or something like that I shook the guys hand and I had to leave the room for a while, and just gather myself together. I used to pride myself on keeping my composure when I’d loose a tough leg of a match. I new it was important because I knew there was enough thoughts that go through a dart shooter’s mind that you can’t keep out, like going for an out shot, that if you let a tough loss prey on your mind, you’d almost be wasting your time to play that next leg. I tried not to let it interfere. I wasn’t a hot tempered guy out there.

I liked that you could meet all kinds of people at English dart tournaments. I was used to a certain type of people who played American darts, who were in their element when they were playing around home. But when you played English darts in tournaments you never knew who you were playing against. It could be some high powered executive from a company who stopped in a bar someplace and said, this is my kind of game. I love the mathematics in the game. That’s something that turned my mind around, I mean, I didn’t think I would enjoy the English game but it is so much a more interesting game than American darts. Plus it gives a guy a chance in tournament play. Something that would never happen in American darts. A novice could knock a top player out of a tournament, by winning two out of three games, where if you were playing American darts you knew that, we’re talking about fifty average shooters now, you could ride all the way to another fifty shooter before you had to worry about loosing. A person who averaged forty two or forty five wasn’t going to beat you, because the highest the guy is going to hit is what you average, so he could never do it. But, put that same effort into the English game and a nine score in American becomes a ton eighty in English, and that puts a guy in the game. Then, in the English game you have to come down to a double, and even the good shooters stumble on the double at times, for one reason or another. In American darts that never made a difference, if you could throw a forty eight or forty nine there would only be a handful of guys who were capable of doing that.

In the English tournament, what makes it interesting, you’ve got to be ready. When you get called in that first round, which I always thought was one of the toughest because you haven’t been out there, you’re not yourself yet, it’s 10:15 or 10:30 in the morning, and you really have to concentrate, because you can easily be knocked off. Get that round under your belt, then you’re relaxing a little bit and you practice a little and you’re more ready for the next round. I used to tell people who would come up to me, look you know how nervous you are in that first round, you think the good shooters are any less nervous than you are that first round? Darts is a game where everybody knows you have to focus your concentration on that game, and get by it, I’m as nervous as the next guy in that first round. But, nerves are a good thing, like in making a presentation in sales, if you’re not nervous there is something wrong. Unless, in darts, you’re playing someone whose throwing arm is falling off, you need to be concerned. In our game of English darts anybody can knock you out of that match so, sure nerves play a part, it’s just being able to control those nerves, and that’s what I think is important. Joe Baltadonis used to kid me about my routine to control my nerves. Even if I was up late the night before, I made it a point get up three hours before starting time of the first round. In those days the first round usually started at ten O’clock. I didn’t want to get out of bed, take a quick shower and start throwing darts. I wanted to be up on my feet for those three hours, it was like it was my normal work day and I did that in every tournament I went to. I had to have a full breakfast and a big glass of milk and so forth then I was ready to go on Saturday morning.

I knew I had a decent shot at winning every tournament I went to. But everybody knows, if you are drinking during the day, if you reach over that certain point, you don’t realize it yourself, but you can go over the edge a little bit and still think you can do it, but we all know you can’t. Drinking doesn’t hurt you in the early part of the day, and I used to pace myself. I was a Granddad bourbon kind of guy and I would sip a drink because I didn’t want to get over the limit. I thought stamina was the biggest part of my forte’ and I was going to be around all day so I was careful. We always had a couple of events and if you’re in both of them you’re going to be around late in the day so you needed to control the drinking. I learned about having a little bar of candy and that would give you a sugar boost late in the day, and I tried to pick myself up that way.

The waiting period between games was difficult, I was always on my feet, on the floor. Some guys, when they had an idea of when their next match would be called, weren’t even on the floor. Tournaments can run late into the next morning, like 1 to 2 am and food was an issue. If you eat too much it will make you uncomfortable or even sleepy. I’d slip in a hot dog or something like that and make that suffice. You also need some food, especially if you are going to be drinking.

Fred Berstecker, my first partner, and I thought that some mind games sort of relaxed us and we were very adept at this, when we were playing doubles. If we got called against someone like Theide, we knew he would have a good partner and Fred would start it off with, now Bob I want you to take it a little easy on us. You know Frank getting a little older, so don’t embarrass him, keep him in the game. Make us look good out there. We did things like that. There was a guy from Laguna Beach in California, who was my friend, He used to tell me how he followed my career and stuff like that, and just before we began the singles finals, in Kansas City in 1985, he said he was going to kick my butt and I’d better get used to it. It was best of eleven games for the singles finals and he was trying to set me up like that, and this was the highest payout for a tournament. It was listed as $125,000, but that was dropped before it was actually held so we all knew it before hand. They changed the first place for singles from $20,000 to $8000. Dan Valletto, who was a very good friend of mine, had been this guy’s partner in doubles and he was doing some business with him like players do, they’d share certain percentages of wins, and Dan was rooting for this guy, but being the gentleman that he was he wouldn’t let me know that. Anyway we ended up tied at five games each, then I lead off the eleventh game with a 180 and win it. After the match I told him, I still have my butt. He said, I’ll see you at the bar.

The first time I went to England was for the Queen’s silver jubilee, in 1977, to play with Nick Verakul in doubles competition. Eight countries were represented and the tournament was to be televised over six weeks but the tournament itself took place in one day. I was elected by Tom Fleetwood to go to play doubles with Nick and Haviar Gopar was to play the singles. We did very, very well. We came in second and knocked off Eric Bristow and his partner Cliff Lazeranko in the semi finals, then lost to the Australians. We played on a stage in a large tavern restaurant and when you weren’t at the line you sat in a chair at the edge of the stage. we were on the double sixteen in the semi’s and I was on the line and when I heard a crash from behind me. Nick had fallen off the stage with his chair. I turned to see if Nick was all right and heard him say, from the floor, I’m OK Frank. The crowd must have thought I’d never be able to finish the shot, but I nailed it on the first dart to win the semi’s.

I went back home but four weeks later went back because we’d done so well. This time it was for singles competition. I think I finished in the top 32.

The last time I went to England was in 1981, and it was for the World Masters Tournament. I came in at the joint 17 level, as they call it, which was the top thirty two.

They played the best of nine sets of games. There were 265 entrants and 180 or so were from England.

I only played partners with three or four guys and I told everyone of them, I never want to be bad mouthed out there. I was very particular since I wouldn’t do that, and I didn’t want my partner doing that to me. I basically picked the partner that would be my partner all the time.

I teamed up with Fred Berstecker in 1973 – 1979. I knew him from American darts and Fred and I thought it would be nice for him to hook on to me so he was my first partner. We played together for at least seven years. I went to Cleveland in 1974 and won that year, and Fred and I also won the doubles. Then, again, I won the singles the following year and Fred and I came in second in the doubles. Fred and I played together well.

After I got sponsored by Fansteel, Joe Baltadonis became my partner.

I had a short relationship with Accudart but that wasn’t as good a sponsorship as what I received with Fansteel. The Accudart arrangement was a flat amount that we could use any way we wished. At the time there was me, Nicky Virachkul, and Ray Fischer being sponsored by Accudart. It wasn’t a signed contract and none of mine were. I got to be friendly with the people at Accudart and the parent company, Kulite. I have a business forms printing business and ended up doing forms for them for many years.

I went to Fansteel after I won my second tournament in Cleveland in 1975. I had a very unique relationship with Fansteel. When I started with them I was the only one being sponsored, we brought Joe Baltadonis in later, and they wanted me to wear their shirt with their logo on it, they made a signature dart for me, and paid all expenses, except for room costs and food, for attending tournaments. Basically they wanted someone who would be friendly to people on the floor who would come up and ask questions. My signature dart is no longer available, who would be interested the Frank Ennis dart now days? People always know who is current now.

I really enjoyed winning the 1985 tournament, in Kansas City and getting this ring I have. I didn’t wear it while I was playing because it bothered my throwing. Then winning the St. Patrick’s day tournament out in San Diego in 1987 was my last tournament win. I must have been almost 55 yrs old when I won that.

In my later years, the people who knew my style would comment, Frank you’re moving around up there and that’s not like you, you’re sort of jumping up there. To me that was important because I thought that movement wasn’t a good thing.

I decided to retire when started to think I wasn’t as effective as I thought I should have been. I didn’t have that drive anymore, and I still don’t have it. I don’t get that excited about it and it’s not fun when you throw a 21 and loose to a guy that shouldn’t have had a snowball’s chance to beat you. So I thought as far as tournament darts it was time to quit and now I don’t even play in the league. Every once in a while I’ll go over to the local tavern and play a few games with friends.”

 

Interviewed June 2003

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