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Is Bowling Still Cool?

June 5, 2007
By Stacy Karten
Bowling has undergone dramatic transformations over the past two decades in the greater Baltimore market. Of course, there are still 10 frames in a game and 300 remains a perfect score, but the landscape itself has changed.

(Photo: Baltimore Sun/
Courtesy ofDuckpin News)
There are fewer establishments and lane beds today than there were 20 years ago, and the customer mix of league and casual players has shifted. What is happening in the Baltimore bowling world mirrors the industry in general.

Despite those changes, the overall news about the sport is still upbeat for bowling center owners and participants. Annual sports participation studies typically reveal that bowling is the No. 1 indoor participation sport in the United States and is constantly in the top 10 of all sports.

More than 65 million Americans bowl every year with around 2.75 million players competing in organized leagues. Three decades ago, 70 percent of all games were bowled in league play, but presently league bowling comprises about 45 percent of the business. The casual open-bowling part of the trade has become more important.

Bowling aficionados in Baltimore have a choice of 23 tenpin centers (744 lane beds) and 17 duckpin facilities (388 lanes). Baltimore, once believed to be the birthplace of duckpin bowling (see sidebar), is still a small-ball hotbed as the area’s 17 centers represent over one-fourth of the remaining 60 duckpin houses in the country. By comparison there are 5,647 tenpin centers in the United States.

Baltimore's Affinity for Duckpins

When Sports Illustrated published a series in 1999 listing every state’s all-time top-50 athletes, Elizabeth "Toots" Barger, made the list for Maryland.

Frank Deford had written that it was not unusual to have Barger mentioned in the same sentence with Baltimore's major sports icons Johnny Unitas and Brooks Robinson. Known as the "Queen of Duckpins," Barger was the highest-ranked female bowler in the nation for 13 seasons, and she won the prestigious Baltimore Evening Sun Tournament 12 times, including six straight from 1946-51. Barger died in 1998 at age 85.

Baltimore's love affair with duckpins dates back to the mid-1890s. The long-accepted version of the game’s origins ties in with baseball Hall of Famers John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson, then with the Baltimore Orioles in the National League. The duo owned the Diamond Alleys, a tenpin establishment on Howard Street.

When the wooden tenpins broke beyond repair, McGraw and Robinson would give the shattered pins to a Baltimore furniture maker named John Dittmar, who could use the wood for furniture legs.

It was Dittmar who came up with the idea of whittling the pins into a smaller size and brought a set to the Diamond Alleys. A small crowd watched as people rolled against the small pins. Upon being struck, the pins flew off the lanes and McGraw and Robinson, avid duck hunters, remarked that it "looked like ducks flying off a pond." The term duckpins was coined, and the sport grew to the point where it pushed tenpins out of the city. In its heyday, it seemed there was a duckpin house in every neighborhood.

This duckpin origins folklore, however, was debunked in 2005 by author Howard Rosenberg of Arlington, Va. While researching one of his books, "Cap Anson 3," Rosenberg found a reference to duckpin bowling in the 1894 Lowell Sun (Massachusetts) and has subsequently come across an 1892 duckpin reference in the Boston Globe.

Presently, historians and duckpin officials have no definitive knowledge of how and when the sport originated.
“Bowling is up in this market. There are a lot of people going bowling,” said Kathleen Perry, president of the Maryland Bowling Proprietors Association. “Programs such as glow bowling, more birthday and company parties and increased focus on youth have helped build the business.” 

Venture into most bowling centers and the activities that Perry mentioned are evident. Glow bowling, complete with laser lighting and music, dominates the bowling scene on Friday and Saturday nights and has helped attract a young adult crowd. A highly respected leader in the bowling industry, Wally Hall, has been involved in the business for more than 40 years. He currently owns three centers in Anne Arundel County and was president and CEO of the formerly Baltimore-based Fair Lanes Corporation. Hall has seen significant changes in the industry.

"Like most East Coast metropolitan areas, Baltimore has experienced fundamental changes in the mix of business due to changes in people's lifestyles," Hall said. "League business has declined, but those that remain are comprised of true enthusiasts of the sport who greatly enjoy their weekly competition with teammates.” 

Hall said bowling has become a more demanding enterprise.

“Compared with 10 to 15 years ago, the business today is more complex and challenging and requires competent and experienced management in order to be successful," he said. "To remain competitive with other recreational activities, owners have been forced to reinvest and upgrade their facilities, which has helped attract the younger population. Baltimore's bowling centers today are no longer your father's bowling alley, but they are places that still provide happy times to the local community." 

Baltimore’s duckpin bowlers, for the most part, began playing as a result of being introduced to the sport by their parents. The game was passed on like a valued tradition from one generation to another.

“Both my parents bowled in leagues,” said Eileen Lesser of Pikesville, who has been bowling ducks for 50 years and still competes in two leagues at the AMF Pikesville lanes. Lesser carries a 106 average and said she enjoys bowling for the exercise and friendships. Growing up near Park Circle, Lesser walked to the duckpin house next to the old Luskin’s store on Park Heights Avenue.

“It was the closest bowling center in the neighborhood. All the children bowled in a Saturday league,” she said, remembering it cost 30 cents per game plus a dime tip for the pinboy.

Lesser recalled buying her bowling shoes at Simon Harris Sporting Goods -- she still wears those shoes -- and uses bowling balls that her parents rolled 50 years ago. “I’ve never even picked up a tenpin ball,” she said.

Duckpins, as a family affair, was also prominent in the Schneider household in the Howard Park neighborhood. Mike Schneider, now of Reisterstown, has fond memories of bowling at Toots Barger’s Bowling Academy on Liberty Heights Avenue. 

“I used to walk there every Saturday. My mom bowled all the time,” Schneider said. His mother, Rhona Schneider, still bowls in a league in Pikesville.

Mike Schneider bowls both duckpins and tenpins for fun, occasionally taking his two daughters to the lanes.

“I love the sounds of tenpins, and I like the sport of duckpins,” he said.
Reminiscing, Schneider thinks back to a challenge issued by his brother Richard one day at the bowling academy.

“He said if I could break 100 he would give me his microscope. I bowled a 97 or 98,” Schneider said. 

The tenpin and duckpin sports each have their own governing bodies that establish playing rules, certify lanes, provide awards for honor scores and conduct tournaments. Now in its 80th year of service, the National Duckpin Bowling Congress is headquartered in Linthicum. While its adult league membership numbers have steadily declined, the organization’s executive director, Sue Burucker, is still optimistic about the survival of the duckpin game.

“During my years of involvement with the game, many changes have occurred not only in the Baltimore area but also throughout the entire territory of the duckpin game," Burucker said. "However, as the duckpin population has somewhat diminished, I firmly believe that those who are still involved with the game are the most dedicated individuals to the sport. The state of bowling in Baltimore and along the East Coast will always remain strong as long as we continue to have the enthusiastic proprietors and participants.” 

Fans of the Professional Bowlers Association (tenpins) know that one of the best bowlers on the tour is Baltimore’s Danny Wiseman. The 39-year-old has notched 11 career PBA titles and has earned over $1.25 million. His first championship in 1990 was witnessed by the home crowd at the Fair Lanes Open in Woodlawn.

Growing up in Dundalk, Wiseman was first introduced to the duckpin game but soon made the switch to the big pins.

“I started with duckpins at Fair Lanes Eastpoint," Wiseman said. "My father would take my sister and I once in awhile. I was about 4 or 5 years old. One day we happened to go to the bowling center on Merritt Boulevard (Fair Lanes Dundalk), and I was mesmerized by the size of the pins and balls. Everything was so much bigger, and the noise of the balls hitting the pins was much louder. I was hooked. I bowled in my first tenpin league at age 7 and averaged 117.” 

The hard-throwing right-hander quickly became serious about bowling.

“I think as a child it was the fun of knocking the pins over, along with the noise," Wiseman said. "In my leagues it was the competition. I played Little League baseball also, so the competitive fire was always there. I wanted to win everything. I made many friends throughout the years and I am still in touch with some of the kids I bowled league with so many years ago.” 

Traveling to numerous cities on the pro bowlers' tour, Wiseman gets to compare Baltimore bowling to other markets.

“Years ago as a teenager, there was a lot of action in Baltimore-Washington," Wiseman said. "I'd bowl late at night for 20 bucks a game with 20 to 50 people bowling. Every year the anticipation of the Pro Bowlers tour would fuel more fire in me. I wanted to bowl out there.

"Years later, since I have been on the tour, I haven't been around too much. I do know that many centers have had a decline in bowlers but recently it seems to have picked up. There are so many cities I have visited, and I'd have to say that Las Vegas, Detroit, Dallas and Medford, Ore., are some of the places the fans come out because of the many bowlers in those towns. Most cities are very supportive, and this year in Baltimore it was probably the best. The tour hadn't been to Baltimore in 10 years, and there were so many people that came out, which was awesome."

When he isn’t on tour for six months, Wiseman can sometimes be found practicing locally at Brunswick Perry Hall, AMF Dundalk and AMF Country Club Lanes.

A pro of another sort can be seen bowling at AMF Kings Point in Randallstown; Orioles' Hall of Famer Paul Blair rolls in two leagues. The star outfielder boasts a career-high 205 bowling average and four 299 games.

“I think the 300 game is past me now,” Blair said. He said he used to bowl in leagues during the offseason while with the Orioles, but he would have to leave in February for spring training, about three months before the leagues ended.

“When I returned to Baltimore in 1988 I got back into bowling," Blair said. "It’s something to do.” 

Blair added that the game is not too difficult if your bowling ball is drilled correctly and you roll your ball accurately. Blair did choose tenpins over duckpins, although he tried the small-ball game.

“Forget duckpins; that was too hard,” he said. 

Issue 2.23: June 7, 2007