Good 'ol duckpin.Duckpin bowling: It’s still our hometown sport
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Ron Snyder, The Examiner
Jul 24, 2006 5:00 AM (16 hrs ago)
Current rank: # 257 of 6,677 articles
BALTIMORE - When Monica Gleed entertains friends or family from out of town, questions inevitably come up about how best to sample some of the unique aspects of life in Baltimore.
Most notably, her guests ask about visiting the Inner Harbor, or picking Maryland steamed crabs, or — better yet — trying their hand at duckpin bowling.
“I’ve always loved to bowl, and I couldn’t wait to see what duckpins were all about when we came to Baltimore,” said Gleed’s mother, Ellen Quatman.
Quatman, along with her husband, Jon, stepped onto a duckpin lane for the first time recently at Patterson Bowling Center on Eastern Avenue. The Cincinnati couple quickly discovered that, except for rolling a ball toward a set of pins, duckpin and tenpin bowling have little in common. Jon Quatman realized this when he hurled the ball down the lane only to laugh when it landed in the gutter.
“It can be really humbling,” he said. “You have to be a lot more accurate in duckpins than tenpins. I’m used to being able to throw the ball and knock all of the pins over.”
Patterson Bowling Center’s Theresa McElhose said the Quatmans’ experience resembles many she has seen from out-of-town bowlers during the 11 years she and her husband, Charles, have owned the 80-year-old center.
“Going duckpin bowling is a destination for many people coming through Baltimore,” she said. “We had some bowlers recently from Las Vegas on their way to Virginia, and they had to stop in and see what duckpins are all about.”
Duckpin bowling and Baltimore have gone hand-in-hand for more than 100 years. Prior to that, bowling was primarily a winter sport, with most centers closing down during the summer months. However, a few alleys remained open so bowlers could practice with the small balls, about six inches in diameter. They usually played odd games called “back five,” using just the 5, 7, 8, 9 and 10 pins, and “cocked hat,” which used only the 1, 7 and 10 pins.
Around 1900, bowlers playing those odd games suggested to Diamond Alleys manager John Van Sant that it might be a good idea to trim the pins down to match the size of the balls. The new game caught on fast with bowlers using the traditional tenpin rules. However, once they realized it was harder to get a strike or spare, they changed the rule to allow for three balls per frame instead of two.
Van Sant demonstrated the new sport to the alley’s owners — baseball managers John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson. Legend has it that when Robinson and McGraw, both avid hunters, saw the small pins fly around upon impact they compared them to a “flock of wild ducks.” Thus the name duckpins.
Duckpin bowling gained popularity during the next 60 years, with lanes popping up all across the East Coast. Over time, the National Duckpin Bowling Congress, founded in 1927, helped develop standard rules and equipment for the sport. Differences between duckpin and tenpin bowling include the smaller, squatter pins and a much smaller ball that weighs no more than three pounds, 12 ounces. By comparison, a tenpin ball can weigh as much as 16 pounds.
Sue Burucker, executive director of the Linthicum-based NDBC, said those differences make it easier for people of all ages and athletic abilities to participate in duckpin bowling.
“Personally, I think duckpins are more exciting than tenpins because anyone can do it, and the pins bounce around a lot more,” she said.
For much of the sport’s heyday, Baltimore was duckpin bowling’s epicenter. From the 1960s through the early 1980s, Charm City spawned dozens of duckpin alleys and was the birthplace for numerous duckpin television competitions like “Strikes and Spares” and “Pinbusters.” The former had local adult bowlers competing for cash prizes, while the latter was a children’s competition for trophies. While recent research shows the sport’s roots date to the 1890s in Massachusetts, local bowlers aren’t deterred from calling duckpin bowling Baltimore’s sport.
“People in Baltimore have grown up with duckpin bowling,” said Charlie Justice, the head mechanic at Patterson Bowling Center. “To many, it’s just a way of life.”
However, as popular as duckpin bowling was, it never caught on beyond its regional roots. Currently, there are about 60 centers in the country, with about half of them in Maryland. By comparison, there are 5,700 tenpin alleys nationwide, according to the U.S. Bowling Congress.
“I don’t know why the sport never really caught on across the country,” Burucker said.
Duckpin centers also must deal with similar realities currently facing tenpin centers across the country, as weekly leagues no longer draw the crowds they did 25 or 30 years ago. With busier schedules, a more transient community and more entertainment options available, many people just don’t want to commit to the grind of a weekly league anymore.
To counter that, area duckpin centers are relying more on recreational bowlers, birthday parties and “Rock-n-Bowl” nights that mix in music and games with traditional bowling. One center using such a plan is Stoneleigh Lanes.
Located along York Road just south of Towson University, Stoneleigh embraced the area’s changing demographics while maintaining most of the alley’s nostalgia. Stoneleigh is more than 60 years old and still relies on push-button pinsetters and wooden lanes while keeping score either on paper or a transparency for league play. Most alleys today have automatic pinsetters, synthetic lanes and computerized scoring.
“Bowling still provides good, wholesome entertainment for families and people of all ages at a reasonable price,” said Stoneleigh owner Ken Staub, who estimates he hosts more than 600 parties a year. “People here love duckpin bowling, and we get people from out of town all the time that just get a kick out of it.”
Staub’s son, David, enjoys the challenge duckpin bowling provides.
No one has ever recorded an officially sanctioned perfect 300 game. The duckpin single-game record is 279.
“There’s not a lot of room for error in duckpins,” David Staub said. “You may get lucky and get a strike if you miss your spot in tenpins. If you do that in duckpins, you may only get one or two pins.”