One Last Game of Duckpins

Is this the end for duckpin bowling, a uniquely American—and uniquely difficult—sport?
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Strikes and gutters, dude.

Illustration by Samantha Heitov-Whittle.

On a gray winter day in oft-gray, generally wintry Stratford, Connecticut, in a tumbledown bowling alley flanked by an empty pizzeria and an appliance store with the frown-inducing name of Mudrick’s, a two-year-old boy named Levi grabs a bocce ball-sized orb and looks into an uncertain future.

Young Levi, whose caramel-colored skin gleams in the flickering light of Barnum Lanes, and whose head is about the size of the duckpin bowling ball in his hands, is a rare bird—a duckpin bowler under the age of 50. Like Atreyu and Luke Skywalker before him, he could represent a new dawn for a dying breed.

Unlike the bowlers in the lanes around him, Levi doesn’t wind, kick, and deliver the three-and-a-half pound ball down the lane—his delivery is more the classic “Grandma” style. But the ball gets where it needs to go, and after what seems like ten minutes, it comes to a gentle stop against a set of ten stubby pins—none fall, but the ball didn’t go in the gutter, either. “You’ve got to start them early,” says Levi’s dad, with notes of both pride and apology in his cadence, before calling for a lane attendant.

Such is the state of duckpin bowling, a once-strong sport that has dwindled to the popularity level of finch-fighting and arena football. The sport, in which bowlers toss a grapefruit-sized ball at a set of squat, fat-bellied pins, has all but disappeared in the face of declining league membership and rising real estate values; that duckpin alleys depend upon ancient equipment that no one seems to know how to maintain doesn't help, either. But it retains a group of hardcore supporters—from young Levi’s family to the septuagenarians who still roll on league night in places as far flung as Stratford, Hagerstown, Maryland and Johnston, Rhode Island—who pledge to do whatever it takes to keep their game strong. Or, at least, to keep it alive at all.

***

Even by the standards of obscure athletic folkways, the history of duckpin bowling is riddled with apocrypha. But the most commonly agreed-upon origin story begins around 1900 in Baltimore. There, an alley manager named John Van Sant decided to offer bowlers a more challenging version of the ever-popular tenpin. Van Sant’s game offered bowlers smaller balls with no fingerholes, smaller pins, and an extra throw per turn. The alley happened to be owned by baseball immortal John McGraw and fellow Hall Of Fame member Wilbert Robinson, both of whom were avid duck hunters. As pins flew violently around the alley with each roll, one of the men—there's no clear consensus on which Hall of Famer it was—remarked that the projectiles resembled a flock of flying ducks. And so a sport was born, and named.

The game—in which a perfect game has never been recorded—spread around the East Coast, reaching 200,000 sanctioned bowlers in 1938 and 300,000 in 1967. But by the end of the 20th century, in a popularity dip to rival that of disco, that number was down to 14,000. It continues to fall today.

Duckpin league members and alley managers cite rising real estate values as a major factor in the decline. Facing marginal (if any) profits and flagging membership, many alley owners choose to sell, said Stan Kellum of Pasadena, Maryland, president of the Maryland-based National Duckpin Bowling Congress, an organization that will turn 85 years old this fall.

“We are at a point where we have seen many houses close over the last several years, which gives the impression the game is on the decline. Most of the houses that exist have been family-owned for many years. The original owners have either passed on or at the age where they are ready to turn the business over to the younger generation,” Kellum said. “In many cases the children don't want to get into the business. Therefore, the houses are just shutdown and the equipment sold off. A few of the houses that closed here in Baltimore had their equipment actually leave the country and it ended up in the Philippines.”

That equipment is partly responsible for the game’s decline. Developed by a kooky inventor named Kenneth Sherman, the game’s key piece of machinery—the Sherman Pinsetter—has not been manufactured since 1973. Bowling gear giant Brunswick Equipment once offered to buy Sherman’s patent, which could have kept the machinery in production much longer, but he said no—a stroke of stubbornness duckpinners call “The Curse Of Ken Sherman.”

Add the troubles faced by all sub-regional leisure activities, such as competition with 50,000 cable channels and declines in disposable income, and it’s easy enough to see why duckpins have faded. Indeed, duckpin bowling is down to 64 houses in the United States—35 alleys have closed in the last several years alone. Of the remaining houses, 57 are located in Maryland, Virginia, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

It is in those states that a movement, localized and modest thought it may be, is afoot to save the ducks. No one bowls at BowlMor Lanes in seaside Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, without getting a flier urging they enter their kids in a league. At Bowling Academy, a vinyl-sided hut of a building in blue collar East Providence, a recession-busting Sunday night deal nets you a game, shoes, pizza, a soda, and a hot dog for all of $6. And at Patterson Lanes, in duckpin’s Charm City birthplace, cursing, liquor and bowling at the same time as another bowler are banned—but shoes are free.

These are methods of getting people in the door, which is the first step toward growing a base of new players. But Mike Drotar, co-president of the duckpin sanctioning body Bowlers Association of Connecticut, believes it will be an uphill struggle to keep duckpin, where pencil-and-paper scoring is still the norm, viable in 21st century. Drotar, 48 years old and a lifelong duckpinner, said the survival of the game depends just as heavily on the continued loyalty of established players, who are only getting older. “We do have a very ardent, rugged and determined core of bowlers and proprietors that insist on the survival of duckpins,” he said. “Unfortunately economics and property values often outweigh the net worth duckpins can generate.”

If duckpin bowling has any cachet, it's in the game’s inherent old-timeyness—an asset some proprietors have attempted to exploit. The words “bowling alley” conjure an image of a faceless, stripmall AMF facility, complete with automatic scoring and wretched “cosmic” bowling nights, with the usual rattles and grunts swapped out for crappy music and flickering disco lights, and the Lebowski-an clientele exchanged for over-caffeinated teenagers. With notably few exceptions, that is not the duckpin way.

Connecticut, a state known to many as a speed bump between New York and Boston, boasts some of the game’s brick-and-wood warhorses. In gritty West Haven stands Woodlawn Bowling, a 58-year-old temple of the game that's featured prominently in the independent 2007 documentary Duckpin. Within a wooded park in Danbury, astride the New York border, resides Danbury Duckpins, where stacks of league players’ bowling bags line the lanes and a Boston Red Sox ball can be purchased for a fair price. And Stratford’s Barnum Lanes, named for the circus mogul who once lived in the area, serves as a homey (if shopworn) respite from the hum of eternally-clogged Interstate 95, just down the road. The state’s duckpin houses are located in tony suburbs like Cheshire and troubled cities like Hartford, though they share a common theme—they’re all old.

Steve Korik Jr., a board member with the Bowlers Association of Connecticut, said it remains to be seen if duckpinners’ adherence to tradition is a lure for new bowlers or if such provinciality translates into failure to adapt with the times. “Sometimes it has to do with the ownership and the willingness to keep [duckpin alleys] going sometimes in different ways. In the right hands, there's no reason why they couldn't be successful,” he said.

There’s also the draw of challenge, and duckpin bowlers hold fast to the argument that their game is more difficult than traditional tenpin bowling. The numbers back the duckpinners: in Duckpin, Kenny Mayne’s narration tells us that 56,000 perfect games of tenpin—a 300 score—occurred in 2006 alone. The highest recorded duckpin score is 279, tallied by Pete Signore Jr. of Connecticut in 1992.

The National Duckpin Bowling Congress’s Stan Kellum remembers when his mother and sister, both league bowlers, left him asleep on a bench in a Baltimore duckpin alley when he was a toddler in the 1940s. He has been hooked on the game since, and says he “only missed bowling in leagues during a three year period while in the U.S. Army” in the 1960s and '70s. His prized possessions include a trophy his father received in 1939 as a league champion, which features his dad’s name and those of the other members of his team painted on a duckpin. Kellum loves the challenge of the game, but he said the real challenge is finding new players and establishing new houses. The game has caught on in Argentina and the Philippines, he said, and there are hopes of growing popularity in the states.

He said he has recently spoken with a potential investor in New Mexico about a possible new alley—in a state that has none—and he hopes it pans out. The investor is also interested in partnering with engineers to manufacture and sell a new duckpin pinsetter, Kellum said. “My contact in New Mexico believes, as I do, that if this game had someone manufacturing the pinsetters today and just one house opened in the far West, the novelty alone would generate so much interest that there would be many more seeking to open similar houses near to them,” Kellum said.

It sounds like the duckpin equivalent of magical thinking—hope that interest from a far-flung enthusiast could help seed a dying game. But, Kellum said, any interest in the future of duckpins is cause for hope. “I feel I must, while I have the chance,” Kellum said, “take the initiative to seek anything and everything possible that may cause a revival of interest in this great game.”


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