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Changing Lanes

A Born Bowler Delves Into the Development—and Decline—of Duckpins

Andrew Campbell
Down Memory Lane: Loretta Sobuss has been scattering the ducks for 15 years.

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 9/18/1996

Queen: “What sport shall we device here in this garden to drive away the heavy thought of care?”

Lady: “Madam, we’ll play at bowls.”

—William Shakespeare, King Richard II, Act III, Scene IV

Allman Brother Dickie Betts was born a “ramblin’ man.” Or so he sings in the evergreen song of the same name—“I was born in the back seat of a Greyhound bus rolling down Highway 41/ Lord I was born a ramblin’ man. . . .” It’s by a somewhat similar twist of fate that I earned my intrinsic title: I was born a bowlin’ man.

No, I didn’t issue my inaugural cry on lane four of the neighborhood alley, nor were my mother’s size-seven red-leatherette bowling shoes and a Brunswick ball return my first earthly sights.

Unlike Betts’, my moniker concerns unplanned conception rather than impromptu birth.

It was the early 60s, and both my parents were avid league bowlers. After a mutually fruitful session on the local hardwoods, they arrived home somewhat giddy. (Perhaps they both won high game, or simply rolled well enough to boost to their averages; the details are lost.) Family myth has it that they dropped their bowling bags by the door, threw family planning out of the window, and celebrated their alley prowess in the biblical sense.

Nine months later, I arrived, a seven-and-half-pound trophy.

This was in Silver Spring, 40-odd miles south of Baltimore—the Duckpin Capital of the World—but still solidly within the domain of the diminutive pins. To me, bowling meant duckpins, first played at grade-school birthday parties and later in a ninth-grade league at Francis Scott Key Junior High. (Our team: the Piranhas. Our motto: “We’ll eat you alive.” Our end-of-year ranking: eighth out of eight teams.) In high school, my alley accuracy improved and a few marble-and-chrome statues came my way in league play. By my senior year, duckpins even played a roll in my nascent sex life. On warm summer nights, I’d cruise to my girlfriend’s house and tell her folks we were off for a night at the White Oak Lanes. With parental blessing secured, we’d head off together in my rattletrap Mustang—right past the alley and straight back to my house (blissfully vacated by oft-traveling parents). “Bowling” soon became our giggly code word for fooling around on the rec-room sofa.

College brought me to Baltimore, and during my university days, I’m loath to admit, I failed two classes: chemistry and duckpin bowling. The first flunk convinced me to nix aspirations to become an environmental scientist. The latter was more of a communication breakdown. (I didn’t think I had successfully registered for the class, and by the time I learned that a grim-faced gym teacher was indeed expecting me at the Student Union alley each Wednesday afternoon, well, I had missed too many classes to pass).

Now headlong into adulthood (and the third component of the “birth, school, work, death” continuum), I still like to scatter the ducks now and again. But despite a life intertwined around the pastime, I really knew little about its history (OK, OK, perhaps I should have gone to class). So I recently set out to probe the past, present, and future of this city’s gift to the sporting world, heading where I knew the answers lay: the streets—and alleys—of Baltimore.

 

The journey begins on sacred ground. Armed with information from the Enoch Pratt Free Library, I’ve come to the ground zero of duckpindom: the 500 block of North Howard Street, where the sport was born.

Only there’s nothing here. Like so many Baltimore locations possessed of historical significance, it’s now largely a parking lot (indeed, the whole east side of the block is asphalt). The grim, abandoned Mayfair Theater looms hauntingly on the west side of the street, beside the even grimmer and more abandoned Bottom’s Up Club.

A hundred years ago, I imagine, things were far livelier along this stretch. And it was in 1898 that two members of the old National League Orioles—future hall-of-famers Wilbert Robinson and John McGraw—opened the Diamond in a three-floor rowhouse, number 519. It was a sort of pre-ESPN sports bar, with a pub, a gym, and eight lanes for tenpin bowling.

Sometime around 1900, the two wound up with a number of worn-out tenpins on their hands. Rather than chuck them in the furnace (as per usual), Robinson, according to most accounts, decided to have them cut down for use with a smaller ball. His motivation may have been to create a less strenuous game for Baltimore’s steamy summers (bowling was then considered a winter sport). Both men were avid duck hunters, and they named the newfangled game “duckpins” after the pins’ squat, duck-like profile and their tendency to scatter like a frightened flock when struck.

It was a hit. Duckpin teams were in place by 1902, and 1904 saw the first intercity tournament (wherein Washington’s Jolly Fat Men defeated Baltimore’s German Cafés two out of three games). Duckpin country now stretches north to Massachusetts, south to North Carolina, and west as far as Indiana.

 

From moldering midtown, I head next to the leafy suburb of Linthicum, home of the National Duckpin Congress. The 69-year-old organization resides in a small wood-paneled office suite tucked beyond the 40th lane at the Fairlanes Southwest Bowling Center.

Executive director Charles Lavin greets me with a hearty handshake. Born in the old 10th Ward and raised in Hamilton, the 56-year-old Lavin attacked his first ducks while still in knee pants. Today, he and his staff of two oversee the sport, sanctioning bowlers, monitoring tournaments, training lane inspectors, and working with manufacturers to verify that, among other particulars, every pin (made of plastic today) stands 9.406 inches tall. The organization also sponsors the Duckpin Hall of Fame (whose 72 members are only honored on paper at present, though there is talk of creating a duckpin display at the new Maryland Sports Museum).

Lavin is effusive on the subject of duckpins, but his jovial nature can’t mask the reality that his sport is in decline. The Congress currently sanctions some 22,000 bowlers, who complete a registration form and pay a small annual fee to remain members. But that number is down from more than 40,000 in 1973.

“The number of bowlers is dropping and dropping, and the number of sanctioned bowlers in particular is dropping and dropping,” Lavin laments, adding that only 82 duckpin-bowling centers remain in the nation, 26 of them in the Baltimore area. “All the facts from the past 10 years indicate a downward trend.”

Why the decline?

“People just have other things to do,” is Lavin’s first answer. But with further probing he reveals that a variety of factors are at work, ranging from the rise in numbers of working women (ladies’ morning leagues were an alley staple) to recent laws mandating smoke-free bowling centers. And while Lavin asserts that doctors, lawyers, and business owners roll duckpins, he admits that the sport remains largely a blue-collar pastime—and as Baltimore hemorrhages manufacturing jobs, so go the populous leagues many companies once sponsored.

Often strapped for cash, alley owners increasingly look to novelties such as “rock-n-bowl,” and its new spin-off, “cosmic bowling,” to fill their centers. (The latter adds a light show to rock-n-bowl’s loud music and free-for-all bowling—someone has even patented a glow-in-the-dark bowling lane.)

“It’s marketing,” Lavin concedes. “If the kids like it, then let them do it. If you want to bowl naked, I don’t care. . . . Well, maybe I would.”

But all is not doom and gloom for the ducks. After all, the pastime possesses one of the most elusive and exciting goals in sports: the perfect 300 game, which—unlike in tenpins—has never been rolled. The Congress even offers a $10,000 award for the first sanctioned bowler to score the 12 strikes in a row required to reach 300. (For men, the highest game so far is 279; for women it’s 272, rolled by a Baltimorean 23 years ago.)

I ask if Lavin himself feels he has a shot at the big 300.

“Oh, I’m lousy,” comes his startling confession. “I’m a lousy bowler.”

 

It’s a short drive from Linthicum to Glen Burnie, where my duckpin detective work continues: If the sport is in a decline, why was a brand-new, big-budget duckpin center opened here just last fall?

Manager Frank Ladanyi, Jr., a career alley man who cut his duckpin teeth as a pin boy, agrees to show me around the spanking new Glen Burnie Bowling Center.

“This is the first new duckpin center to open in Maryland in some 40 years,” Ladanyi exclaims. “And this is what is going to bring the sport of duckpin bowling back.”

The Glen Burnie Bowling Center—built after the Greenway Bowling lanes burned down in ’93— aims to attract a whole new generation of bowlers. It is the new face of duckpin bowling: smoke-free, bright, and as scrubbed as a hospital operating room.

“Many bowling alleys are dingy and dark,” Ladanyi says. “Not this one.”

The biggest change is the computerized scoring systems, which take the place of the paper or Mylar scoring forms familiar to most bowlers. Scoring is totally automatic, with overhead video monitors tracking every ball, pin, and game.

But then there’s a sneaky little secret at Glen Burnie Bowl, revealed as we head behind the scenes. Walking past the slick, synthetic lanes and banks of blinking video monitors, we pass through a small door and I come face to face with pin-setting equipment built in 1956. You see, nobody makes duckpin machinery anymore; nobody has since the 70s. (Tenpin setters are still manufactured, but they employ a different and incompatible system.)

“I bought this equipment sight unseen from Rhode Island,” Ladanyi shouts above the roar of belts and gears busily setting up pins and spitting out balls. When word gets out that a duckpin alley is closing, he explains, there’s a scramble for the equipment. Some even gets shipped to the Philippines, inexplicably a hotbed of duckpin activity.

Back out front, one last question remains.

“Excuse me, what is that stuff you spray in the shoes?” I ask a woman behind the counter. She hands me a can of Zepynamic—“germicide, fungicide, virucide.”

“So it’s sort of like Lysol?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” she says with a smirk. “But if you spray enough shoes you get a high.”

 

My journey ends where it must: on a duckpin lane with a duckpin ball in hand. And not just any duckpin lane, but one beneath the pressed-tin ceilings and whirling fans of the Patterson Bowling Center. Built in 1927, this 12-lane, bilevel alley is the oldest duckpin haven still rolling in town.

New owners have undertaken a loving renovation of the historic house. The upstairs lanes are closed tonight as reconstruction continues. (The Patterson was once divided by sexes: Women bowled upstairs, men downstairs.) The resurfaced wood before me glistens like ice and warms the heart. Keep the lanes open and they will come. Somehow.

A more immediate concern is the “four sisters” 60 feet away at the end of the lane. (One of many colorful terms in duckpin argot—the “four sisters” are the one, two, four, and seven pins when they’re left standing after the first ball.) Right, left, right, s-s-s-slide . . .

The ball careens down the maple and slips gingerly into the one-two pocket. All four ducks scatter. A spare.

With a visible swagger I push the reset button and head back to my seat. You see, I was born a bowlin’ man . . .

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