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Charmed Life

High Roller

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 2/23/2000

Great athletes come in all shapes and sizes. Some are lanky-limbed 7-footers who skitter up and down hardwood courts. Others are broad-shouldered bruisers who butt heads (and slap butts) on the grassy gridiron. And then some athletes are diminutive, twinkly, blue-eyed ladies whose field of play is 60 feet of polished maple. Some athletes, you see, are duckpin bowlers, and one the best that ever hurled the hole-less little ball is Alva Brown: champion of innumerable tournaments, one-time roller of a 204 score, esteemed member of the Duckpin Hall of Fame.

Six days a week you can find this 78-year-old great-grandmother behind the counter of Federal Hill's Southway Bowling Center. She manages the place, and when I caught up with her there she was counting up the money from a Wednesday-night league. Brown's been working at Southway since 1958, but her relationship with the bilevel, 25-lane alley—carved out of a department store in 1939—goes further back than that. The place was but a year old when Brown was asked to fill in for a missing member of a ladies' league. The South Baltimore native in her early 20s was hesitant; she'd never bowled before. At first, she recalls, she stood tentatively behind the lanes, just watching for awhile. Then she strode onto lane eight, ball in hand, and her life changed forever.

"I played once, and that was it," she says. "I was hooked."

Brown took to duckpins like a duck to water. Soon she was rolling five nights a week: Southway house leagues, church leagues, traveling leagues that would scatter the ducks in cutthroat competitions from Georgia to Connecticut. She hit her stride in the 1960s, and her McComas Street house began to fill with trophies and loving cups. Her biggest triumphs included The Evening Sun tournament, the most prestigious regional roll-off, and the national All-Star tournament, an invitational gathering of the country's best bowlers that Brown once won. She was twice ranked No. 1 in the country. In 1964 her pin prowess garnered her a spot in the Duckpin Hall of Fame, a list of lane legends maintained by the National Duckpin Congress.

"You know, Babe Ruth bowled here the year the alley opened," interjects a sandy-haired, mustached man pouring a Coke for a thirsty bowler. "It was upstairs on lanes 14 and 15."

The speaker is Rand Brown, Alva's 53-year-old son—not to be confused with his identical twin, Rick, who also works at Southway. (The family that bowls together . . .) Rand looks after the pin-setters—"They're his babies," Alva Brown says. And baby them he must. Dating to the mid-50s, they're irreplaceable—new duckpin equipment is no longer manufactured. (Duckpins are in decline, with fewer than 80 duckpin alleys left nationwide; the machine makers no longer cater to this shrinking niche market.) Alva Brown recalls when armies of local boys set the pins by hand.

"The [boys] were faster," she says. "When they first put in the machines I didn't like them."

Brown has dabbled with that other bowling—tenpin, with its hefty balls and lumbering pins. "I tried it once, but everything I rolled ended up in the gutter," she says. Brown came scurrying back to Southway, where foot-high letters across a wall proclaim: THIS IS DUCKPIN COUNTRY.

Baltimore, of course, is the capital of duckpin country. The game was invented here about 100 years ago—as hoary legend has it, by a pair of National League Orioles players who carved the tiny pins out of damaged tenpins. They thought the squat little pins looked like ducks in profile, and so the new sport gained a name. It gained a following too. Duckpin doings used to be tracked in the local sports pages alongside baseball and football. Now duckpins only makes the news when it's reported that yet another small-ball alley has gone belly up. (Nearly a half-dozen local alleys have folded in the past five years.)

Brown blames computer games and television for diverting new blood away from the sport. But sad as it is to watch the game wither, she's had a more personal alley issue to deal with. As Southway's senior employee, she can do just about everything at the lanes—everything except bowl. Five years ago arthritis stilled her golden arm for good. "I got arthritis in my back and legs too," she says. "I just couldn't bowl anymore." She's had to forgo a pastime that provided a lifetime of pleasure and pride. But the cheerful septuagenarian takes it in plucky stride. She still travels with a ladies' league: "I help keep score. I'm kind of like their mascot."

And though her days on the maple are done, Brown remains one of Charm City's chief cheerleaders for the native game. Her eyes take on extra twinkle as she recounts the time, some years back, when Baltimore hosted a major tenpin tournament—one that drew big-name big-ball rollers from all over.

"A bunch of them came in here with their tenpin balls—oh, you should've seen it," a grinning Brown says. "They were looking for a place to practice. I had to tell them this was a duckpin house—most of them had never even seen duckpins. I talked them into bowling a game and, oh, they had so much fun."

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