STRIKE! Dundalk plant makes 'the Hammer,' the ball of choice for choosy bowlers Bowlers say unique ball is right down their alley.

April 02, 1991|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Evening Sun Staff

Bill Mitchell takes a sky-blue bowling ball out of the rack and places it on a well-worn stand, turning it with his hands, examining it the way a doctor might a newborn baby.

This isn't just any ball, claim many bowlers who use it. It's "the Hammer," thousands of which are made annually by Faball Enterprises of Dundalk.

"If there's one little dink in the ball, I have it sent back to be recut," says Mitchell, who, as a quality control inspector, is among the last people to touch the product as it leaves the assembly line. If a defective ball slips past, he stands to lose three days' work without pay.

Last year, more than 250,000 Hammers, which sell for more than $100 each, were sold to bowlers in the United States and overseas. They are produced largely by two companies -- one in Utah, the other in Dundalk.

At a recent televised Pro Bowlers Association tournament in Long Island, N.Y., each of the top three bowlers was rolling a Dundalk-made Hammer. One of them was Danny Wiseman, himself a Dundalk product.

"It gives you a good feeling, because every time you see it [the ball] on television, you know it came from our plant. We made it," said Mitchell, one of about 50 workers at the Broening Highway plant, across from the General Motors minivan plant.

"I think it's one of the better balls on the market," said John Gaines, 24, a local bowler who uses a Hammer to build a 210 average. "It hooks the most. It has the most curve to it.

"A lot of people like that because, with more hook, it hits the pins harder and you get more pin action."

Although many people in Baltimore apparently don't realize the Hammer is made here -- the executive director of the Dundalk Chamber of Commerce didn't know, for instance -- Gaines, who works at a Glen Burnie pro shop, said most serious bowlers do.

"It's our No. 1-selling bowling ball," said Bob Gudorf, a vice president for Classic Products Corp., a Fort Wayne, Ind., bowling-supply company that sells to some 3,000 pro shops and bowling alleys in five Midwestern states.

Gudorf, whose company sells all the major brands of bowling balls, explained that the Hammer has developed a certain "mystique" since it appeared in the early 1980s.

Back then, the ball was hard to find on the retail market, yet millions of bowlers who watched professional bowling on television saw the ball regularly on telecasts, thanks to a marketing ploy by Dennis Baldwin, the owner of the Faball plant in Dundalk.

Unlike other bowling ball manufacturers, who placed the ball's name and label on the top so that the bowler could see it, Baldwin decided to put his label on the side, where the television camera could pick it up.

As each pro bowler prepared to make a shot, the camera zooming in from the side would pick up the distinctive Hammer label.

"It made so much sense it's unbelievable," said Gudorf, speaking of the marketing ploy. "That's what got Faball started. They forced me to handle their ball. I resisted it at first, but I kept getting hundreds of calls for it. You couldn't get the ball."

Unlike the other four established bowling ball manufacturers in the country, Faball was just starting out in 1983.

Baldwin, 49, a bearded former motorcycle racer and parts supplier, got a call from an old friend, Earl Widman, a former pro bowler from St. Louis. Widman had found an inventor named John Fabinich, of Lorain, Ohio, who was making bowling balls with a unique two-piece design. Widman liked the ball and wanted Baldwin to try it.

Because of its design, the ball had more "hook" and hit the pins harder, Baldwin said.

Widman and another man bought the patent rights from Fabinich, who was molding the balls from polyester in a trailer. The pair sold Baldwin on the idea of manufacturing the balls.

In the back room of a pro shop on Harford Road in Parkville eight years ago, the men began learning how to make bowling balls, using Fabinich's design, but employing a newer material, urethane.

A soft plastic, urethane was just coming into its own as a material for bowling balls, mostly because bowling alleys had stopped using flammable lacquer coatings on their lanes and had begun using a polyurethane coating instead.

It turned out that a ball made of urethane reacted best against lanes coated with urethane, creating more friction, and thus greater power and hook, Baldwin said.

Since those early days, Faball has steadily grown. Baldwin's plant, which was in Highlandtown for years, recently moved into smaller, but more efficient, space on Broening Highway.

Widman and his partner, John Wonders, still own the patent rights and Baldwin is one of two manufacturers licensed to produce the Hammer. The other plant is in Clearfield, Utah, but the two firms work closely together, Baldwin said.

All balls made in Dundalk are sold east of the Mississippi and overseas to Europe. The Utah balls are sold west of the Mississippi and to Asian countries.

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