Duckpin bowling losing its appeal Three area alleys offering the home-grown sport are closing their doors

May 25, 1998|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

A sixth of the Baltimore area's remaining duckpin bowling alleys went out of business during the holiday weekend, and another is switching entirely to tenpin lanes -- ominous signs that the game with midget balls and pins is fading from its native

landscape.

Slated to shut down by todayare three alleys operated by AMF Bowling: the Joppa Center in the 1600 block of E. Joppa Road in Towson, Harford Center in the 6100 block of Harford Road in Northeast Baltimore, and Middlesex Center in the 1100 block of Eastern Blvd.

Next month, AMF's Timonium Center will switch its 12 duckpin lanes to the larger-scale game, ending a half-and-half operation.

"This is certainly the largest loss I've ever seen at one time," said Lance O'Hara, 37, owner of Belair Road's Seidel's Bowling Center, one of Baltimore's surviving all-duckpin alleys and an AMF competitor.

The closings coincide with the end of the duckpin league season from Labor Day to Memorial Day, and the shutdowns and changeover will reduce the number of lanes available for duckpin bowlers to about 400 spread around some 15 bowling alleys.

At the peak of duckpin popularity in the 1960s, Baltimore was a hotbed of duckpin activity, with more than 1,200 lanes and numerous bowling centers.

According to local sporting lore, the game was created at a Howard Street tavern in 1904 by turn-of-the-century Baltimore Orioles legends John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson. They named the smaller pins ducks because of the squat way they sat and then went flying when hit by the scaled-down bowling ball -- one small enough to be held in the palm of the hand.

"I am absolutely opposed to any more closing of the duckpin alleys," said David Wright, a resident of Northeast Baltimore's Cedonia section who has seen his duckpin haunts gradually disappear -- Greenway East, Perring Plaza, and now the AMF Harford Center.

"I take my daughter and granddaughter. It keeps them off the streets. It's the best family entertainment around," Wright said.

It may just be that while duckpins' use of lighter balls (about 3 pounds) makes the game easier for children, it dooms the sport as players graduate to tenpins.

Seidel's owner O'Hara said the hidden strength of duckpin bowling has been its social value. Leagues form around friendships at work, in school and in religious and fraternal organizations.

"We have leagues from the Shrine of the Little Flower, Calvary Lutheran, St. Michael's Overlea, Bethel Methodist and the Czech Society of America," O'Hara said of some of his Northeast Baltimore-based groups.

While O'Hara expected to pick up some traffic from the wave of lane closings, he and other duckpin bowling operators worry about the seeming decline in the game's popularity.

"It's got to really hurt the game," said bowler Cliff Kidd, a No. 1 nationally ranked duckpin bowler in 1943 and 1944 and the former owner of the all-duckpin Southway Bowling Center. "I predict in 10 years the thing will be just about over."

Duckpin bowling uses a pin-setting machine invented about 50 years ago by Ken Sherman, a former submarine engineer.

Sherman, who later moved from Connecticut to Odenton in Anne Arundel County, patented the basic duckpin pin-setting machine an all-steel device powered by an electric motor. The clanking device -- with moving lift bars, conveyor belts and pin elevators -- resembles a textile weaving machine.

AMF officials say they plan to mothball the duckpin machines taken from the closed lanes.

"The parts are hard to get and we can use what we have now for the future," said AMF regional manager Greg Robison.

Pub Date: 5/25/98

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