Heaven's lane gain the greatest in 'Toots' HTC

October 01, 1998|By Michael Olesker

THAT'S NOT THE sound of thunder you'll soon hear rumbling down from the heavens -- only Elizabeth "Toots" Barger, striding to the celestial foul line and teaching them angels how to make the 7-10 split, hon.

When Toots got away the other day, at age 85, she left behind not only the most prolific duckpin bowling career in history but a piece of Bawlamer now seen mainly in life's rearview mirror. She was the queen of ducks when bowling was as much a part of the local culture as crab cakes washed down with a National Boh, meetin' ya at Ameche's, and making out at Bengie's Drive-In during the slow scenes in "The Beast That Devoured Cleveland."

The way Unitas threw to Berry on third-and-eight, the way Brooksie went behind third to stuff a double into his glove -- that's how Toots was at the line: cool, ice water in the veins and knocking down more of those squat, pear-shaped duckpins than any woman ever did.

It was different back then, back in the '40s when Toots began to dominate the game, back in the '50s and early '60s when everybody's family would head for the neighborhood Fairlanes and have to wait an hour for a Sunday afternoon reservation, back when you didn't go to a bowling lane, you went to a bowling alley.

The game was everywhere in those days: not only on those clattering hundred lanes on Howard Street, but joints on neighborhood corners, beneath strip malls, in church basements, above shops and movie theaters, and on television every time you turned on the set.

Remember "Pinbusters?" Remember John Bowman asking all those returning champs if they had a message to send out this week? "Yes, sir," the kids would say, reading from a piece of

paper, "I want to say hi to all the kids in Miss Lombardi's homeroom at Hamilton Junior High, and my mom and dad, and Moose and Juggie, and Uncle Enos who's up for parole, and ..."

Remember "Duckpins and Dollars?" Remember the more sophisticated repartee with the grown-ups? "Any messages this week?" they were asked. "Yes, sir," they'd answer, and read from a piece of paper, "I want to say hi to my foreman Mr. Lombardi and all the gang in the No. 2 boiler room down at the Point, and the fellas on my bowling team at the Patterson Lanes, and my kids, and Uncle Enos who just got paroled, and ... "

It was Toots who helped create this enthusiasm for the game, and then helped sustain it. Remember, at winter's end, when they'd televise the final round of the annual Evening Sun duckpin tournament? Remember some of the names: Not only Toots but Ruth Kratz and Alva Brown, Ethel Dize and big Min Weisenborn, who'd toss the ball into the air like a Russian shot-putter, catch it, and then heave it down the alley as though looking not only to knock the pins down but obliterate them?

Was there another city in all of America that lavished so much attention on duckpin bowling? Of course not. In most towns, they bowled the other way, with the big balls, where the scores were so much higher but the game lacked the idiosyncratic spill of the duckpins.

We knew this. We knew we were a little odd in our devotion to ducks, but it was one more distinguishing mark of the town's character, like beehive hairdos or slurping "urshters" or believing Charlie Eckman spoke the king's English.

As The Sun's Fred Rasmussen reported when Toots died, Baltimore was said to have the nation's highest number of bowling alleys per capita back in the big years. And Toots was the game's hero. She was Babe Ruth without the swagger, Muhammad Ali without the mouth. She just knocked down more pins than anybody else in the room.

Also, not to be minimized, she had her own place just below Gwynn Oak Junction called the Liberty Heights Bowling Academy -- a fine name for a place with, as memory serves, a mere 12 lanes and, for much of that time, pin boys with duck's tail haircuts and cigarettes dangling from their lower lips who'd work two lanes at a time and bellow at cheapskates who failed to toss a 15-cent tip down the alley at game's end.

Toots was always around the place. When you spotted her, it was like seeing royalty, though she never played that part. You'd see her teaching little kids how to throw the ball without twisting their wrist, or she and her husband, Ernie, would be mixing with the paying customers.

She could be strict with the teen-agers who got a little rambunctious -- though, to her everlasting credit, she never asked any indictable questions on those occasions when a certain future newspaper guy and his adolescent cronies played hooky at her place.

Toots had her mind on bigger things. She helped carry a whole sport on her shoulders. And now she's teaching them angels how to make the 7-10 split, telling them not to twist their wrists, telling them to stay cool, just like she used to do it down here.

Pub Date: 10/01/98

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