Last night on the evening news, sadness prevailed. I now pass the sadness on...
Duckpin bowling is a sport that is uniquely Baltimore. Much like the Inner Harbor, steamed crabs, and marble stoops, duckpin bowling can remind anybody of being back in the good old Charm City. As reported last night, however, there are only 20 duckpin bowling alleys left in Maryland.
I am aware of two duckpin bowling alleys that have closed since the weekend. One is in Pasadena (Keith called and asked what time Rock-'n-Bowl was, and they said their last one ever was the night before). Another one in Northeast Baltimore closed Sunday. As unique as it is to Baltimore, duckpin bowling is a dying sport, much like Maryland horse racing and the Orioles. All of this talk of duckpin bowling got me thinking, though, about the origins of such a goofy game.
After extensive research (I Wikipedia-ed it), I determined that the origins of duckpin bowling are shrouded in mystery, and if you're from New England, controversy. Most people, myself included, believe that duckpn bowling was invented in Baltimore. This seems to be the most popular story of the origins of the sport. It is believed to be invented by two baseball Hall of Famers, John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson in 1900. New Englanders choose to believe otherwise, however, since they must have their hand in everything and take Baltimore's thunder whenever possible. A writer named Bob Tkacz, from Newington, CT, claimed to have found articles dating back to 1894 reporting on duckpin tournaments in Lowell, Massachusetts. Conveniently, the publication where Tkacz has seemingly dispelled the stories of Baltimore origin are not available in any U.S library. If that's the precedent, then I submit that I have found articles reporting on duckpin tournaments in Baltimore dating back to 1893. I submit as proof two theories: 1) the game was invented and popularized by two baseball players who played for the Orioles; 2) the size of the ball is similar to that of a bocce ball, meaning they could have borrowed a bocce ball from some friends in Little Italy and bowled them toward pins. Take that New England and your spotty fact checking.
Regardless of the origins (it's ours, damn it!), the name duckpin is universally agreed to have been coined by McGraw. He was an accomplished duck hunter, and when the pin exploded in their familiar duckpin way, he remarked that they looked like ducks flying around. A sportswriter caught wind of this, and lo and behold we have a name for a modified and more fun game of bowling.
I, for one, prefer duckpin bowling to ten pin bowling for a plethora of reasons. First, the ball is not so heavy, so when you can play for a long time, your arm doesn't get as tired. Also, since the ball is lighter, you can get some extra mustard on the ball and really knock down some pins. It raises the question as to why duckpin bowling is not more popular in this country. If you have ever watched a professional ten pin bowler, you have undoubtedly seen him/her throw the ball toward the gutter and then watched as the ball curved back and struck the pins. It's a game of finesse. You can't do that in duckpins, because you can't get that kind of spin on the ball That makes duckpins a game of power. Americans love power over finesse. We like football, not soccer. We like homeruns, not pitching. We like big, clunky NASCARs that don't fall apart when they wreck, not faster F-1 cars that shatter like glass. Finally, you three chances to knock down all those pesky in duckpins, partially because the ball is smaller and it's harder to do, but mostly because we're Americans and we love second and third chances. For the record, there has never been a perfect 300 recorded in a sanctioned game of duckpin bowling.
I hope people start to regain an interest in duckpin bowling around Baltimore, because it would be sad to see it go. It would be like losing the Preakness or the National Aquarium. It's an institution in Baltimore, born (I said it) and raised in Baltimore. It was a favorite game of Babe Ruth, a Baltimore born and bred icon. The man who owned the lanes in Northeast Baltimore said the only way to save duckpin bowling would be for people to join leagues and make it popular again. I implore all my reader(s) to at least consider joining a league. I already know that most of you have been or are in a league already. Make sure you do it again next year. Unfortunately for me, I spend 9 months a year in Podunk, Virginia, where I'm pretty sure there's no bowling alley of any kind. Otherwise, I would be right there beside you, enjoying a great Baltimore tradition.