I'm sorry to have to be the one to tell you this, but bowling may have an image problem. Why is this, and why should we, as citizens, care? It's not good for America for bowling to fret. Bowling is too ubiquitous.
People I know (or, anyway, overhear) are forever talking about bowling nights. I drive past bowling alleys, and I'm positive that something wonderful (even awesome and mysterious) must be going on in there now, although that was never the case whenever I was there. And I see bowling everywhere on television. Yet bowling isn't in the newspaper, and nobody ever analyzes bowling.
But, God, is it ever there, is it ever around. Of all the things in sports (assuming, in the first place, that bowling is in sports), bowling is most like the senior prom and the church fair and trick or treat and buying a new bathing suit and Jujyfruits.
In the end, here is what I finally decided: Bowling is a lot like a halftime ceremony, only you are in it.
January 25, 1988
You haven't got the foggiest idea who made me think these thoughts. If I gave you a million guesses, you'd never guess right. You would guess Rumpelstiltskin before you guessed the right answer.
And the right answer is, Richard Nixon.
Yes, of the Whittier Nixons. Several years ago I was interviewing him about Washington, D.C., but he kept bringing up the subject of bowling. Nixon, you'll recall, put bowling lanes in the White House. Jimmy Carter had them yanked out. Harry Truman put bowling lanes in the White House, too, although then they were bowling alleys. Dwight D. Eisenhower removed them, whatever they were called. Bowling cuts across political lines. Anyway, Mr. Nixon kept haranguing me, saying there were so-and-so many bowlers in the U.S., but the press didn't write enough about bowling. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED didn't write near enough about bowling! He didn't come right out and say it, but I got the drift: If Woodward and Bernstein had only been good American boys, writing about bowling or, even better, rolling a few lines themselves, then....
Finally, I assured him that someday I would do my best to right this wrong to bowling. If Paul Harvey were telling this story, he would say that I am keeping a promise to a president, or, as Dr. George R. Allen (whom you'll meet later) would have it, I am keeping a PROMISE to a PRESIDENT.
Now please understand, I'm not altogether a bowling innocent. As a child I was a pinboy. I have met both Don Carter and Chris Schenkel. But you would certainly not consider me a pin pal or a student of keglermania. No, I set out to examine bowling academically, not unlike the way the intrepid Margaret Mead ventured off to Samoa. I even had this magazine issue me a small Japanese camera, so that I might also record my impressions on film, to provide a full sensory experience.
(I encountered one major problem as a photographer. I was often too shy to take strange bowlers' pictures from the front, where they could see me taking their pictures, so many of my shots of bowlers are from the rear. Felicitously, this is how we normally see bowlers—their posteriors, not their faces—so you're being treated to some cinema veritè here in my debut as a lensman.)
In my study of bowling, here are the 10 things I found most interesting:
1) Nobody really knows who invented bowling, though it almost surely wasn't Abner Doubleday.
2) People involved with bowling have a wonderful sense of humor except when they are talking about bowling. Then they are grim.
3) A study funded by the sporting goods industry shows that the average bowler is wealthier and better educated than the average golfer.
4) Despite the fact that most bowling leagues go for 30 to 35 weeks a year and that a pair of bowling shoes sells for only around $20 to $40, an inordinately high number of bowlers spend a buck or so every time they visit the lanes to rent those funny shoes that look like part of a jester's outfit. This happily amazes bowling proprietors but is one of the many reasons nobody with any sense believes that No. 3 above is correct.
5) The Bowling Hall of Fame, in St. Louis, is only three years old, but it is one neat Hall of Fame, really dandy. Its centerpiece is a swell bowling shirt display.
6) Bowling clobbers almost every other sport thrown up against it on television: college basketball, tennis, skiing, the Masters golf tournament.
7) The dumbest thing in all of bowling is the authorities' decree that everybody has to say "channel" instead of "gutter." First of all, it didn't work. Everybody still says gutter. I even heard Earl Anthony say it on television. (If you don't know who Earl Anthony is, that proves what President Nixon was saying about how the press isn't doing its job, bowling-wise.) Second, what's the matter with gutter? Like alley, it's a good, honest word.
8) By far the biggest issue in bowling is oil. On the alleys. How much? Spread evenly? All the way down? And so forth. Talk about boring big issues.
9) Nowadays more women bowl than men, and the balance is tilting more toward the females all the lime. Better than two thirds of all U.S. leagues are now coed. Dr. George R. Allen says bowling had better watch it or real men are going to start thinking it's a sissy game.
10) Bowling doesn't just have an image problem. No. What it really has is a complex. Boy, does it have a complex.
Bowling headquarters, bowling central, bowling America is located in a Milwaukee suburb named Greendale. The first thing to understand about bowling (not necessarily the most interesting thing, which I have already told you, but the first thing) is that bowling is still Midwest. Very Midwest. Michigan boasts more bowlers than any other state. A large building in Greendale houses, under one roof, the American Bowling Congress (the largest all-male sports organization in the world), the Women's International Bowling Congress (the largest all-female sports etc.) and the Young American Bowling Alliance, which sounds like a 1950s Communist front but which merely aims to introduce young bowlers to the joys of the lanes—and future membership in the ABC or WIBC.
The executive secretary of the ABC is Roger Tessman, who is also president of the Federation Internationale des Quilleurs (the last word in that name being a strange, foreign one for keglers). Snipers claim that Tessman spends too much of his time worrying about bowling outside the U.S. of A. And, after all, by any measure—the number of bowlers, alleys, gutters, leagues—about three fourths of the bowling on this planet is American.
My meeting with Tessman was necessarily very brief, because he had just arrived back in the Midwest from Seoul and was making the next connection out to Havana. Besides being an exhibition sport at the Summer Olympics this year, bowling may actually be a medal sport at the 1991 Pan Am Games. This excites many people in bowling. There's a widespread belief that this internationalism will help correct bowling's unfortunate ' "image" in boardrooms, on Rodeo Drive and over at GQ.
Generally, in fact, the two matters they devote their attention to at bowling headquarters are 1) oil and 2) convincing everyone that the typical bowler is a rocket scientist who earns $800,000 a year and wears designer clock socks.
The ABC/WIBC combo may be described as a benign cartel. Together, the two organizations collect $14 million a year in fees from the 6.7 million who belong to sanctioned leagues (out of 67 million bowlers in all). "We're a protection agency, in a way," says Dave DeLorenzo, the ABC p.r. manager, and if that doesn't sound quite right, well, what the ABC (and the WIBC) try to do is protect bowling from itself.
More than any other sport, bowling is a microcosm of life, an ongoing daily battle of greed versus generosity, knowledge versus ignorance, promiscuity versus moderation, darkness versus light, hard versus easy, evil versus good.
At regular intervals, going back to medieval times, bowling has been denounced as scummy; also at regular intervals—though verging on the constant—it has waged a fight against being too easy. Bowling, for example, had a great decline in the U.S. in the 1850s because scores had become so ridiculously high, and it may have been saved only because the great German immigration to the U.S. that began at about that time added a new crop of bowlers to the population.
Now this easiness business has gotten downright ridiculous. Unfortunately, it goes far beyond bowling. It has to do with human nature. Uh-oh. People like to get rewarded and (though they won't admit it) all the more so if they don't have to work for it. Everybody can't be born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but everybody can get terrific bowling scores, and just as there are unscrupulous folks in this world who will help satisfy your dark desires for pleasures of the flesh, so are there bowling-house managers who will wantonly assist you in rolling strikes. (Bowling house, by the way, is another term the ABC says you're not supposed to use.)
This is done, quite effortlessly, with dressing oil, which, if spread the right (wrong?) way on a lane, will "block" it so that any modestly capable kegler can groove in. Mark Baker, one of the better young pros, says, "In an hour, you can turn any lanes in the country into a place where we can all shoot 250's every game." In the first half-century of the ABC's existence, a perfect game was rolled every two days. Now there are six or seven each and every day, and the ABC spends much of its energy dashing about, measuring oil, fingering the blocked houses and denying the high scores made in those wicked halls.
The challenge of the game also appears to be losing the battle to technology. It wasn't but a few years ago that the best bowlers in the world carried only a couple of old rubber balls around with them. Now the pros might tote a dozen urethane models to each stop and have 100 or 150 drilled to their specifications on tour—largely to deal with the oil. These space-age balls are designed to "grab" oiled lanes better so they'll hit the pocket harder, yielding more pin action and more strikes. A pleasant young man named Bill Hall follows the pro tour around and devotes almost all of his time to drilling holes in the balls in his trailer workshop. While I was in the trailer, Wayne Webb, Professional Bowlers Association Player of the Year in 1980, came in and reminded Hall that a few weeks before he'd gotten a ball slightly different than he'd requested. "Wayne didn't get through eighth grade," a kibitzer says, "but he can tell when his ball is a quarter ounce off."
Small differences like that really matter, too. "The ball is much better than the bowler now," says Dave Husted, one of the up-and-coming young pros. Remember last year when all everybody in baseball yakked about was how the ball was juiced up? Well, bowling is like that—only all the time. Imagine if you were there when Robin Hood split the other guy's arrow, but then all anybody talked about was the type of arrow Robin used, and the consistency of the wood, and how much deer grease he used, and scintillating stuff like that. Are you listening to me, Mr. Nixon? Are you beginning to understand why nobody wants to write about bowling when they can write about people?
But I sympathize with the bowling pooh-bahs. The double bind gets tighter all the time. Anybody who can plunk a buck down for a pair of jester's shoes can score. So nobody ever practices, and still expectations are so high that, even at reasonably modest levels, it becomes more a game of disappointment for failing to be perfect than a celebration for achieving, improving. As Peggy Lee sang, "Is that all there is?"
In fact, the most honest bowling in America is at Koz's Mini-Bowl in Milwaukee, because there the alleys are just 16 feet long. That way, even with little duckpin balls, almost anybody can bowl a 300. (They average five or six each week at Koz's, where they post scores under 140.) Many folks in the area do their bowling only at Koz', because the company is good, the beer is cold, and there's hard truth enough in the rest of the world.
One day, in my journeys throughout bowleriana, I paused to watch a little girl's birthday party at the Bowlmor. It's down in Greenwich Village, up an old elevator, one of only four houses left in Manhattan. I was standing there with a Hispanic guy who was garbed in intercentury attire: a Union Army cap, an earring and Nikes. The first four little girls threw gutter balls. The Hispanic guy and I shrugged. The balls were in the gutter eight feet from the foul line. But then the fifth little girl stepped up. She acted exactly like the others, shoved the ball, and it rolled over and over, and about a half hour later it nudged into the 1-3 pocket, and all the pins tumbled down like this, and she had a strike, the same as Mark Roth. (Roth is the leading money winner in the history of bowling, whom you also probably never heard of because that kind of stuff is seldom in the newspaper.) The Hispanic guy and I shrugged again.
I finally concluded that the reason bowling always does so well on television is because (there, anyway) it is less like a sport and more like a game show, in which everybody has a pretty equal chance, no matter what. Pat, Pat, I wanna solve the puzzle, Pat! Vanna, Vanna, I just bowled 298, Vanna! This drives the pros up the wall. And when the lanes are rigged to make it interesting so the bowlers don't get strikes with every ball, then every Cholly and Bunky down at Happy Time Bowl floods the Pro Bowlers Association with applications on Monday morning. "Hey, anybody can beat a pro on his own lanes," says Baker. "The game's too easy, and the balls are weapons now."
No wonder the pros have little self-regard. Often, when they're required to list their occupation, they write down "self-employed" instead of "pro bowler." Baker's girlfriend told him once, "Why don't you tell people you're a drug dealer and get some respectability?"
When the tour came to Columbus, Ohio, during Thanksgiving week, to the sumptuous Columbus Square Bowling Palace, the lanes were greased to make them as difficult as possible, and as a consequence the scores were the lowest of the year. As NBC prepared to televise the finals on Saturday (TV is so crucial to bowling, with its lack of an appreciable live gate or print coverage, that the players don't refer to qualifying for the finals; instead they talk of "making the show"), the producer. Glenn Adamo; the announcers, Jay Randolph and Bowling Hall of Famer Earl Anthony; and other principals met in the center's nursery to go over the telecast. As soon as Adamo mentioned that Randolph and Anthony would discuss the low scores—how Guppy Troup bowled a 92 one game; how Marshall Holman, the high-average pro for 1987, grew so frustrated over how the lanes were oiled that he threw his ball up against a wall; how the pros were generally threatening to eviscerate the PBA lane maintenance director—Kevin Shippy, who's head of public relations for the PBA, went bananas. "You're not going to say that, are you?" he asked.
"Kevin, that's the story of this tournament," Adamo replied.
Shippy pleaded that the reality of the low scores be glossed over. If not, viewers would be applying for the PBA tour left and right. "But, Kevin, it's been in the local papers," Adamo explained.
Finally, it was agreed that whereas Troup's 92 was a number of record, Holman's temper tantrum didn't have to be discussed on the air. It didn't really matter what the announcers said, because right there on their screens the viewers saw a ruffled journeyman named Leroy Bornhop win his first national tournament by rolling 179 and 169, respectively, in the semis and finals. His scores were barely above the national male average. "Oh, my God," Shippy moaned, only partly in mock despair, "the mailgrams are already piling up on my desk." This is what happens when bowling keeps advertising that anybody can bowl. Anybody believes it, and then anybody wants high scores, like anybody else. Or he quits.
Dr. George R. Allen nods knowingly at this development. Allen is also an erstwhile pinboy, but thereafter he went straight, earned a Ph.D. in marketing, management and finance, became a tenured professor at American University, and then published books on golf, blackjack and craps before circling back in on bowling. Allen then spent three months at the Library of Congress reading about nothing but bowling (this is believed to be a world record), and he's convinced that the end of the bowling world as we know it is nigh. He's like the lousy spoilsport on the Titanic who kept saying that they really should get some binoculars up on the bridge. But, of course, nobody listened to him, as nobody listens to Allen. "There's a conspiracy of silence at the top of the industry," he says.
Bowling people watched warily (and from some distance) as they saw me listening to Allen and taking notes. Allen told me he wasn't the least bit surprised that (as I bitchily revealed to him) Tessman, the ABC bossman, was jetting all over the world, hardly pausing to stop in the Midwest. But, like many iconoclasts, Allen always speaks in placid, reasoned tones. He wears heavy horned rims and professorial corduroy coats and ties in subdued earth tones. His only immoderation appears to be his love for bowling and his profligate employment, when he writes, of words in capital letters. An example: "I am able to look at the COMMERCIAL or BUSINESS side of bowling with some degree of expertise.... Over the past seven years I have PERSONALLY ATTENDED most of the major bowling activities." And he remains convinced that bowling is going to hell in a handbasket and that it peaked around 1980, when there were 8,867,000 sanctioned league bowlers—three out of every eight folks in the country. By the year 2000, Allen says, there will be barely half that many, with only one in six citizens going to the alleys. Naturally, nobody who makes his living from bowling wants to hear such sacrilege. Instead, the approved dogma is that because America is aging, all those baby-boomers who jogged and surfed will turn to bowling, and the graying of the republic will be celebrated on crammed Sunbelt lanes.
But Allen asserts that other developments were set in motion long ago that must doom bowling unless it radically changes its ways. He contends that the sport's three commercial "integers"—the Bowling Proprietors Association of America, along with Brunswick and AMF, the firms that manufacture the automatic pinsetters that the BPAA members buy—led the ABC and WIBC astray in the 1960s, changing the very nature of the game for their own self-interest: promoting bowling as recreation and, in the process, transforming it from a sport to an evening out. "Until then the bowler was perceived as an athlete and sportsman competing in a game that took some skill," Allen says, ruefully shaking his head, "but there's been a structural shift, a permanent change." He writes what he believes it has become: "The image of bowling is that of a NOTHING activity . . . RECREATIONAL BOWLERS ARE NOT GOING BOWLING, they are going recreating."
What's happening, Allen says, is that because fewer people who bowl have any real commitment to the sport, they'll drop out—there's now an almost 18% annual turnover in league bowlers—and find another way to spend Tuesday nights, until no one is left bowling but a hard core of the industrial working class in a society with a service economy.
But then, bowling appears to have always been recreathletics. A century ago, when the sport enjoyed its first great boom in America, the accepted procedure was for three teams to roll in each match so that one team could always be up at the bar having a few beers. Nowadays, bowlers appear to want the lanes greased right and the balls turned into bombs so they can all shoot 300's—and have more time to have a draft, flirt with teammates (that's what "mixed" league means) or play video games. What the hell, apart from sex and fishing, Americans appear to bowl more than they do anything else, and look at it this way: Present company excepted, who's ever perfect at sex or fishing?
More and more these days, bowlers go to huge suburban alcazars—48, 64, even more (!) shiny lanes—with baby-sitters, waitresses in little miniskirts, pro shops, video games, the works. These amusement cathedrals are owned and run by sharp businessmen like Jaime Carrion of Sarasota, Fla., whose other commercial interests include things like airlines, real estate, orange groves, and horse and cattle breeding. Carrion's five Florida centers are managed by his nephew, Rafi Carrion, who's typical of the new bowling entrepeneur. He went to prep school in New England and then to the University of Pennsylvania. "Before I got into bowling with my uncle, the only people I ever knew who bowled were Archie Bunker, Fred Flintstone and Ralph Kramden," Rafi says.
I visited Rafi at a state-of-the-art bowling emporium, the Galaxy Lanes, featuring Rafi's Bar & Grille, in Fort Myers, Fla. The place is splendiferous, with all the colors of the...galaxy. The bathrooms are tiled and spotless, the air in the building is changed every 20 minutes, there's a TV above each lane so that bored bowlers can watch soap operas between frames, the balls whip back at 60 mph to keep the keglers from lollygagging, and all the scoring is computerized, which is a special blessing, inasmuch as more bowlers than you would imagine never learn how to score.
The Galaxy Lanes came in at almost $5 million, the place is an absolute showcase, and everyone in bowling is convinced that the sport's future lies entirely with such edifices. Rafi knocks on wood, which he does quite a bit. He, too, believes that bowlers will only patronize magnificent buildings like the Galaxy Lanes, that the mailing of America is complete.
And then I visited the Holler House, which boasts the two oldest sanctioned alleys in the U.S. The Holler House really is a house, as well as a bar and bowling alley. It's on the south side of Milwaukee, and even people from the ABC sneak down from Greendale to toss down a beer or two and roll a couple lines on alleys that were sanctioned in 1910.
When bowling spread out of the Northeast, it largely followed the pattern of German migration, and so the early bowling concentrations were in "Dutch" towns like Milwaukee, Chicago, Cincinnati and St. Louis. It also drifted south, down to another big German-American city, Baltimore, where a couple of the old Orioles—the Little Napoleon, John McGraw, and Uncle Robbie, Wilbert Robinson—opened a combination alleys-saloon with, as Lola used to sing, the emphasis on the latter. But McGraw was worried about his pitchers' arms when they bowled, and so one spring day in 1901 he commissioned a woodturner named John Dittmar to fashion a miniature ball and pins. They were quickly christened duckpins because, when squarely hit, they flew (a local romantic decided) like little ducks in flight.
Similarly, a bit earlier, up in Worcester, Mass., Justin (Pop) White created skinny little candlepins. And so, until very recently, some parts of New England and the Baltimore-Washington-Tidewater arc had next to nothing to do with tenpins—everybody rolled candles or ducks. However, knocking down the smaller pins is hard, and, as we know, nobody wants any truck with doing anything difficult in bowling, so the 16-pound ball and the 15-inch pins took over the rest of the country. Now they've even moved into candle and duck territory.
Even though the Holler House is in Milwaukee, Marcy Skowronski says, "I got some ducks up in the attic. But then, I got everything up in the attic. I got enough bowling balls up there people left behind to make a rosary out of them."
Marcy slides me a shorty beer, 60 cents. She runs the Holler House along with her husband, Gene. They raised their family there, living in the other part of the Holler House, the house part. It has been in Gene's family for three generations, counting his and Marcy's four daughters. For a long time, Gene's father, Iron Mike Skowronski, who was born in Poland, was the boss. As a matter of fact, the place was just called Mike's Tap until one morning some 30 years ago when a guy came in early, after a fight with his old lady. Marcy was working the bar. The guy didn't want to bowl. He wasn't interested in the alleys at all. Instead, he asked Marcy, "Would you care to get bombed with me?" What the hell. Marcy said, "Yeah, sure, why not?" and poured a shot and a beer for herself, too.
After a while, as is normally the case, Mike's Tap got real noisy, and when the guy's better half finally found him, she was taken aback some. "She didn't know whether to spit or go blind," Marcy explains. When the wife finally got the guy home, she told everybody she had rescued him from "that holler house." It stuck.
Nobody has ever forgotten Iron Mike, though. He was quite a guy. Seventy-nine years old, and he was still smoking 10 cigars a day, drinking copious quantities of Old Fitz—Iron Mike could take a shot of the Old Fitz, hold it in his mouth, take a shot of water and then spit out the water without losing a drop of Old Fitz—and beating most of the younger guys at Indian wrestling.
Iron Mike's picture is still up on the wall. Other accoutrements include a bat used by Harvey Kuenn, an exceptionally large pair of women's white drawers, a big jigsaw puzzle on one of the tables. Sometimes it takes two, three months, but the Holler House crowd finally gets the puzzle done, and then they start a new one. Also, one of those bowling games where you shove a little metal disk and the pins go up. A dart board. An old icebox.
And there's an ancient beer pail. In the old days the men in that area worked at big manufacturing plants, Allis Chalmers mostly, and after the whistle blew, the men would bring their beer pails to Mike's Tap to get them filled up for home. Most of the fellows would be sure to put butter on the inside of their pails to cut down on the foam, so they would get more beer. Also: the Holler House jukebox. It has everything from Sinatra to hard rock, plus six dirty songs if you know the right buttons to push, and, of course, it has Back in the Saddle Again, by Gene Autry.
The Holler House loves Gene Autry. The regulars celebrate his birthday every Sept. 29. The Holler House also has an annual banquet for the people who play in the disk bowling league, and in February there's a beach night. This is in Milwaukee, remember. Everybody comes in shorts and T-shirts. Sometimes strangers walk in off the street for a beer that night. "They don't know whether to spit or go blind," Marcy says.
About half of the Holler House regulars bowl. Marcy poured me another shorty, and I asked her how much it cost to roll a line, but she couldn't remember. So she asked her daughter Cathy, who was also behind the bar, what the going price was, but Cathy wasn't sure either. And neither was a son-in-law. Evidently, it's 85 or 95 cents, maybe a buck, depending on whatever occurs to whoever is running the joint at the time. There are also shoes available, if you need them. This is the way that's handled at the Holler House: Marcy goes through all the absent regulars' bowling bags until she comes across a pair that fits the customer.
There's a lot of league action at the Holler House. The night I was there, it was mostly ladies. They play a little side deal, too. One of the women brings a deck of cards with photographs of naked men on them. I tell you, after I saw this deck, I didn't know whether to spit or go blind. The way it works is, everyone antes 50 cents, and if you make a strike or convert a tough split, you get to draw a card. The best poker hand of naked men at the end of the night wins the pot.
There are still pinboys at the Holler House. Three games for a buck, plus tips. Pinboys pretty much disappeared in the 1950s when the automatic pinsetters came in. Just in time. The National Child Labor Committee was on the warpath, claiming that pinboys (the ones who really were boys and not the old rummies) were getting only 11 cents a line, staying out too late, getting clobbered by flying wood and associating with undesirables (i.e., bowlers). It was assumed then that once pinboys were eliminated and the beautiful new centers with automatic lanes were constructed, bowling's image problem would be solved. But, of course, it didn't work out that way. Evidently, bowling is just destined never to be respectable.
Only, thankfully, at the Holler House, bowling never changes. Two guys were talking at the bar. The one with his hat on said, "I seen a guy come on TV Saturday with 23 balls that he used."
The other guy said, "Yeah, he's got one for this alley, one for that alley, one for splits, one for—"
"That ain't bowling."
"Yeah, bowling is one ball, you and the alley."
At the Holler House, they haven't had but two 300 games in 80 years, and the last one was in 1934. What would you give somebody if he bowled a perfect game at the Holler House? Marcy slid me another shorty and said, "I'd give 'em Gene."
Gene, you will recall, is Marcy's husband.
Gene had a stroke a couple of years ago, and he'd already gone up to bed. He's back to bowling once a month with the boys, though. Still, it made Gene and Marcy think, and so they bought a condo in Arizona. It hasn't what you would call taken, though. "We got furniture and everything," Marcy says. "You'd think we were newlyweds or some-thin'. But the last time I was down there, all I wanted was to get back to Milwaukee. I says to myself, 'Marcy, you are not ready for this.' Gene too. He's not ready to leave the Holler House."
Their grandson Michael, age 10, the fourth generation at the Holler House, is already learning to oil the alleys. "Friday nights now is the young people, and as loud as they play the music on the alleys then, I won't even go down there," Marcy says. "But, oh God, I could never give up this place. I could never give up the bar or the alleys."
As we've seen, bowling is many things. Bruce Pluckhahn, who's the curator at the Hall of Fame, says, "You travel the back roads of France, and they're playing types of bowling you can't imagine." And the bowlers. Often in the past, bowlers were above the salt, clearly upper-crust. Or ecclesiastical. Martin Luther, for one, was an avid kegler. In some bishoprics it was believed that the Devil himself bowled, using a human skull for a ball, rolling it down Christ's cross. And priests who sinned were supposed to have to spend all eternity bowling. (The updated version of that is, I believe, that they'll have to spend all eternity watching ESPN.)
But inevitably the lower classes would appropriate the sport, drink and gamble while enjoying it, and so the hypocritical upper crust would get together with the men of the cloth and decree bowling sinful and/or illegal. That was the pattern in Europe and the U.S. alike.
It probably didn't help bowling's reputation when, as early as 1839 in Hartford, Conn., it moved inside (before, it usually had been played outdoors on grass). Generally speaking, Americans look down their noses at indoor exercise. When people play sports outside, it is referred to as "working up a good sweat," and it's approved as healthy. But indoor exercise has always been put down as sweaty, dèclassè. Basketball was accepted in American culture only when it moved into huge, plush buildings with cathedral ceilings that gave the spacious feeling of all outdoors. Then basketball players weren't grubby lower-class types anymore—they became "glistening bodies." But no bodies shine in bowling. It's still just indoorsy and sweaty.
Also, most bowling alleys had posts, and everybody hates posts, not only because all they can do is get in your way, but also because posts just seem proletariat. I'm convinced that posts have been very bad for bowling.
Moreover, curiously, no romantic notions ever grew up around bowling, as they did, say, around pool, bowling's companion smoky, indoor, boozing-and-betting game. There have probably been as many bowling cons as there've been pool hustlers, but bowling is terribly self-conscious about its charming rogues. Troup, a former machinist, always appears in garish trousers, his upper limbs weighted down by diamonds and gold, but he's about the only pro bowler these days with a flamboyant public persona. Most PBAers barely crack a smile. Bowling has just never understood that you can profit from being seedy-chic, the way pool has.
Possibly as a consequence of bowling's pretentiousness, there's no movie with Paul Newman about bowling. David Letterman wanted to get a bowler on his show to yuk it up, a la baseball's Buddy Biancalana a while back, but bowling takes itself too seriously to permit such whimsy.
It's wonderfully ironic that the only brush bowling has had with literature was in the story about Rip Van Winkle, and, of course, Washington Irving's tale, published in 1819, involves bowling and drinking. If bowling's tradition was already fatefully intertwined with social drinking, it became all the more so in America after the German immigration swelled the sport's ranks in the latter part of the 19th century. German culture was never more prominent in America, and the Teutonic spirit of camaraderie, gemütlichkeit, was a natural for the bowling alley. Significantly and symbolically, the ABC was founded in 1895 at Beethoven Hall in New York City by a group of men who consumed six ponies (half-kegs) of beer. Just as saloons offered free lunches—until we learned there's no such thing—so too did establishments allow keglers to bowl on the cuff so long as they bellied up to the bar between frames. Even today, at fancy places like the Galaxy Lanes, a full 30% of the income derives from "ancillary" sources, mostly food and drink, and many bowling houses depend on the bar for their very existence. At a time when national beer sales are flat and driving home from drinking anywhere is under heavy criticism, this doesn't bode well for suburban recreating.
But bowling's alliance with beer has never flagged. From the 1930s until about 1960, almost all of the top bowling competition involved the legendary beer teams—first, the white-clad Stroh's keglers, then the teams sponsored by Pfeiffer's and Falstaff, finally the fabled Budweiser teams of the fifties, featuring Don Carter, Dick Weber and Ray Bluth. In 1961 there was a brief and expensive disaster with a conventional professional association known as the National Bowling League. (No doubt you recall all the teams in the NBL, but just in case they've slipped your mind: Detroit Thunderbirds, Twin City Skippers, Omaha Packers, Dallas Broncos, Fort Worth Panthers, San Antonio Cavaliers, Kansas City Stars, Fresno Bombers, Los Angeles Toros and New York Gladiators, who actually played in Totowa, N.J.). The collapse of the NBL, which just happened to coincide with the demise of the beer-team era, marked the end of big-time team bowling.
After that, because of the demands of television, bowling was transformed from a team to an individual sport, with the beer companies sponsoring, even producing, most of the TV tournaments. In what may have been sport's hottest free-agent action of 1987, Coors (in a major upset) beat Miller in the battle to sign Leila Wagner, a woman bowler, to an endorsement contract. As a kegler, Wagner ranked a modest 19th in earnings on the women's tour, but she's blonde and built, a former Miss Washington State in the Miss Universe pageant (SI, Sept. 28, 1987). We went through exactly the same thing 15 years ago (during the hot-pants era) with another leggy blonde, Paula Sperber.
Such occasional forays into sexiness aside, women's bowling is even more self-conscious about its image, if that is possible, than men's bowling is. Women bowlers still grit their teeth when they recall the scene from the movie Arthur wherein the stuffy valet, played by John Gielgud, seeking to put down a pushy, tacky woman in the most complete way he could, uttered, "Usually, one has to go to a bowling alley to meet a woman of your stature."
As bowling becomes more of a women's sport, the pro "bowlerettes" (as they used to be called) are chafing at the fact that they competed for only $854,000 last year—less than 6% of what was at stake in women's tennis. It has even come to a civil war, with a splinter tour, TURMOIL AMONG WOMEN KEGLERS, cried The Sporting News. And Miller and Coors fight hammer and tong over the 19th-best bowler because she's blonde and stacked. Priorities.
Says Bucky Woy, a baseball agent who once ran the women's bowling tour, "Hey, by and large they were pretty attractive. I'll tell you—nicer looking than the golfers and tennis players. But it didn't matter. Image. The image. They change the words, alleys to lanes and gutters to...whatever they changed gutters to. But it didn't matter. That was all smoke and mirrors. Even when the numbers were supposed to be good, all you could get for sponsors was Midas Muffler—and Budweiser. It doesn't matter how attractive they are. It never will. Image. The image."
John Falzone, the current president of the LPBT and the manager of a bowling center in Cherry Valley, Ill., expresses the industry's endemic frustration. "The numbers are so outstanding that people have trouble believing them," he says. "A bowler has a higher income than a golfer. That's proved. But it doesn't compute."
And so it goes. Everybody in bowling believes the sacred bowling demographics that have been uncovered and issued by the National Bowling Council, while nobody outside bowling believes them at all. Whom do you believe? You think Cadillac would sponsor the Masters instead of some cafè-society bowling tournament if it believed? America's largest bowling emporium is at the Showboat Hotel in Las Vegas. Recently, when the Atlantic City Showboat opened, the hotel-casino complex included some lanes, specifically to attract blue-collar patrons to the slots, according to Frank A. Modica, president of Showboat. Presumably, the Showboat has some idea who bowls.
People in bowling explain away the discrepancy between demographics and public perception by invoking the ever-popular CEO conspiracy theory. According to that theory, all CEOs play golf and tennis—probably, in fact, all CEOs get to be CEOs only because they play golf and tennis—and so they refuse to act on the dispassionate, unbiased figures put out by the National Bowling Council because the CEOs are protecting golf and tennis.
Allen's opinion is that the figures the bowling establishment touts are, in a word, hooey. We were talking in a bowling center, and the bowling people were still keeping a careful eye on me. "But that would be...fraud," I whispered.
Allen's expression remained unchanged. "I don't use that word," he said. "I might call it hyperbole or public relations or bureaucratic fog."
"I'm glad to hear that," I said, "because I thought I was going crazy. The thing is, people in bowling alleys look exactly the way I imagined they would look, just like they looked the last time I was hanging around bowling alleys. They don't look at all like what I'm told they should look like."
"You're not crazy," Allen said reassuringly. "No one is being fooled by those figures. They're misleading at best, and highly suspect. And I guarantee you there's only one Ph.D. in this building, and you're looking at him."
This set me back a little, as Allen didn't know I wasn't a Ph.D., and I always thought maybe I looked like one. But I let it pass. He went on: "Of course the numbers don't add up. It's unusual to find anybody from college in a bowling center, because there aren't many of them that go there. And there will probably be fewer in the future, because well-educated people have the kind of schedules that simply won't allow them to bowl the same night of the week, 35 weeks in a row. It's not just that leagues are losing 18% of their members every year, it's that the system repels the most affluent. Besides, who with any intelligence wants to go to a cocktail party with the same people 35 weeks a year?"
Allen shook his head woefully. "No, what you see adds up. Bowling's still very much what it used to be. And, not to be cruel, but as you can see, they're not very good-looking people. They're not well dressed, and they're not in great shape." Allen paused. "But they're good people. They're very good people."
I surely don't know what the future holds for bowling. But I know that the one thing that bothered me on my visit to this peculiar little universe was that bowling seems to be so very embarrassed about itself. In many respects it denies the very people who constitute the heart of bowling, who love bowling, who support bowling, who are bowling. I think bowling will prosper in the long run only if it just lets itself be bowling. We don't need another pseudo-golf or -tennis. We already have golf and tennis for that.
The single most jarring thing I experienced in bowling was when watching Husted, the aforementioned up-and-coming pro, bowl. He's a very good-looking and bright young man, from an upper-middle-class family that happened to own two bowling centers. He had a four handicap in golf, but after high school he went right out on the PBA tour. And this is what Husted wears when he bowls: a snappy red Nike sport shirt, tan pleated khaki pants with a brown leather belt, a wristwatch with a brown leather strap and argyle socks with Nike bowling shoes that look exactly like tennis shoes. This is not proper bowling attire! This is like wearing a three-piece suit, a fedora and wing tips to play second base for the White Sox. Bowlers don't even wear their names on the back of their shirts anymore when they're on TV. Bowling changed things for the benefit of stiffs who don't like bowling. Now to see real bowling shirts you have to go to a museum. "I genuinely lament the passing of the bowling shirt," says Pluckhahn. "Tell me, what exactly have we gained now that our bowlers wear golf knitwear?"
Sometimes I thought that, of all the people in bowling, Pluckhahn, the one who is paid to live in the past, enjoyed the finest sense of what the game truly is. Then, too, everybody I met who isn't in bowling but deals with the bowling industry adored the people in bowling. This included folks in television, in the beer business, in the sporting goods industry. Compared with people in other sports, bowling types were everybody's favorite. And it was easy for me to see why. To quote Dr. George R. Allen, "They're good people."
"They're so enjoyable, so down-to-earth, so unpretentious," says Jeff Kramer, a Nike marketing manager. "And you know what I can't understand? Why do the people who run bowling want to appeal to yuppies? Nobody ever liked yuppies. But here bowling already has the best people in the world, and they keep pushing to replace them with yuppies."
The funny thing is, too, that in much of the sports world these days, everybody lauds everything blue-collar. In fact, the only place where you even hear the term white-collar anymore is in the context of white-collar crime. An athlete would probably quit the team if he heard his coach say that he was "a real white-collar player." But the best thing you can say about an athlete is that he's a real blue-collar player. Today, blue-collar means a day's work for a day's pay. It means hustling, dependable, devoted, honest as the day is long. It means: America. Or anyway, the way America was supposed to be when we were taught about America. All the phonies who own or coach or watch in other sports, all the nouveaux and the yuppies, all the white-collar guys who have not quite yet been convicted of white-collar crime, all of them are searching high and low for genuine blue-collar types, and here bowling has all the blue-collar, and all it wants is to be identified with the service economy. Can you believe the irony in that?
The next time I chat with President Nixon, I'm going to ask him what he thinks about that. It's a fine how-do-you-do.
Set 'em up.