Bowling Through the Ages

Illustration: Hunter Huang

This classic game has a rich history that helped frame it as the favorite American pastime it is today.

By Joe Yogerst

It’s telling that one of the most famous bowling movies of all time, “The Big Lebowski,”  portrays bowling as a mystical blend of friendship, philosophy and athletic skill, which is exactly what it has become today. Bowling is not just a sport or form of recreation, but a phenomenon that reflects the quirkiness, color and camaraderie of American life.

“Bowling … continues to show up in American pop culture frequently,” says Kari Smith, curator and program manager at the International Bowling Museum & Hall of Fame in Arlington, Texas. “It’s something most people have done, is easily identifiable and can therefore be a good connecting point.”

According to the United States Bowling Congress, bowling is the nation’s top participation sport, with around 70 million people taking to the lanes at least once a year. Nationwide, approximately 4,000 bowling alleys support more than 33,000 USBC-certified bowling leagues. Overall, the bowling industry generates about $4 billion a year.

If you’re convinced that bowling is just for older generations, consider the fact that school membership in USBC Collegiate is growing more than 10% each year. A 2018 survey discovered that 21% of Americans aged 18 to 29 had been bowling during the previous year—nearly twice the rate of people over 50 years old. Though a study to see why so many young people are flocking to bowling alleys has yet to be conducted, it could be the fact that so many of their pop culture idols are bowling aficionados. Entertainers Lady Gaga and John Legend, as well as Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, have been spotted bowling. And basketball superstar Chris Paul of Oklahoma City Thunder hosts an annual celebrity bowling tournament that attracts many other pro athletes.

There’s also the fact the mere mortals can achieve something close to perfection. Players don’t have to throw a fastball at 90 mph or toss a football 60 yards on the dime—with enough practice, and maybe a little luck, anyone can bowl a strike (the term for knocking down all 10 pins in a single throw) or maybe even bowl a perfect game (12 strikes in a row).

The Backbone of Bowling

The number of bowling centers in the U.S. peaked in the 1960s. | Photo: Courtesy of United
States Bowling Congress

While many think of bowling as an American sport, its origins date back far before the country’s founding. Humans have hurled balls of one sort or another at pins, and other similar targets, for thousands of years. Today, the sport is played in more than 80 countries. “It actually is a global sport, one that transcends any language or culture,” says Matt Cannizzaro, public relations manager at the United States Bowling Congress. “Though the structure and formats of their competitions may be different, there are bowling centers, competitors and organizations across the world.”

Some experts believe that bowling dates back to ancient Egypt, a theory based on an 1895 discovery by archeologist William Matthews Flinders Petrie. Excavating the 5,000-year-old tomb of a child along the west bank of the Nile, he uncovered a group of stone balls and nine vase-shaped alabaster stones with flat bottoms.

To keep themselves entertained between battles, Roman legionnaires also played a
bowling-like game, which is likely the origin of Italian bocce, French pétanque and British lawn bowling. As Christianity spread beyond the Roman Empire, bowling was a close companion: In ancient Germany, devotees of the new faith were rolling spherical stones at a wooden clubs called “kegels” that represented their sins, with knocking them over being a method to achieve forgiveness.

By the Middle Ages, proper balls and wooden pins were developed and bowling had become a favorite form of recreation as well as a betting game. It was so popular that it distracted people from their regular work. To combat this, several German cities passed laws limiting the monetary amount that could be wagered on bowling, while King Edward III of England outlawed the game entirely because it was distracting his troops from warfare training. Yet, its popularity endured. King Henry VIII and Sir Francis Drake were reportedly avid bowlers, as was Martin Luther of Reformation fame. And when European powers began colonizing the New World, bowling was among the traditions that came along for the ride.

The American Game

By the 17th century, Dutch settlers were bowling in New Amsterdam (a territory that is known today as New York) while English settlers introduced lawn bowling to Virginia and other Colonies. In 1819, Washington Irving mentioned a “woe-begone party at ninepins” in his short story “Rip Van Winkle,” which was the first mention of bowling in American literature. The first indoor bowling centers, originally called Knickerbocker Alleys, sprung up in New York City during the 1840s. 

“The huge waves of 19th century immigration from Europe to the U.S. really brought new culture in droves,” Smith says. “One of these cultural elements was each … group’s version of bowling.” As an example, she points to the many German immigrants who settled in central Texas. One of the things they brought along from the old country was Kegelspiele, or German ninepins. Their descendants still play a version of this game today in the region’s ninepin bowling clubs.

“Different waves of immigration brought different versions of the game to the U.S.,” Smith adds. “The game most closely associated with 10-pin bowling (what most people in the U.S. play today) is a spinoff of skittles (English ninepins) and bowls (which is where we get the name), both originating from England.”

But multiple roots also fostered chaos and confusion. At the time, the sport was being played with different-sized balls on various surfaces. It was typically played with nine pins, but even that could vary. This inconsistency was curtailed in the early 1900s when the newly formed American Bowling Congress (the forerunner of today’s United States Bowling Congress) set regulations. Moving forward, it was played with 10 pins as well as a standard ball weight and size, and standard distance between the foul line and pins.

That’s when American ingenuity took over: In the early 20th century, the ball evolved from being made out of wood to rubber and then to plastic compounds. Pin boys, the young lads hired to reassemble knocked-over pins, were replaced by automated systems. Complementing these technological breakthroughs was the sport’s growing popularity among women and a larger variety of demographic groups.

What is now considered the golden age of American bowling kicked off after World War II, when the sport began to attract millions of new participants to the thousands of bowling alleys popping up across the nation. Television broadcasts made household names of top bowling stars like Don Carter, who was among the highest paid athletes in America at the time.

Smith says that America’s economic boom after World War II gave people “more time and money [to spend] on things they enjoyed, like bowling. People brought television into the home and bowling had a prime-time spot. … It was soon one of the most-watched sports on television. Bowling centers began opening up all over the U.S. and many ended up becoming de facto community centers for many cities.”

Bowling’s Changing Tides

A rendering of Sea Strike & Pub at Sea Island

Through the 1950s to the 1970s, bowling prospered as a weekend family outing, social league gathering and favorite teenage date spot. But it’s popularity began to wane. The number of nationwide bowling alleys peaked at approximately 12,000 in the 1960s, then it began to steadily decline. While the number of American bowlers increased by 10% between 1980 and the early 1990s, those participating in leagues plunged by 40%. One former Harvard professor of public policy, Robert D. Putnam, attributed the decline of bowling leagues to Americans having less interest in both social activity and community engagement.

Yet, around 10 years ago, bowling centers began to experiment and introduce innovations aimed at retaining old customers and attracting new business. In the old days, a neighborhood bowling alley featured the basics: lanes, and often a tavern and snack counter. The new breed is more likely to include a full-fledged sports bar or proper sit-down restaurant, video game arcade, party and meeting areas and maybe even a VIP lounge or private karaoke rooms. Weeknight bowling leagues are giving way to bowling during happy hour for young professionals and weekends are now dominated by the likes of midnight bowling, black-light bowling, disco bowling and other events aimed at teens and young adults.

Vacation destinations are also adding lanes to their menu of activities, such as Sea Strike & Pub at Sea Island, which is scheduled to open in fall 2019.

“We felt like it was a great idea to add an indoor, interactive, family-friendly sports pub venue at the Beach Club,” says Jonathan Jerusalmy, director of food and beverage at Sea Island. “We wanted a casual outlet for our guests and members to enjoy day and night. Whether you want to ‘spare’ yourself the sun for a few hours or watch your favorite sports team, this will be your favorite place to go. Sea Strike & Pub will be a comfortable and warm space with loads of wooden cabinetry and paneling, giving it a very Sea Island feel.”

The alley will feature six lanes, comfy cocktail lounge-style seating, a casual club atmosphere as well as a full-service bar and restaurant with a variety of food and beverage options. “The pub will feature creative gastropub-style food,” Jerusalmy notes. In addition to classics like fish and chips or burgers, the menu will feature offbeat items like the Black & Blue Salad—a classic wedge salad perched atop an 8-ounce steak burger patty.

Meanwhile, the bar will offer eight different draft beers and a craft cocktail menu that Jerusalmy describes as “approachable and charismatic. Sea Strike will also be the first [Sea Island] outlet to incorporate large-
format, punch-style cocktails such as the 10-Pin Tango, which combines tequila, mezcal and Aperol with passion fruit, lime, jalapeno and ginger beer.”

While we may no longer be in the golden age, professional and competitive bowling remains a big deal. To this day, the annual USBC Open Championships attract up to 75,000 participants from around the world who compete for as much as $7.5 million in prize money.

Cannizzaro attributes the sport’s revival to several factors: “Bowling is more visible on TV than it has been in a long time, social media has helped reach countless numbers of people, successful professional organizations are giving young bowlers something to strive for and a new vibe at bowling centers is making bowling incredibly fun, while giving families many options for things to do under one roof.”

Smith has her own theories about bowling’s rebound. For her, one of the strongest factors is that the sport is getting better at marketing itself. For example, The Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America sponsored a “Go Bowling!” entry that included a giant ball, pins and bowling shoes at the 2018 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

“Another factor I see is that a small but significant surge of … millennials are establishing new bowling centers that tend to bring in younger crowds. With these younger bowlers, league bowling isn’t as much of a priority … [as opposed to] having a special and unique experience,” Smith says. “I’m hopeful that this upward trend of young people’s interest in the sport continues and bowling will perpetually be a sport available to everyone to enjoy.”

Bowling Lingo

Frame: For each game, players get 10 frames with two throws per frame.

Gutter: the shallow channels on either side of the lane that catch wayward balls

Headpin: the bowling pin that stands foremost in the triangular arrangement

Hook: a ball that curves, or breaks sharply, toward the pins

Kegler: slang term for a bowler, which is derived from the old German term for the sport, “kegel”

Lane: a smooth playing suface (typically made of wood) that stretches 60 feet between the foul line and the center of the headpin

Perfect game: 12 consecutive strikes that make for a final score of 300

Spare: knocking down all 10 pins within a single frame

Split: a situation in which two or more pins on opposite sides of the lane remain after the first throw

Strike: knocking down all 10 pins with the first throw of a frame

The pit: the space at the end of each lane where the pins and ball wind up before re-racking

Turkey: three consecutive strikes


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