North American Bowling News

Long Time Ago, When Duckpins Was Fab

Early Duckpins in DC

A hundred years from now. A hundred years ago. Think about it. What will bowling be like, a hundred years from now? What was it like, a hundred years ago? While we can't even begin to guess what's to come in the future, we do have the good fortune to have writings from the past to look back on, allowing us to explore just how popular our glorious sport of duckpin bowling really was back in the World War I era.

The early days of duckpin bowling are very significant, from a historical point of view. This was an era in America when the average hourly wage was about 22 cents, only 8 percent of homes had a telephone, and with automobiles being limited, the maximum speed limit in most cities was 10 mph.

When this small ball bowling game was first introduced to the Washington area in 1903, duckpins was a big thing, and continued to be, as it became more available to the public. The National Duckpin Bowling Congress was formed in 1927, but prior to that, the game had reached astounding popularity.

Shown above, the front page of the Washington Star's Sunday sports section from December 31, 1917 is an extremely noteworthy example of just how big the duckpin game was in the nation's capital. News stories about baseball trades, boxing's Jack Johnson, golf, and horse racing were all pushed from the front page to the inner sections of the newspaper to make room for eye-catching, teaser photos about local duckpin bowling at first glance.

The Glory Years

Back in the "good 'ol days", times were tough, and so was the game of duckpins. If you averaged in the 100-110 range, you were considered as one of the upper echilon. While the averages may sound low, it must be remembered that all things are relative. The conveniences of today didn't exist back then--pins were wooden, and set up by pin boys, there were no raised gutters, no rubber side boards, and no air conditioned buildings.

Promoting through Challenge

Based on the feature article about duckpin bowling from the Sunday edition of the Washington Star, shown on the previous page, there were at least 3 major leagues going on in the District of Columbia--the National Capital League, the District League, and the Capital City League, all composed of the elite bowlers in Washington. One week prior to the featured article here, the Washington Star reported on the possibility of setting up a three-way contest with teams from the District League to crown a city-wide champion team. Upon reading about the proposed contest, one of the leading players in Washington, Roy Whitford, who was a member of another pro league in town, wrote a letter to the editor, suggesting having an additional 3 teams involved in the proposal, for a 6-sided championship match.

The Weston team, featured on the front page of the Sunday Star, was apparently overlooked in the proposal for the city championships, as they may not have been an established force in team competition. Perhaps Roy Whitford's rebuttal, which mentioned including the Westons since they were leading the District league, prompted the newspaper to feature the members of the Weston team on the front page. The headline refers to the Westons as the "top notch quint"--'quint' meaning '5 on a team'. There are indeed 6 bowlers in the photo of the Weston team, but this is due to the team roster including a permanent substitute, or alternate. Some teams actually had as many as 9 players on their roster.

It's interesting to note that the Washington Star placed such an emphasis on the local game of duckpins that it not only printed a photo of a team from a bowling league, dominating the space on the front page, but there were also individual photos of some of the premiere bowlers of other teams displayed, with nothing more than a name next to the picture identifying the players. You almost get the impression that these bowlers could have been 'household' names to the local public, and needed no other identification regarding their athletic background. The article on the proposed, city-wide championship match actually filled about a quarter of one of the inner pages of a quite 'busy' sports section. Undoubtedly, the sport commanded a great deal of attention in Washington.

Detailing the Difficulty

Just to elaborate with a few figures--this edition of the Star included league results as of about 30 games. Back then, 'fall' leagues customarily started their seasons in October. The major leagues traditionally traveled to more than one bowling center. As mentioned earlier, the scoring was no doubt extremely difficult, as there was only one bowler with an average higher than 110 in the highly sought-after 'District' league--John Vaeth at 111 for 24 games. The league leader in spares belonged to Karl Haneke at 76, with only 8 strikes in 30 games. High strikes was held by Arthur Urban with 19 for 31 games (59 spares). High game was 153, held by Earle Keeler, and Roy Whitford had the high set at 371. Another indication of how difficult the scoring must have been is the fact that among the 75+ bowlers listed in the article's team rosters, 111 was the highest average, in spite of the fact that some subs/alternates only had rolled 3 games, and none of them could muster an average higher than 109.

So, for all of us who struggle from time to time at the lanes, just remember, things could be worse--we could have been bowling a hundred years ago. And going into a slump under those tough conditions must have been extremely humbling, to say the least. Yes, the game was tough. But maybe that's what gave it appeal and popularity. Spectators came to watch the top bowlers competing with each other in league matches, enduring tough conditions--when a big game or triple-header was a real feat.

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