Small pins, big hopes: With duckpin bowling, longstanding Baltimore tradition hopes for a resurgence

Duckpin bowling ain't what it used to be. But there are signs of life for this old Baltimore tradition.

Thomas Harvey stared straight ahead for a moment, then took a few strides, cocked his arm back and, with a swift underarm motion, heaved a round, three-pound missile down the lane with all his might.

The ball hit the head pin just slightly off-center, and carnage ensued. Within moments, all 10 pins were prone. Among Harvey and his friends, there was much rejoicing.

"It feels great when you get a good one," Harvey said, smiling and still enjoying the adrenaline rush that can only come with duckpin glory. "I love it."

True, duckpin bowling ain't what it used to be. Thirty years ago, there were hundreds of lanes scattered along the East Coast, scores right here in the Baltimore area. Duckpin bowling, with smaller pins and balls than the more traditional tenpins, was something of a regional obsession, played by thousands who flocked to their neighborhood lanes at seemingly every free moment. Today, all but a handful of those lanes are gone, and the number of professional duckpin bowlers is down by more than 90 percent, to about 3,500.

But there are signs of life in duckpin land. The 90-year-old Patterson Bowling Center in Baltimore is set to undergo some $250,000 in renovations, reopening the snack bar and adding other improvements. Little Italy's Mustang Alley's, which includes four duckpin lanes among its 12 lanes, has added a new wrinkle: upscale dining. And one enthusiast is hoping to revive a long-abandoned basement duckpin alley in Hampden, complete with live entertainment, a restaurant and bar.

If Harvey is part of a vanishing breed, he wasn't letting on. The 16-year-old Edgemere resident loves duckpin bowling — "It's a lot harder than tenpins," he said, sounding a refrain most of his fellow duckpin partisans repeat — and judging by the full house on hand for tournament play at Linthicum's AMF Southwest Lanes on a recent Sunday afternoon, he's far from alone.

"This becomes your lifestyle, the hub of your social lives," said Erik Loteczka, 31, who'd come down from Connecticut for the tournament and has been bowling ducks since he was 4 years old. "You're looking at a family of several hundred people here, where just about everybody knows everybody. I love this."

Duckpins remains a regional sport, most popular along the East Coast, primarily from New England to Virginia. And for nearly a century, Baltimore has stood proudly as the center of the duckpin universe.

Popular legend says its was born here, when future Baseball Hall of Famers John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson of the turn-of-the-century Orioles operated a bowling alley where they shaved their broken pins down to the point in which smaller balls were called for — and a whole new sport was born. Recent research suggests duckpin bowling predates the two men's stay in Baltimore, but still, the legend persists.

Regardless, duckpins' popularity in these parts is a matter of record. For years, The Evening Sun sponsored prestigious duckpin tournaments. Among the sports' most storied figures was Elizabeth "Toots" Barger, who won the Evening Sun tournament 12 times in 22 years and was inducted into the Maryland Athletic Hall of Fame in 1961.

And lanes were everywhere.

"You could drive around the Baltimore Beltway and, almost every exit, within a mile, there was a duckpin center that was owned by Fair Lanes," said Stan Kellum, executive director of the 90-year-old National Duckpin Bowling Congress. Fair Lanes was bought out by AMF in the 1990s, and many of the centers have since closed, including Westview, Joppa, Perring Parkway and Eastpoint. Five AMF lanes in the Baltimore area still offer duckpin bowling: Southwest (Linthicum), Dundalk, Towson, Pikesville and Timonium.

But if Lou Catelli has his way, there could be a new duckpin center in town. The Hampden resident, whose real name is Will Bauer, hopes to renovate and reopen an old alley in the basement of the shuttered David's on The Avenue, at 914 W. 36th St.

"It was always like a myth — nobody had seen it but everybody was talking about it," said Catelli, who first saw the space about five years ago. "Ever since then it's been one of my dream projects."

He said he's been in negotiations to lease the space for several years, and "it's not a done deal." Two Farms Inc. — the parent company of Royal Farms — owns the building.

"We don't currently have any plans for the building," Royal Farms spokeswoman Brittany Eldredge said. "We would welcome an owner who would like to come in do a restaurant or bowling alley or both in the space and restore it."

For Catelli, it's an opportunity to revive a nostalgic pastime — one his family and friends were very involved in when he was growing up in Highlandtown.

"The thrill is still there but there's not as much opportunity to do it," Catelli said.

The reasons behind duckpins' decline in popularity are many, and not always easy to pin down. For one thing, the electric pin setters that keep the games going haven't been manufactured for decades; anyone who wants to open a new bowling center has to cannibalize parts from old machines. (The space Catelli is looking at was never mechanized, he said, so he plans to have employees do the pin-setting manually.)

"If there were still machines being made, it would have expanded," said Ken Staub, owner of Glen Burnie Bowl, Baltimore's Patterson Bowling Center and Towson's Stoneleigh Lanes. Plus, he noted, only one company still makes the pins, and they only lease them.

Still, those who love duckpins continue to swear by them. They note that both the old and young can play — as opposed to the more traditional tenpins, where balls that start at eight pounds are simply too heavy for some people. They boast that the game is more difficult, and thus takes more skill. No one, for instance, has ever bowled a perfect game — 12 strikes in a row for a score of 300 — in duckpins, while plenty of people have done so in tenpins.

"It's harder to get the pins down," said Diana Danaher, 60, who was bowling at Stoneleigh on a recent Saturday along with her husband, Tim, who was celebrating his 63rd birthday with a couple of games. "Plus the little balls, they're not as heavy."

And while the crowds may not be pouring into the duckpin alleys like they used to, operators remain optimistic.

"We're doing more," says Ann Miller, 45, general manager of Southwest Lanes, who started working at the old Fair Lanes Westview when she was 17. "We get a lot of bowlers coming in here looking for duckpins, for the kids. We've got leagues that start as young as 2 years old, and I've got one lady bowling in a league who is 95. ...

"As long as the equipment holds out, we'll be OK."

Baltimore Sun reporter Sarah Meehan contributed to this article.

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