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Duckpins: When baseball greats Wilbert Robinson and John McGraw drew up a perfect game

Duckpin bowling began in the back room of a smoke-filled 19th century saloon on Howard Street owned by two Orioles bound for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Wilbert Robinson and John McGraw ran the place, dubbed “The Diamond,” bought with their earnings from the three National League championships Baltimore won from 1894 to 1896. Gentlemen flocked there to drink beer, smoke cigars, play billiards and feast on crab cakes, boiled eggs and pickled onions beneath photographs of boxing greats and ballplayers on the walls.

In 1898, the owners added bowling — four tenpin lanes that drew crowds in winter but not during the city’s stifling summers. The balls were heavy; the alleys, hot. So McGraw and Robinson put their heads together — both became pennant-winning big league managers — and invented the game of duckpins.

They took some scarred maple tenpins to John Dittmar, a woodworker on Pratt Street, who shaved them into smaller ones. They acquired smaller, lighter balls. And they built four more alleys on the second floor of their brick saloon at 519 Howard St.

What would they call the sport? An outdoorsman, Robinson liked to hunt waterfowl on the Chesapeake Bay. On one trip, he noticed something when he fired at a flock.

“The ducks fly off in every direction, just like our little bowling pins when somebody manages to hit them right,” Robinson said. The name stuck. The game thrived.

In 1902, McGraw left to manage the New York Giants. Robinson sold The Diamond in 1913 to become boss of the Brooklyn Robins (later Dodgers). But they left their mark on bowling as well.

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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