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Retro Baltimore: ‘Toots’ Barger was the Babe Ruth of duckpin bowling

Elizabeth "Toots" Barger, 1954.
Elizabeth "Toots" Barger, 1954. (DIPAOLA/Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

Her name was Toots and she was queen of the ball. The bowling ball, that is.

For parts of three decades, Elizabeth “Toots” Barger reigned over Baltimore’s duckpin world in the heyday of the sport, when neighborhood bowling alleys were social magnets and people flocked to play the small-ball game which — legend has it — started here.

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Seventy years ago, Barger was a national champion, a local idol and a mentor to female athletes who had few means to brandish their talents. Thirteen times between 1947 and 1965 she was named the No. 1 women’s duckpin bowler in the nation. She set scads of world records, and both her ball and a pair of her shoes sit in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.

Barger was a terror in the annual Baltimore Evening Sun tournament, a grueling 30-game winter classic that was, perhaps, the country’s most prestigious duckpin event. She won it 12 times in 22 tries — twice by a single pin — and often roared back on the sixth and final day with a rousing finish as if to say, it’s been fun, now eat my dust.

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Elizabeth "Toots" Barger, 1953.
Elizabeth "Toots" Barger, 1953. (MALASHUK/Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

The Sun called her “duckpin bowling’s equivalent of Babe Ruth.” Like him, Barger was a native. She attended Eastern High, married a plumber, settled in a rowhouse in Northeast Baltimore’s Hamilton and had two kids. At age 25, she discovered the game that would earn her acclaim.

Barger won her first Evening Sun tourney in 1943 with a white-knuckle finish that would mark her career. In the final game, she led by just five pins with five frames to go, exciting the crowd at the Harford Bowling Center.

“Rooters were in a frenzy,” The Evening Sun reported. “Piled four deep in standing room behind the bleacher seats, clinging to vantage points on ledges, standing precariously on tiptoes on upended soft drink cases, they cheered both girls as the anticipated head-to-head duel came to life.”

Unfazed, Barger reeled off three straight spares to win the title in world-record fashion (3,697). Victory earned her a $100 war bond and nine pairs of nylon stockings. Runner-up the next two years, she won The Evening Sun classic again in 1946, the first of six in a row.

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“Her maddening consistency, accuracy and nerves of steel make her nearly unbeatable,” The Evening Sun reported. In fact, Barger’s league average for 1947 — a lofty 119 — topped that of all but 150 of the estimated 60,000 men who bowled in Baltimore.

One year later, in her favorite tourney, she scored a one-pin victory over rival Ethel Dize, finishing with four consecutive marks (spare-strike-spare-strike) to win, 3,655 to 3,654. In 1949, before an overflow crowd at the Harford Bowling Center that left “hundreds of fans stranded on the sidewalks outside,” Barger smashed four world records.

In 1951, WMAR-TV began broadcasting the finals and the champ put on a show, rolling a 720 set, including games of 177 and 161, to win by a record 121 pins.

Quiet and modest, Barger epitomized her hometown. She made her own bowling outfits and sewed “Toots” on the blouses. She juggled bowling with child-rearing and a secretarial job at the Stadium Lanes where, on her lunch break, she taught women the craft of the sport, or challenged men to a quick game or two.

Just once, it appears, did she ever show emotion: after the championship game of the 1953 Evening Sun classic. Trailing a determined Ruth Kratz by nine pins in the final frame, Barger chopped on her first two balls, needing the 3-6-9-10 for the win. She nailed it on a dramatic flyback (rebounding pin), and promptly burst into tears.

She retired in 1961 after capturing her last Evening Sun event. Barger bowed out in form. Behind all the way, Barger trailed by 22 pins entering the last game before picking up six straight marks, including a doubleheader strike, for a lusty 165. The crown was hers, The Sun confirmed: “When the pressure became greatest, so did Toots.”

Elizabeth "Toots" Barger, 1956.
Elizabeth "Toots" Barger, 1956. (Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

As a send-off, she received a bracelet with 12 charms, one for each tourney win.

Barger continued to bowl. She bought several lanes, taught kids the ropes and moved first to Pasadena, then Frederick where she died in 1998 at age 85. In her obituary, The Sun wrote:

“Before Cal Ripken, before Brooks Robinson, even before Johnny Unitas, there was Toots Barger — a superstar in a sport that is uniquely Baltimore.”

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