Duckpin bowling in April 1959 in Baltimore.
Duckpin bowling in April 1959 in Baltimore. (Baltimore Sun file photo)

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.

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

Thirty years ago, there were hundreds of duckpin bowling lanes scattered along the East Coast, scores right here in the Baltimore area. The sport was something of a Baltimore obsession. Today, all but a handful of those lanes are gone. But there are signs of life in duckpin land — including renovations to Baltimore's Patterson Bowling Center, and hopes for a new duckpin alley/bar in a Hampden basement.

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.