One of the best ways to describe duckpin bowling and the local culture it has spawned is by using a term coined by Lee Steelwright, who had just finished an afternoon practice round earlier this month at the Stoneleigh Lanes near the corner of York and Dunkirk roads.
When asked what drew him to play a version of bowling not widely known throughout the country but that still maintains a determined — if smaller than in the past — following in the area, the Idlewylde resident answered with a rhetorical question of his own.
“What’s more Baltimore-y than duckpins?” Steelwright queried.
Of course, it took more than a dose of hometown pride to convince the 71-year-old retired psychologist to take up knocking down duckpins 15 years ago, after he was invited to a bowling birthday party.
As Steelwright and other duckpin aficionados have discovered, duckpin balls are slightly bigger than a softball while tipping the scales between 3 and 4 pounds.
They have no finger holes, unlike their tenpin counterparts, which provide spaces for two fingers and a thumb and weigh in from 6 to 16 pounds.
Other differences between the bowling cousins are the pins and how many tries a bowler is allowed to knock them down.
Duckpins stand just over 9 inches high compared to the wider and taller (15 inches) tenpins, with three attempts per frame allotted to duckpin bowlers and just two for tenpins.
Even so, average scores are markedly lower in duckpins.
“Duckpins are so much more challenging than tenpins,” Steelwright said, noting his highest ever one-game total was a sparkling 159, well above his average of 100. “It’s baffling; that’s why I keep coming back to figure things out. One week I’ll score between 80 and 90, and then the next week I’ll go between 120 and 130.”
To that end, the graduate of Baltimore Poly and then-Towson State College said that he “periodically” practices at Stoneleigh, gaining more of an aerobic workout than he does in the weekly league of four-person teams.
Steelwright said that waiting his turn to bowl gives him the time to sip a beer or two during the activity.
Nevertheless, bowling at Stoneleigh Lanes, an iconic — if not the oldest — duckpin emporium in the Baltimore area, lends an air of authenticity to the sport and its roots.
Opened in 1946, the 16-lane operation has been in the same location ever since.
Current owner Ken Staub bought the business in 2004.
He purchased a similar facility in Glen Burnie four years later, and has owned one in Patterson Park for the past three years. The Glen Burnie Lanes remain open, but are no longer owed by Staub.
Duckpin bowling reportedly originated in Baltimore in 1900 and spread to other East Coast locales in the 1920s. Among the game’s enthusiasts was none other than Babe Ruth.
Given the logistics involved with duckpin bowling, Staub, 67, said he wouldn’t convert any of his Stoneleigh lanes to tenpins, even if he wanted to.
Stoneleigh’s Sherman pinsetters were assembled on sight, and the lanes would have to be shortened, he added.
In order to keep the the pinsetters operational, Staub said that he employs two full-time mechanics, and all seven employees are trained in how to break up pin jams and make minor repairs to the machines.
“We do maintenance on the machines in summer,” Staub said. “The real expensive gears won’t wear out if you take good care of them. In the winter, we just try to keep the machines running.”
Friday night typically bring a gathering of up to 100 people for karaoke, Staub said.
He added said that the entire center is rented between 15 and 20 times a year for private functions.
The scene at Stoneleigh is a throwback to another era, when duckpins centers were more commonplace.
Compared to, say, upscale Mustang Alley’s in Baltimore’s Little Italy neighborhood, Stoneleigh’s atmosphere makes for a no-frills experience.
Stoneleigh’s food offerings include burgers and pizza at modest prices.
No alcohol is sold there, but Stoneleigh does have a BYOB policy for beer and wine.
Lanes fetch $35 per hour for up to five people, shoes included, Monday through Thursday. Weekend prices jump to $40 and then drop to $29 on Sunday.
Stoneleigh remains one of the few all-duckpin bowling centers in the Baltimore area, joining the Parkville Bowling Lanes, Southwest Bowling Lanes in Linthicum, Patterson Park Bowling Center and Glen Burnie Lanes, according to Laura Bowden, executive director of the National Duckpin Bowling Congress.
She added that that out of the 3,000 NDBC-sanctioned duckpin bowlers in America, 1,274 of them are from the Baltimore area.
The rest are scattered among four centers in the Hagerstown area, two centers in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., a pair in Virginia, five in Rhode Island and six in Connecticut, Bowden said, noting that there is no way of knowing how many casual duckpin bowlers, who have never paid $15 to register with the NDBC, exist.
“There are individual locations of ducks in Milwaukee, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Seattle and other places,” she said, while pointing out that most of those might be using pins attached to strings instead of using freestanding pins.
“Stringed pins create a completely different type of reaction when hit by a ball, as you might expect,” Bowden added.
To Steelwright, the sport has a diversity component that he finds appealing.
“There are such a wide variety of people you meet here that you wouldn’t normally meet,” Steelwright said. “It’s a place where you put religion and politics aside to just bowl. And that makes it more fun.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Glen Burnie duckpin lanes had closed. Glen Burnie Lanes is still open, but no longer owned by Ken Staub.