Automatic pinsetters always on standby


It all started with a pot game.

A pot game? After the leagues ended, a few diehard duckpin bowlers would gather under the "no gambling" sign and place wagers to settle who was the best bowler that night.

In a New England duckpin center many years ago, Ken Sherman was engaged in such an endeavor when the pin boy, who was responsible for setting up the pins, said he had something else to do and walked out in the middle of the game.

Sherman vowed that he wouldn't let a pin boy ruin his game ever again.

The pit behind the pin deck was deeper than it is now, and under the pin deck was a pedal that raised a steel pin at each pin position on the deck.

The pin boy picked up the duckpins and placed the hole in the bottom of the pin over the steel pin protruding from the deck. He took his foot off the pedal and let the steel pins drop out of the duckpins. He cleared the dead wood away and returned the bowling balls. And he did it a lot faster than the automatic pinsetter.

The pin boy didn't become obsolete because he was slow. He became a thing of the past because a machine couldn't walk out in the middle of a pot game.

Sherman was a submarine designer by trade, and his view was that if he could design submarines, he could build a mechanical pinsetter for duckpins.

He did, pin boys disappeared and the duckpin game became what it is today.

Bob O'Hara was part of that revolution, and when it was over he settled in Baltimore. He's still here, partners with his son, Lance, in one of the oldest duckpin centers in the area, Seidel's.

"When my dad was discharged from the Air Force he returned to Massachusetts," Lance O'Hara said. "Talking about civilian life and where to work with friends, one of them mentioned that a guy named Ken Sherman was looking for people to install automatic pinsetters, whatever they were."

That was the beginning of an odyssey.

Bob O'Hara traveled up and down the East Coast installing the Sherman automatic pinsetters, spending 30 days at each location to train the mechanics that were needed in each center and to trouble-shoot the new machines.

One of those centers was Seidel's. Built in 1927-28, the 14-lane two-story building became a mecca for duckpin bowlers. It was intended to rise an additional three stories, but those plans were cut short by the Depression.

Margaret Seidel, daughter of the founder, married John Greenwald and took over the business in the mid-1940s.

She was a fixture in the center for the next 20 years until a heart attack struck while she was working behind the snack counter.

During many of those years, Bob O'Hara was in Baltimore for the Sherman company and became friends with Greenie and his wife. O'Hara's plans to return to New England and become a Massachusetts state trooper ended when one of the pinsetters he was servicing took off his right index digit, the trigger finger.

Although always around duckpin centers in the Baltimore area in some capacity, O'Hara, newly married to Norma, a Baltimorean, and looking for a secure position, joined the Baltimore Fire Department in 1959.

He continued to spend a lot of his time around the duckpin centers, so he was in the right place at the right time in 1968 when the Greenwalds' daughter, Cathy, wanted to make a change.

Taking over the daily operation of Seidel's when her mother died, Cathy, after two years, decided that it was not the life she wanted.

"So she asked my dad if he wanted to buy it," Lance O'Hara said. "And Dad found a partner, Glenn Berry, and in 1968 bought Seidel's."

It operated that way until Lance entered the picture in 1984. Lance lives with his wife, Terri, and three children, John, 12, Kayte, 7, and Brian, 5, in Overlea, a few miles north of Seidel's.

"I've been around duckpins all my life," Lance said. "It was natural for me to buy out Dad's partner and join him in the day-to-day operation of the center."

Almost 70 years ago a duckpin center called Seidel's was built on Bel Air Road. Today Seidel's is still open for business.

And you can bet that the automatic pinsetters work just fine.

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