Duckpins legends helped make Baltimore a capital of bowling

THE BALTIMORE SUN

One day last week, a sprightly lady with the name Toots Barger embroidered on her yellow bowling shirt took to the maple alleys at Pinland in Dundalk.

At age 82, the mighty Toots still rolls a respectable game, but nothing like she did in her prime.

"I can't bend my knees the way I once did. You just lose that edge," she said.

Bad knees is something of an understatement.

She had her left knee replaced 11 years ago. She had the same surgical procedure on the right knee last year.

"With the bad knees like I've got, I'm glad I'm bowlin' at all," she said.

The parts of Toots Barger that will never need replacing are her upbeat personality and absolutely unaffected manner.

In 1947, a writer described her as a "pleasing brunette, the mother of two children and the pride of the Stadium Alleys."

The old Stadium Alleys (Gorsuch Avenue and Old York Road) are closed.

Toots looks great. She has four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Born Mary Elizabeth Ryan, she grew up in Hamilton and began bowling shortly after her two children were born.

"An aunt named me when she first saw me, 'She's just a little tootsie,' " she said. The name stuck, like her high bowling average.

She took to the alleys in a housewives league at Seidel's in the 4400 block of Belair Road. By May 1942, she was getting to be a name in Baltimore, the champ of the Major Girls' Duckpin League. In rapid succession, she swept every duckpin award in the nation.

She loved the game and teaching bowlers. She eventually took over the Liberty Heights bowling lanes at Gwynn Oak Junction, which she operated for a number of years.

Today she lives in the Heartlands retirement community near Ellicott City. Mondays finds her at a morning league at Pinland in Dundalk. Fridays she bowls at Arbutus.

At the height of her game, she was the best known female athlete in Baltimore. Some would say that in the 1940s, she was the best known sports name of either gender in town. She will forever be The Queen of Duckpins.

One of the highlights of Baltimore's winter sports calendar in that era was a series of elimination matches sponsored by The Evening Sun.

"That was the toughest tournament," said Toots. "It was 30 games, five games at a time, over the Christmas holidays. It was highly competitive.

"After it was over there were no parties. Maybe a few of the girls would come back to my house," she said.

"You have no idea the impact of that contest on business. It got people thinking about bowling and brought them out so that I would have to hand out waiting slips," said Mike Latrenta, an ex-Evening Sun contestant and owner of Pinland.

The annual contest was staged at six different city bowling alleys. The idea was to keep the top-scorers (men and women) moving around so that no bowler developed an unfair advantage at any one lane.

Baltimore once had one of the highest number of bowling alleys per 1,000 residents. Long-time bowling writer Ralph Brackbill stated in 1939 that Baltimore "would appear to be distinctly more bowling-crazy than other pin centers." Most of Baltimore's lanes were located in old neighborhood shopping districts.

A few months ago, the Baltimore Duckpin Bowlers Association began a hall of fame. Toots Barger was, of course, among its first inductees.

Others included Audrey "Sis" Atkinson, Alva Brown, Carole Gittings, Pat Malthan, Anita Rothman, Ethel Dize, Jean Stewart and Cliff Kidd.

Deceased honorees were Jimmy Dietsch, Ardrey Mullaney, Dave Volk and Lola Shanahan.

Cliff Kidd, the No. 1 ranking duckpin bowler in the country in the 1944-1945 season, started playing the game on a crutch.

"It was 1933 and I had broken a leg at Carroll Park." he said of the time in his life when he lived on Scott Street in Southwest Baltimore.

"I wandered into Lithuanian Hall. It had six lanes. I bowled my first game on one crutch. I was captivated," he said.

He remained at Lithuanian Hall for a few years, then got into a league at the Regent lanes in the 400 block of N. Eutaw St. He shifted to the huge Recreation Center on Howard Street, then went to Waverly's Stadium Lanes, where he met Toots Barger.

He had another 7 1/2 years at Monument Street's mighty Spillway before going out on his own and buying the downtown Plaza on West Lexington Street.

From 1952 to 1981 he owned the Southway, a South Baltimore institution a flight above a busy grocery store at South Charles and Hamburg streets.

"It was neighborhood business, just walk-in, 26 lanes on the second and third floors," he said.

It was here that the sportswriters began to call him the "Southway screwball specialist." Throughout his career he was also murder on the single-standing-pin shot.

He liked teaching children to bowl and thought the scoring would help with their arithmetic.

Today he and his wife live on Rosalie Avenue in Northeast Baltimore. And, at 78, he still bowls -- at the Parkville Lanes.

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