In Maryland, duckpins mean super bowling Sport: Baltimore just loves its duckpin bowling, with 9-inch pins and little balls. Many players say it's more challenging than the tenpin game.


In yesterday's Live section, the byline was inadvertently left off the cover story about duckpin bowling. The article was by Sandra Crockett.

The Sun regrets the error.

It's a weeknight in Baltimore, and a cold wind is blowing as the temperatures dip below the freezing mark. It's only 8 p.m., but darkness has already descended, and a few hardy young people walk the streets. What's a person -- someone searching for some good, clean fun to break up the work week -- to do?

Thousands of people in Maryland already know the answer to that question is found in nine-inch pins and a ball with no holes in it. Duckpins, that is. Duckpin bowling was invented in Baltimore, where it remains a popular sport with many fans.

It all began in 1904, according to a 1938 story from The Sun called "The Birth of Duckpins." There was a bowling alley on North Howard Street owned by Wilbert Robinson and John J. McGraw. Both men had a connection to baseball. Robinson was a former catcher for the Baltimore Orioles, and McGraw had played for the Orioles and later became a legendary manager of the New York Giants.

Robinson took a bunch of "battered up tenpins" and had them whittled down to a smaller size. The small bowling balls were left over from old ninepin games. According to the story, Robinson named the game "duckpins" because the pins' small, squat shapes reminded him of ducks.

The game consists of 10 frames, but a bowler gets to roll three balls in each frame instead of two.

It was, the story goes, a success from the start.

Since 1928, the National Duckpin Bowling Congress has awarded trophies to its highest-ranked female and male bowlers. The sport has its own newsletter, The Duckpin News, published for the Duckpin Bowling Proprietors of America.

Although duckpin bowling, like a lot of activities, is competing these days with videos and computers for the attention of young people, it remains popular. Almost any day of the week, spirited games of duckpin bowling are going on all around town.

Leagues play

"This is Duckpin Country!" proclaims a huge sign on the wall of Southway Bowling Center, at Charles and Hamburg streets. Members of one league, colleagues from the Internal Revenue Service, are finishing up their games. Players in another league, a mixed group of men and women who don't work together, are coming in to prepare for their games.

Judy Melton, owner of the Garden Restaurant and Lounge in South Baltimore, takes out her bowling ball and throws a few practice rolls down the lane. The ball, which does not have holes to stick your fingers in, careens down the middle of the lane exactly as it should. Melton gives a thumbs-up and receives a pat on the back from a fellow duckpin bowler.

"I've been duckpin bowling for about six years now," says Melton. It was a doctor who actually suggested that Melton give the sport a whirl.

"I had a back operation, and he said it would be good exercise," she says. Melton believes her doctor was correct. Now she bowls for the fun of it as well as for the exercise.

"It is fun. You're out here and get to meet other people," she says. "It's also very challenging."

Duckpin bowlers say the game is more of a challenge because the balls are smaller. The larger 16-pound bowling balls used in tenpin games have the advantage of weight, which can help in aim and knocking over all the pins.

Barry Bruce, a machinist, explains the difference that weight makes in the game. "This is more of a game of spares than strikes," he says.

Bruce, who lives in South Baltimore, should be an expert at the game, but he shrugs at the question. It's more a matter of fun for him, although he has had plenty of practice over the years.

"I've been doing this since I was knee high to a Bud can," he says, smiling. Bruce, 45, says he was actually in the third grade when he first started duckpin bowling and knew the game was something he would enjoy for many years.

"You get to go out and compete with other people," he says. "You don't have to be a great athlete. Anyone can duckpin."

Champion bowler

Of course, there are duckpin bowlers who exhibit great athletic skills when it comes to the sport.

Alva Brown is one of them. The 75-year-old Brown is a Hall of Fame bowler who won championships in the 1950s and 1960s. She is the manager of Southway Bowling Center these days.

"This is my second home," she says, glancing around her. "Actually, my husband says this is my first home!"

Although duckpin bowling is played across the country and in some other countries as well, it is most popular in Northeast states. Brown has seen her share of surprised looks from some people who had never heard of it.

"Sometimes the tenpin bowlers who are from out of town stop in here. They don't know it's duckpin bowling. They come here and say, 'What are those things?' " laughs Brown, who retains a twinkle in her eye when she talks about her favorite game. "I tell them they are little pins, and they say, 'No!' But then they have fun."

Brown reluctantly had to give up bowling four years ago because she suffers from arthritis. She still enjoys traveling around with a league, however, to help keep score and lend support.

"This game is so much harder and frustrating," she says. "But at the same time, it's fun."


For more information about duckpin bowling or where to play, try your local bowling alley or these telephone numbers:

National Duckpin Bowling Congress: (410) 636-2695

The National Duckpin Youth Association: (410) 254-3666

The Duckpin News: (410) 356-0936

Pub Date: 2/06/97

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad