Elizabeth "Toots" Barger, the legendary duckpin bowler who won every local tournament championship, every major duckpin tournament in the nation and held every world record in a career that spanned nearly a quarter of a century, died yesterday of cancer at the Edenton Retirement Center in Frederick. She was 85 and formerly lived in Pasadena.
Mrs. Barger, who in 1961 became the second woman to be inducted into the Maryland Athletic Hall of Fame, and the first female bowler, was nicknamed "Tootsie" by an aunt. She later shortened it to "Toots" and always wore it embroidered on her colorful bowling shirts.
While many of her records were eventually broken because of improved lane conditions, her accomplishments remain staggering.
She began her career at Seidel's in the 4400 block of Belair Road in 1939, when she pinch hit in her cousin's duckpin league and rolled a 107 average her first time out.
By the time she retired in 1961, she had been rated No. 1 in the country 13 times. She won the prestigious Evening Sun tournament 12 times in 22 years, including six straight from 1946 to 1951.
Called the "Queen of the Duckpins," she won the U.S. Classic three times and the Dixie Classic seven times. It was said her very presence in a duckpin alley shook the composure of the women who competed against her.
In her prime, the striking brunette elegantly hurled the 3-pound, 10-ounce balls with deadly precision at the 12-inch-high pins and came up averaging 128 per game.
She attributed her success not to speed but to accuracy, and despite the passing of the years, her average was only off by nine pins by the 1980s.
In a 1950 newspaper interview, she explained her strategy: "I just shoot for 600 each time out, because I know, by keeping a 120 per game average, that will keep me near the top. Anything over 600 per set is just pure velvet."
When she retired, The Evening Sun said, "Above all, it was an era of sheer brillance in the clutch, when her competitive spirit more than anything else, provided the decisive ingredient in the capture of her innumerable titles. Far more often than not she came from behind, leaving the feeling that she never was out of contention until the last ball was rolled."
"She had all of the physical attributes. She was strong, accurate and had the determination to win," said Cliff Kidd, 82, who was the No. 1 duckpin bowler in the country in the 1944-1945 season and former owner of Southway, a South Baltimore duckpin institution.
"She had a straightforward approach and dropped the ball four or five feet past the foul line. She was very, very accurate," said Mr. Kidd, a Northeast Baltimore resident, who still bowls with a senior citizen duckpin league.
Steve Litrenta, vice president of Pinland Bowling Lanes, is the son of Mike Litrenta, a championship duckpin bowler and contemporary of Mrs. Barger's. Since 1951, the elder Mr. Litrenta has owned the Dundalk alley, where she bowled with day leagues two or three times a week until several years ago.
"My father always said she was the 'greatest female bowler that ever lived.' He also admired her temperament and the way she kept her cool and stayed in the game," said the son.
For nearly three decades, Pinland has been the site of the Barger Open each November.
"She dominated her sport and established records in bowling that no other woman approached," said John F. Steadman, Sun sports columnist, who recalled her as being "extremely modest" and "outgoing."
"She was a phenomenal lady who seemed to be around the game forever," said Lance O'Hara, co-owner with his father of Seidel's. "While she excelled at it, it always at heart remained a game for her."
Mr. O'Hara credits her for popularizing duckpin bowling during the 1940s and 1950s. Legend claims that the game, played with smaller than standard balls and pins, was invented in Baltimore.
During those years, Baltimore was said to have had the highest number of bowling alleys per 1,000 residents. Alleys were scattered across the city in basements, neighborhood churches, above shops and movie theaters. Television increased the game's popularity as local tournaments were often broadcast live.
A charter member of the national Duckpin Hall of Fame and a member of the National Duckpin Youth Association and Baltimore's Bowling Proprietors Association, Mrs. Barger taught bowling for years to both children and adults. At one time, she owned and operated the Liberty Heights Bowling Academy.
She donated a signed bowling ball with "Toots" on the top and a pair of her bowling shoes to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, where they are on display.
She had her first knee replacement in 1984 and after having the other knee knee replaced in 1994, she finally stopped bowling in 1995.
She explained in an interview with The Evening Sun at the time, "I can't bend my knees the way I once did. You just lose that edge."
Born Mary Elizabeth Ryan and reared in Hamilton, she was a 1931 graduate of Eastern High School. She was married in the late 1930s to Ernest C. Barger Sr., who died in 1989.
Services for Mrs. Barger will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday at Keeney & Basford Funeral Home, 106 E. Church St., Frederick.
She is survived by a son, Ernest C. Barger Jr. of La Jolla, Calif.; a daughter, Mary Jane Joyce of Derwood, Montgomery County; four grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
Pub Date: 9/29/98