New York City is the birthplace of modern tenpin bowling (Knickerbockers Alley, opened in 1840, boasted the country’s first indoor lane), and today, the city has many bowling alleys with a wide variety of ambiance. If you are looking for the feel of a Middle American lanes ‘n’ games, a place like Brooklyn’s Maple Lanes does the trick. If you prefer to sip martinis with celebrities while you roll and a velvet rope and bouncer to keep the riffraff out, there’s Bowlmor in the East Village. And if you want the hipster version of a throwback bowling alley, replete with craft beer and mid-century kitsch, Williamsburg offers two options – The Gutter and Brooklyn Bowl.
Despite the divergence in styles, all of them were preceded by various types of nine-pin bowling dating back centuries, including skittles and the German game kegel. Due to its connections to gambling, nine-pin was banned in many places in the nineteenth century; according to legend, the tenth pin was added to circumvent this ban, and modern bowling was born. Bowling was particularly popular among German immigrants in New York in the 19th century, and Otto Huber – who's Brooklyn brewery is featured on our Brewed in Brooklyn tour – was a member of the Columbus Bowling Club (he, along with fellow brewer Ferdinand Muench, also ecourged women to bowl, which they did). His scores were frequently recorded in the local paper, and his daughter Emily was married to the club's president, Frank Obernier, in 1891. Germans built alleys across the city, including Joe Heiser's tenpin alley, located at 136 Broadway in Williamsburg, and you can still see an advertisement in the Bronx for Scheutzen Park Hall, which was located on 3rd Avenue and 165th Street in Manhattan and featured an alley and indoor shooting range.
At first glance, the small balls of candlepin and duckpin seem much easier to handle, and it may be an ideal alternative for kids to the gargantuan balls of regular tenpin. Another difference from big ball is that in both varieties, you get three rolls per frame, and dead pins are not cleared between rolls, allowing for ricochets and making it easier to pick up 7-10 splits. But don’t be deceived – candlepin and duckpin are devilishly hard, and a seasoned bowler can be easily embarrassed by the elusive spares, impossible strikes, and scores commonly in Barack Obama territory. No one has ever scored a 300 in either game, and scores above 130 – middling at best in tenpin – are very respectable.
Much like the Mason-Dixon Line, New England is divided between candlepin country, in northern states like Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and the Canadian Maritime Provinces, and duckpin’s domain, in Connecticut and Rhode Island. Massachusetts is divided territory, the birthplace of both styles, but candlepin holds a distinct advantage (34 alleys versus only 4 for duckpin today); up until 2009, the sport was regularly televised on local stations. Candlepin was born in 1880 in Worcester, Massachusetts, and for whatever reason, it migrated north from there. The earliest records of a duckpin game date to 1894 in Lowell, but the game has spread more widely, with lanes as far away as Indiana and North Carolina. There are more than a dozen duckpin lanes in Connecticut (check out this New York Times article about duckpin in the state), but the easiest place to find an alley is actually in Maryland. Rather than diffusing outward from New England, the game leaped to Baltimore by being popularized by Orioles players and Baseball Hall of Famers John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson, who opened an alley in the city in 1900. The game took off from there, and Baltimore native Babe Ruth was also an avid duckpin roller. Candlepin earned its name due to the skinny pins resembling candles, but duckpin supposedly was named by McGraw and Robinson because of their fondness for duck hunting – the way the smaller pins scattered when struck resembled a flock off ducks flying off when a shot is fired.
Johnson’s is certainly showing its age. Without the need to clear downed pins, the pin-setting machines for duckpin bowling are simpler than their tenpin counterparts, and you won’t find any computerized scoring or cheesy computer animations cheering you on. The machines at Johnson’s are likely as old as the alley, opened in 1955, and they sometimes wobble when setting the pins, knocking down a few that you can add to your score. This aging equipment has, unfortunately, become nearly impossible to replace, as AMF, the dominant bowling equipment manufacturer, has discontinued its duckpin equipment (a move made when the company was owned by Goldman Sachs, so that’s another reason to hate them). Alleys are forced to refurbish their old equipment or cannibalize it from competitors that have closed as the sport declines. It seems only a matter of time before it dwindles away, but in the meantime, the remaining players will see their scores improve as the creaking equipment knocks over more and more pins. Despite my duckpin pedigree, and all the free pins, Cindy and I split our two games. The score sheet shows we could only muster three spares in our 40 combined frames, and three times we managed to knock down all ten pins on three rolls (called a 10-box, not a spare).
I certainly need some more practice, and I hope to visit more alleys before they all disappear, and maybe next time I won't embarrass myself in front of the old-timers. The closest alley to New York is in Stratford, Connecticut, while you will have to venture further to find a candlepin lane (check here and here for listings of alleys with the respective styles). You may think the idea of heading out of the city on a summer day in order to go to a dreary, windowless bowling alley sounds crazy, but these alleys are a unique New England tradition, and they may not be around for much longer.
For questions or comments about this blog post, please contact Andrew Gustafson (firstname.lastname@example.org). Thanks to Nick Capodice (email@example.com) for contributing research and to Cindy VandenBosch (firstname.lastname@example.org) for going bowling with me.