- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 4, 2002

Duckpin bowling.

Let's face it, the words themselves sound funny.

You can say baseball, football, basketball, golf, archery, whatever and get no reaction. But duckpin bowling? That always will get a rise out of people.

Some think it went the way of vaudeville, a nostalgic but faded characteristic of the Baltimore-Washington region, reflecting a simpler time. But duckpin bowling remains alive, if not well, and may have hung on long enough to stage a retro comeback thanks to the efforts of a former District disc jockey with a love for machines and the game.

The National Duckpin Bowling Congress is holding its annual convention this weekend in Linthicum, Md. They are celebrating the 75th anniversary of the organization and the 100th year of duckpin bowling which uses smaller balls and smaller pins, with three rolls a frame instead of two although it may actually be the 101st or 102nd year of the game, depending on which version of history you choose to believe.

The game has its roots in the national pastime. The story goes that around the summer of 1900, bowlers at Diamond Alleys in Baltimore suggested the idea of cutting the pins down to the size of the practice balls they used during the summer, which were smaller than their typical tenpin balls. The manager of the lanes, John Van Zant, tried it, and it went over well. When the owners of the alley baseball managers John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson saw the pins flying around, they commented that it looked like a flock of flying ducks.

Duckpinners are celebrating that historic moment. "Some people say it started in 1901, others say 1902, but we know it's been around for 100 years and we haven't celebrated it yet, so we're doing it now," said Marge Chaney, executive director of the Congress.

Whether it is around for another 100 years may depend on the success of former WPGC disc jockey Rob Norton, who now owns and operates a radio station in Iowa. Norton and his partner, Gerald Seger, are developing a prototype for the first duckpin pinsetter machine to be built in at least 35 years.

"I'm the eternal optimist," Chaney said. "I think with this new pinsetter the sport will come back."

If bowling has suffered a decline over the past 30 years or so, duckpin bowling has been hit even harder since it was unique to particular regions, such as Baltimore-Washington and New England. It had grown to about 300,000 bowlers by 1967, and around here there were more duckpin lanes than tenpin. But it has dropped off significantly, and some people even act surprised there are places to duckpin bowl.

Because of that, no one has manufactured any new pinsetting machines. "The only ones are the old reconditioned ones," Chaney said. "We have gotten a number of calls over the past year from people interested in putting duckpin lanes in, but anyone who wanted to open a duckpin center had to find used machines and then deal with trying to find used parts, which can be tough. It's been a turnoff because no one wants to put money into something so old."

Enter Norton, who grew up in the Washington area with a passion for duckpin bowling and tinkering with machines. "I used to bowl at the Kenwood Country Club at the duckpin lanes there," he said. "I saw my first pinsetter in 1958 and fell in love with the machines. I tried to build a pinsetter in my garage when I was a kid."

Norton, who worked as a young boy on the machines at Bowl America in Bethesda, rekindled his interest in duckpin bowling several years ago after speaking to Chaney about the woes of the game. "This is a labor of love," he said. Norton said they are hoping to have the prototype finished by Oct. 14 the birthday of he and his partner, Gerald and have a place to test it by February or March. If all goes well, they hope to have the machine for sale at next year's Bowl Expo equipment show.

The drawings, photos and talk by Norton were the hit of the duckpin bowling congress meeting. It gave Scott Wolgamuth reason for hope. "This prototype makes the future look bright," said Wolgamuth, a College Park native who became part of the sport's history last night when he was inducted into the National Duckpin Bowling Congress Hall of Fame.

Wolgamuth, 44, who once bowled a 594 set and a 246 game, has won six pro titles on the duckpin tour, including the November 2000 masters tournament at AMF in College Park, and has been on the pro tour for 24 years. "When I was a little boy my parents would take me with them when they bowled at Bowl America in Silver Spring," Wolgamuth said. "Upstairs was the tenpin, and downstairs were the duckpins. They went upstairs, and I would go downstairs. I was just about 6 years old, and I could handle the duckpin balls."

Chaney said they are hoping to build up their youth interest by working with schools and putting on more tournaments. The first national youth invitational will be May 25 and 26 at AMF College Park. But the salvation of the game may ride on the tinkering and passion of Norton and his duckpin pinsetter.

It's a game worth saving one, because any unique regional quirks are precious in this age of homogenization, and two, because no one has bowled a perfect duckpin game. After 100 (or 101 or 102) years, the challenge remains.

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