SI Vault
Frank Deford
January 25, 1988
I'm sorry to have to be the one to tell you this, but bowling may have an image problem. Why is this, and why should we, as citizens, care? It's not good for America for bowling to fret. Bowling is too ubiquitous.
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January 25, 1988

Frank Deford Goes Bowling

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As we've seen, bowling is many things. Bruce Pluckhahn, who's the curator at the Hall of Fame, says, "You travel the back roads of France, and they're playing types of bowling you can't imagine." And the bowlers. Often in the past, bowlers were above the salt, clearly upper-crust. Or ecclesiastical. Martin Luther, for one, was an avid kegler. In some bishoprics it was believed that the Devil himself bowled, using a human skull for a ball, rolling it down Christ's cross. And priests who sinned were supposed to have to spend all eternity bowling. (The updated version of that is, I believe, that they'll have to spend all eternity watching ESPN.)

But inevitably the lower classes would appropriate the sport, drink and gamble while enjoying it, and so the hypocritical upper crust would get together with the men of the cloth and decree bowling sinful and/or illegal. That was the pattern in Europe and the U.S. alike.

It probably didn't help bowling's reputation when, as early as 1839 in Hartford, Conn., it moved inside (before, it usually had been played outdoors on grass). Generally speaking, Americans look down their noses at indoor exercise. When people play sports outside, it is referred to as "working up a good sweat," and it's approved as healthy. But indoor exercise has always been put down as sweaty, déclassé. Basketball was accepted in American culture only when it moved into huge, plush buildings with cathedral ceilings that gave the spacious feeling of all outdoors. Then basketball players weren't grubby lower-class types anymore—they became "glistening bodies." But no bodies shine in bowling. It's still just indoorsy and sweaty.

Also, most bowling alleys had posts, and everybody hates posts, not only because all they can do is get in your way, but also because posts just seem proletariat. I'm convinced that posts have been very bad for bowling.

Moreover, curiously, no romantic notions ever grew up around bowling, as they did, say, around pool, bowling's companion smoky, indoor, boozing-and-betting game. There have probably been as many bowling cons as there've been pool hustlers, but bowling is terribly self-conscious about its charming rogues. Troup, a former machinist, always appears in garish trousers, his upper limbs weighted down by diamonds and gold, but he's about the only pro bowler these days with a flamboyant public persona. Most PBAers barely crack a smile. Bowling has just never understood that you can profit from being seedy-chic, the way pool has.

Possibly as a consequence of bowling's pretentiousness, there's no movie with Paul Newman about bowling. David Letterman wanted to get a bowler on his show to yuk it up, a la baseball's Buddy Biancalana a while back, but bowling takes itself too seriously to permit such whimsy.

It's wonderfully ironic that the only brush bowling has had with literature was in the story about Rip Van Winkle, and, of course, Washington Irving's tale, published in 1819, involves bowling and drinking. If bowling's tradition was already fatefully intertwined with social drinking, it became all the more so in America after the German immigration swelled the sport's ranks in the latter part of the 19th century. German culture was never more prominent in America, and the Teutonic spirit of camaraderie, gemütlichkeit, was a natural for the bowling alley. Significantly and symbolically, the ABC was founded in 1895 at Beethoven Hall in New York City by a group of men who consumed six ponies (half-kegs) of beer. Just as saloons offered free lunches—until we learned there's no such thing—so too did establishments allow keglers to bowl on the cuff so long as they bellied up to the bar between frames. Even today, at fancy places like the Galaxy Lanes, a full 30% of the income derives from "ancillary" sources, mostly food and drink, and many bowling houses depend on the bar for their very existence. At a time when national beer sales are flat and driving home from drinking anywhere is under heavy criticism, this doesn't bode well for suburban recreating.

But bowling's alliance with beer has never flagged. From the 1930s until about 1960, almost all of the top bowling competition involved the legendary beer teams—first, the white-clad Stroh's keglers, then the teams sponsored by Pfeiffer's and Falstaff, finally the fabled Budweiser teams of the fifties, featuring Don Carter, Dick Weber and Ray Bluth. In 1961 there was a brief and expensive disaster with a conventional professional association known as the National Bowling League. (No doubt you recall all the teams in the NBL, but just in case they've slipped your mind: Detroit Thunderbirds, Twin City Skippers, Omaha Packers, Dallas Broncos, Fort Worth Panthers, San Antonio Cavaliers, Kansas City Stars, Fresno Bombers, Los Angeles Toros and New York Gladiators, who actually played in Totowa, N.J.). The collapse of the NBL, which just happened to coincide with the demise of the beer-team era, marked the end of big-time team bowling.

After that, because of the demands of television, bowling was transformed from a team to an individual sport, with the beer companies sponsoring, even producing, most of the TV tournaments. In what may have been sport's hottest free-agent action of 1987, Coors (in a major upset) beat Miller in the battle to sign Leila Wagner, a woman bowler, to an endorsement contract. As a kegler, Wagner ranked a modest 19th in earnings on the women's tour, but she's blonde and built, a former Miss Washington State in the Miss Universe pageant (SI, Sept. 28, 1987). We went through exactly the same thing 15 years ago (during the hot-pants era) with another leggy blonde, Paula Sperber.

Such occasional forays into sexiness aside, women's bowling is even more self-conscious about its image, if that is possible, than men's bowling is. Women bowlers still grit their teeth when they recall the scene from the movie Arthur wherein the stuffy valet, played by John Gielgud, seeking to put down a pushy, tacky woman in the most complete way he could, uttered, "Usually, one has to go to a bowling alley to meet a woman of your stature."

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