SI Vault
Bob Asbille
March 17, 1969
Investigating reports of a suspicious spurt of scoring in Des Moines, bowling sleuths discover that some lanes have been fixed by ingenious means, so that your Aunt Minnie can groove 'em like Don Carter
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March 17, 1969

High Jinks In The Alley, Cats

Investigating reports of a suspicious spurt of scoring in Des Moines, bowling sleuths discover that some lanes have been fixed by ingenious means, so that your Aunt Minnie can groove 'em like Don Carter

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It was another season, and the 16,000 league bowlers of Des Moines, Iowa had more than enough reason to make a little whoopee. Their averages were up 10 points almost to a man, 200 games were coming so fast that league secretaries could hardly keep count and 700 series, previously about as common as conversion of the 7-10 split, were being chalked up by myopic maiden aunts. It was a kind of mass self-improvement that would have amazed Norman Vincent Peale; in short, it was too good to be true—and it wasn't. The American Bowling Congress cracked down.

The first hint that something was odorous in Iowa occurred to the bowling writer of the Des Moines Register and Tribune, whose duties include compiling a daily list of the names and scores of the top bowlers in the city. This winter, with no increase in the number of league participants, the number of those in the top bracket nearly doubled. When ABC officials in Milwaukee saw the figures, they muttered something like, "here we go again," and sent representatives to examine Des Moines's 14 bowling establishments.

What they found was, according to an official announcement, "a matter of grave concern and disappointment to the American Bowling Congress." It seems that after the last bowler had gone home for the night, some operators were busily sanding, roughing, oiling and polishing their lanes in ingenious manners designed to make it easier for bowlers to roll high scores. Albert Matzelle, a Bowling Congress official, admitted sadly that there was "evidence that some proprietors in the Des Moines area have been doctoring their lanes to provide high and unrealistic scoring conditions...."

Every bowling proprietor in Des Moines denied doing any such thing. But since Matzelle also issued warnings against raising gutters, altering pin spots and tampering with pins, it was evident that some proprietors must have been as busily engaged in creating high scores as their customers. But why doctor the lanes at all? "It's simple," said Paul Harvey, manager of the Earl Best Bowling Center, who was one of the men who complained to the ABC. "All bowlers want to roll better scores, so when they find that at certain lanes their scores zoom up, that's where they want to roll. Meanwhile, those of us who hew to the regulations start losing business. Pretty soon, in self-defense, almost everybody is tampering with the lanes."

Doctoring a lane hardly requires as much art and skill as rolling a perfect game. The trick is to create a ball track that will imperceptibly guide the ball into the pocket—that spot just off-center of the head pin that is most likely to scramble the pin fall in such a way as to increase the probability of a strike. Two of the least sophisticated (and easily detected) methods are the sanding of a groove into the lane, or the roughing of the finish on either side of the ideal track. Matzelle says grooving has not turned up in many years; the technique most commonly used today is an oil barrier. Oil is simply left on the lanes—a strip about 20 inches wide, leaving 10 or 11 inches on each side dry—so that the ball will hug the oil and roll into the pocket.

But what subterfuge is required to create the oil barrier? "Most of the places now have lane conditioners on automatic machines," said Harvey. "The machine moves down the alley to pick up the oil. A roller picks up the oil and transfers it to a brush. Then the lanes are buffed. Now the establishment can either trim the brush so that it doesn't pick up the oil, or trim the buffer so that it doesn't really buff. What happens is that an oil streak is left on the lane, and when the ball is rolled it hugs the oil and heads into the pocket."

When a bowling establishment begins to outscore all the others around it by 10 or 20 points, congress officials do not automatically assume that there has been mass improvement in the bowlers. They send inspectors, unannounced, to watch, and they keep an eye on neighboring lanes at the same time. "The other houses begin to worry about their scoring. This thing grows in a community unless we catch it quick enough," Matzelle said.

One situation not caught quickly enough occurred in Albuquerque a decade ago. In that city, where there are about 13,000 bowlers in 170 leagues, the average adult single-game score hovers around 155. But suddenly, on some hot lanes, people who averaged a little better, around 170, began to bowl like experts, getting 700 three-game totals in league play, instead of their previous average of around 500. Bowling Congress sleuths moved in, lanes were resurfaced and scores returned to average.

The alltime record alley-doctoring affair came in April 1965 and involved three cities—Omaha, Detroit and Milwaukee. As a rule, among the 32,500 league bowlers in Omaha, there are only 50-odd 700s rolled in a winter season. All at once there were some 200 in the same period. Again measures were taken, discreetly described as "interpreting the rules regarding a track to the pins." The Bowling Congress threw out 90 of 108 top scores, including 20 of 700-or-better in Omaha; the nation's highest team score, which was rolled in Detroit; and 18 perfect games. Hardest hit were the bowlers in West Allis, Wis., a Milwaukee suburb, where half a dozen high scores were ruled invalid, including a 790 that was the alltime Wisconsin women's record.

After that catastrophe, which involved much expensive lane resurfacing and replacement, nothing was heard about abnormal lanes for a long time. Then last December all 26 bowling establishments in Portland, Ore. received official warnings that continued doctoring of lanes would result in cancellation of their certification by the congress and that high scores would not be recognized. Among the reasons for the ultimatum: "Creating a ball track deludes bowlers as to their capabilities."

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