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The Rise and Fall of Professional Bowling
March 29, 2014 4:57 AM   Subscribe

There was a time when professional bowlers reigned supreme. In the "golden era" of the 1960s and 70s, they made twice as much money as NFL stars, signed million dollar contracts, and were heralded as international celebrities. After each match, they’d be flanked by beautiful women who’d seen them bowl on television, or had read about them in Sports Illustrated.

Today, the glitz and glamour has faded. Pro bowlers supplement their careers with second jobs, like delivering sod, or working at a call center. They share Motel 6 rooms on tour to save on travel expenses, and thrive on the less-than-exciting dime of beef jerky sponsorships.

Once sexy, bowling is now synonymous with cheap beer and smelly feet. In an entertainment-saturated culture, has the once formidable sport been gutter-balled? What exactly is it like to be a professional bowler today?
posted by jenkinsEar (64 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
Nice article. I remember watching pro bowling on TV when I was a kid back in the 70's. Reportedly, my late Uncle Vinnie was an excellent bowler, good enough to go on the tour, but didn't for some reason. It's still a fun game.
posted by jonmc at 5:03 AM on March 29


Once sexy, bowling is now synonymous with cheap beer and smelly feet.

So... still sexy?
posted by escabeche at 5:07 AM on March 29 [34 favorites]


I like to bowl when I can, which isn't that often these days. It seems to be something a lot of kids do in high school, because its a place open late that kids can get into, but later grow out of due to some weird coolness issue, even though everyone I've met at least has fun at bowling.

My great-grandfather was apparently a hell of a bowler in his later life (last two paragraphs), and to the best of my knowledge some kind of parade was held in his honor for his bowling exploits, but I can't find much information on this.

Finding out about that as a kid blew my mind. A parade for a bowler?

Times certainly have changed. Possibly one small reason why I do love Kingpin.
posted by efalk at 5:11 AM on March 29 [2 favorites]


I recommend A League of Ordinary Gentlemen. It's an excellent documentary about this very thing and follows a few noted bowlers, showing the realities of tour life. Outstanding.
posted by davelog at 5:17 AM on March 29 [4 favorites]


Note bene: Chris Hardwick's dad was professional bowler Billy Hardwick, featured in that Miller commercial.
posted by Toekneesan at 5:32 AM on March 29 [2 favorites]


Bowling is one of the sophisticated sports, along with horseshoes and darts, as it can be played while enjoying Refreshing Adult Beverages. I mean, really, what other sporting competition has a cocktail lounge as part of its playing field?
posted by KingEdRa at 5:48 AM on March 29 [26 favorites]


That Miller ad is a view into another world.

Every year or so someone will convince me to go bowling. These days even run down lanes have good, local beer, so there's that, and it's fun to do with friends. But it's not so fun that I go more often than that, either.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:52 AM on March 29 [1 favorite]


My dad watched pro bowling on TV every weekend and followed the big players. I play on Wednesdays at the local Elks with our neighborhood group but we're terrible.
posted by octothorpe at 5:58 AM on March 29


A family friend was a PBA hall of famer. He got caught up in Y2K, I believe, and moved out to the desert
posted by jpe at 5:58 AM on March 29 [2 favorites]


I used to love to go bowling with my wife or friends. But, at least in my neck of the woods, the local alleys sort of cut their own throats by limiting the open-bowling hours severely, so they could cater to league players. It got so bad that, when you could find open lanes at a reasonable hour, you'd have an hour or longer wait. It's a fun game, but not worth waiting an hour for. Especially not if there's a babysitter back home with the clock running.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:58 AM on March 29


I think the best use of bowling in a motion picture, pre-Big Lebowski, has to be this scene in Double Indemnity where Fred MacMurray's character gets in a fight with Barbara Stanwyck's character and to cool off, he goes to a drive-in restaurant for a beer, (which they serve him in his car) and then goes bowling. When I first saw that as a kid I thought, man, I want to be an insurance salesman, too.
posted by Toekneesan at 5:59 AM on March 29 [22 favorites]


In the 60s I was in an Elks Club kids bowling league and I watched it on TV whenever I could. Now I can't remember the last time I actually bowled (Wii bowling doesn't count).
posted by tommasz at 6:22 AM on March 29


I mean, really, what other sporting competition has a cocktail lounge as part of its playing field?

Curling. That's why there are shelves on the end boards.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:30 AM on March 29 [16 favorites]


Yeah, as I edge ever closer to the half century mark, I recall how different the TV sports landscape was in my childhood -- sure there was football on Sunday afternoons and Hockey Night in Canada, but I recall huge amounts of screen time devoted to bowling and golf, two pastimes whose appeal as spectator sports seems, let us say, finite.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:31 AM on March 29 [2 favorites]


I saw a great little documentary called Pin Gods at SXSW Film in the 90's. It followed 3 pro bowlers through one season, and the filmmaker really bowled a strike in his selection of characters to follow.

It didn't get wide distribution, but was really worthwhile for the way it portrayed the economics of small-time professional sports, and the overwhelming make-or-break impact that TV coverage has on the sport and the athletes.

I don't know if this film can still be found anywhere, but I definitely recommend if this post is of interest to you.
posted by bgribble at 6:39 AM on March 29


I'm going bowling at The White House next week.
posted by COD at 6:49 AM on March 29 [4 favorites]


I'm going bowling at The White House next week.

Meetup!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 6:54 AM on March 29 [6 favorites]


It would probably be the first meetup that required a security check!
posted by COD at 6:57 AM on March 29 [1 favorite]


Bowling seems to be having a renaissance here in Australia. The modern alleys are quasi-hip, neon-soaked spaces with a handful of lanes, huge video screens, cocktail bars, comfy couches and karaoke rooms. Also velcro shoes, which just seems like a travesty.

One of my friends has established a tradition of going bowling for her birthday every year. The last one was about a month ago, and it was a pretty great afternoon.
posted by Georgina at 7:03 AM on March 29 [3 favorites]


Perhaps the way we look back on watching bowling on television will be the same way we look back (in 20 years or whenever) on watching people play poker on television.
posted by stltony at 7:09 AM on March 29 [11 favorites]


Also bowling is great when you have kids. Anytime it's too hot or too cold to play outside we at least have something we can do. From April to August kids can bowl two free games (minus shoe cost) every day. My son and I went bowling all the time last summer for less than $10 a time. It's really great when you have lanes near you that have everyday open blowing starting at 11 am.

http://www.kidsbowlfree.com
posted by stltony at 7:13 AM on March 29 [3 favorites]


My cousin bowls in tournaments ("pro" I guess), but I think this article might be too depressing to send to him.
posted by goethean at 7:31 AM on March 29


A few months back I was pricing some books I was going to sell and I was researching this 70s dictionary of bowling terms, and it led me to the original edition of the book, which I think has one of the most amazing covers I've ever seen. Bowling can be pretty cool.
posted by Toekneesan at 7:39 AM on March 29 [4 favorites]


This is only tangentially related, but I’ve been wondering about something lately.

I’ve been told every bowling lane is oiled differently, creating slicks with unique characteristics that one has to adjust to every outing. That this on-the-fly adjustment is what makes a pro bowler pro.

I’m guessing this quirk was born from technical deficiency. Is it not now possible to standardize lane oiling? Would it change the game too much? I wonder if there’s a debate about this in the bowling community.
posted by context adventure at 7:52 AM on March 29


I told that Kraut a fuckin' thousand times, I don't roll on Shabbos!

Which killed the TV ratings and lead to this sad, downward spiral. . .
posted by Danf at 8:20 AM on March 29


I owe my life to bowling.

(My parents met when they both played on the CP Air bowling team. My dad was an adding machine repairman and my mother was in the secretary pool. )
posted by srboisvert at 8:20 AM on March 29 [5 favorites]


I’ve been told every bowling lane is oiled differently, creating slicks with unique characteristics that one has to adjust to every outing. That this on-the-fly adjustment is what makes a pro bowler pro.

Context, you may enjoy this 2012 bowling thread with several comments discussing lane oil patterns.
posted by ceribus peribus at 8:27 AM on March 29 [3 favorites]


Very cool, ceribus peribus. Thanks!
posted by context adventure at 8:36 AM on March 29


Came here to suggest curling as the new bowling.
posted by furtive at 8:45 AM on March 29


Chris Hardwick's dad was professional bowler Billy Hardwick

Naturally Chris spent a lot of time around bowling alleys in his youth, which makes him a bit of a ringer in his All-Star Celebrity Bowling show.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 9:02 AM on March 29


I love bowling (have broken 200 three times in my life, & tend to follow strikes with gutter balls) and one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen was a svelte 40's-ish woman with Wanda embroidered on her shirt in the lane next to me throwing strike after strike after strike with a zen-like unconscious precision.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:05 AM on March 29 [5 favorites]


"He was caught in a catch-22: if he won, his financial backer would kill him; if he missed the spare, the “unsavory characters” would. Instead, he avoided the entire predicament by faking a heart attack."

Wow.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:13 AM on March 29


Okay, now that I've finished reading, this is what also stands out to me:

"During the 1968-69 season, 905 perfect games were rolled; the 1998-99 season saw 34,470. A 300 score just isn't as special as it used to be, and some surmise these numbers are a sign the game has become too easy to conquer."

Every time I've watched professional bowling on television, everyone bowls strike after strike. While as a former league bowler myself, I know that's rare and impressive for most people... for the pros on TV, that appears to be common as dirt. There's no suspense other than to see if someone fails. Even I find watching professional bowling to be boring compared to watching your friends at a game.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:23 AM on March 29 [4 favorites]


Up here, we have 5 pin bowling (in addition to the 10 pin kind) where even the littlest kid can lift and release a small enough ball to bowl. I was a bit surprised to find out later that it was only a Canadian thing.
posted by The arrows are too fast at 9:30 AM on March 29 [2 favorites]


Yeah it seems that the main problem is that bowling, at the professional level, hasn't kept up in difficulty with the increasing skill of players. Since it's not a game where you play against other people in the same way that you do, say, baseball or football — yes, you're being scored against them, but it's not like the other players get to arrange the pins and play "defense" while you bowl — there's no way for the game's difficulty to always stay in balance.

My understanding is that golf has basically avoided this trap by continually designing new and more difficult courses for the Majors and other big tournaments, and even when it's not a completely new course they have the ability to tweak things here and there to maintain balance and "interestingness" of the game.

Maybe something similar has to happen with bowling. I'm not sure exactly what it would be, because a strength of bowling is its simplicity — you have a ball, a lane, the gutters, and the pins — but it seems like they have to do something so that it's not just two guys bowling strike after strike, hoping that the other guy will screw up, and the second he does the game's basically decided.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:36 AM on March 29 [2 favorites]


but it seems like they have to do something so that it's not just two guys bowling strike after strike,

They solved this problem with ... candlepin bowling! :)

(Which was on TV in Boston, with Don Gillis, every Saturday morning for 40 years. 40.)
posted by Melismata at 9:41 AM on March 29 [5 favorites]


but it seems like they have to do something so that it's not just two guys bowling strike after strike

fake heart attacks competitions
posted by thelonius at 9:55 AM on March 29 [1 favorite]


It lost some of its luster once everybody gave up on trying to beat Almighty Malachi, Professional Bowling God.
posted by delfin at 9:56 AM on March 29


Yeah, double the length of the lane, switch to candlepin. Magnify the impact of any inaccuracy, and you'll get a game with some suspense in it again...
posted by kaibutsu at 10:02 AM on March 29


Duckpin bowling has the advantage of playing more like ten-pin, while still being nearly impossible to get a perfect game in.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:46 AM on March 29 [2 favorites]


Someday people will look back on professional Poker with the same nostalgia.

I'm going with.... tuesday.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 11:06 AM on March 29 [1 favorite]


Then you got your...
posted by sammyo at 11:13 AM on March 29


Would someone who remembers this explain if it was ironic, countercultural, tongue-in-cheek popularity (like roller derby), or genuine earnest popularity (like baseball)? It's so hard to tell by looking at pictures and stories from the past.
posted by miyabo at 11:19 AM on March 29


Here is a general rule of thumb: in any game or sport that uses a round ball, the smaller the ball, the more sophisticated the game...from basketball, down to baseball, to tennis, to golf. and no: a hockey puck is not a ball.
posted by Postroad at 11:22 AM on March 29


still awaiting the roller derby rennaissance. i know a guy who bought a team. what's not to like about athletic women skating around a track and doing violence to each other? it should be in the olympics.
posted by bruce at 11:26 AM on March 29 [1 favorite]


Here is a general rule of thumb

Hmm, that bears out, actually. On one end of the scale, it takes a lot of sophistication for physicists to play silly buggers with atoms, and on the other, our childhood games of beat-each-other-with-a-space-hopper did lack a certain tactical complexity.
posted by forgetful snow at 11:31 AM on March 29 [2 favorites]


ironic, countercultural, tongue-in-cheek popularity (like roller derby)

I fins that one's aesthetic appreciation of the past can be vastly improved by assuming that people were kidding about most of the things they appeared to like.

Nonsnarkily, I'm pretty sure people actually liked rollerderby, which to me is easier to understand- hey, that's actually entertaining to watch! But people also apparently enjoyed watching bowling, I have no idea why, but it was often on in my house because my parents liked it. Hell, the English watch professional darts, and that's also a game that it would take about 10 minutes to design a robot that could play it perfectly, so who the hell knows. Probably beer is involved somehow?

The past is a foreign, drunker country.
posted by hap_hazard at 11:34 AM on March 29 [2 favorites]


Do people have the idea roller derby went away? It's better than ever.
posted by lagomorphius at 1:36 PM on March 29 [1 favorite]


...better than ever

Love that logo. Anabaptist in her bonnet, with a black eye. She's pacifism on wheels. But she's no Jesus.
posted by Toekneesan at 1:41 PM on March 29


or genuine earnest popularity (like baseball)?

it's genuine - the thing about bowling fans is that they're often not just fans, but weekly participants in the sport
posted by pyramid termite at 1:52 PM on March 29


Reportedly, my late Uncle Vinnie was an excellent bowler, good enough to go on the tour, but didn't for some reason.

I wonder how many guys named "Vinnie" "reportedly" had the same backstory in the 70s. Probably overlaps a bit with all the Vinnies who claim they turned down a record contract back in 67 because they couldn't deal with all the drugs on the rock scene.
posted by spitbull at 2:31 PM on March 29


still awaiting the roller derby rennaissance.

BaaaaaaayAAAAAARRREEEEAAAAA. Say hello to Demanda Riot from the Richmond Wrecking Belles. For instance.
posted by rtha at 3:08 PM on March 29 [2 favorites]


I love bowling so much fun, just don't eat the chips with your right hand.

. My son and I went bowling all the time last summer for less than $10 a time.

Good Christ, I know that we have a real minimum wage here in Australia, but unless you go at like seven am on a Monday, it's never less than twenty bucks for two games here. Usually twenty five.
posted by smoke at 3:52 PM on March 29


I pay $1.50 a game at the Elks. Same price as the draft beer.
posted by octothorpe at 3:55 PM on March 29 [1 favorite]


still awaiting the roller derby rennaissance.

I think it's definitely under way. Womens' roller derby has been, if not popular exactly, at least in the public consciousness and hipster favor in Seattle for maybe a decade? Once the cool kids decide it's passé, we'll know it's about to arrive.
posted by hattifattener at 5:36 PM on March 29 [1 favorite]


I enjoy bowling. However, two games with the wife and 2 kids, plus a round of snacks, costs $50 on a Friday or Saturday night. So we don't do it often.
posted by COD at 5:44 PM on March 29


(Which was on TV in Boston, with Don Gillis, every Saturday morning for 40 years. 40.)

It was a bad sign when Candlepin Bowling came on because it meant there were no more Saturday morning cartoons, but you watched it anyway. The Hustle shall now and forever be known to me as The Candlepin Bowling Song.
posted by Spatch at 6:54 PM on March 29 [1 favorite]


Bowling for me is in that weird spot where every now and then I get the urge, then do it and realize I'm bloody awful at it, but I don't want to sink in the time it'd take to get decent, so I don't do it until next time I get the urge.

However I did spend many weekends watching it with my grandparents on ABC's Wide World of Sports since they didn't have cable back in the 80s.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:32 PM on March 29


Once sexy ... they’d be flanked by beautiful women ...

Huh. I recall the TV specials, but never ran across that universe - which was probably just a little more savory than those of pro pool or pro gambling.

Guess there needs to be a expose by a couple of groupies. Call it "Sixteen Pounds and Whadya Get?"
posted by Twang at 11:55 PM on March 29


There's a new bowling alley that opened up a block down from my place. Unfortunately, it's one of those places that combine bowling with a nice bar and/or club. I mean, they sound good on paper, but I always found them to have too few lanes (this one only has 10), the lanes aren't very well maintained, and the music is way too obnoxious to bowl to (even worse than galaxy bowling nights at regular alleys). But, even with those shortcomings, a new one is opened up every 2-3 years.

I think these places are just creative ways for people to go drinking, without having to admit they're going drinking for the nth time this week.
posted by FJT at 12:37 AM on March 30


When Dancers Go Bowling.
posted by sixpack at 6:18 AM on March 30 [1 favorite]


We always used to go 5 pin bowling for our birthdays when we were kids. My mum had been a league bowler, and very successful at it, so you always wanted her on your team. I can remember that even before her knee replacement, when her knees were so bad she was nearly in a wheelchair, she could still limp up to the line and bowl a strike just about every time. It was effortless, and amazing to watch.

So what I'm saying is that I've been bowling since I was a kid, and I learned from someone who had mad skillz. And then, I went bowling with some friends from work when I lived in Texas, and I came last, got my ass thoroughly kicked, and I had to call my mum and tell her.

Me: "Mum, we went bowling at work, and I came last."
Mum, silent for a moment, then: "AT BOWLING!?!?!?"
Me: "Well...IT WAS TEN PIN!!!"

She died on New Year's Day. I miss her.
posted by biscotti at 7:14 AM on March 30 [6 favorites]


I think it's definitely under way. Womens' roller derby has been, if not popular exactly, at least in the public consciousness and hipster favor in Seattle for maybe a decade? Once the cool kids decide it's passé, we'll know it's about to arrive.

Well, that's already happened. I skate for the Rat City Rollergirls (in Seattle for those who don't know). Now that we're skating in KeyArena, I've seen more than a few people lamenting the "good old days" when it was a couple hundred people watching bouts in a roller rink or a rented hangar. How roller derby used to be cool, but not anymore. Partially because now it's thousands of people coming to our bouts instead of a couple hundred, and partially because we play it as a real sport and have moved past the fishnets and fake fights.

So yeah, anyone who doesn't realize that roller derby is back in a BIG way, take a peek over at WFTDA.com, and check out the member leagues. And that's just a fraction of leagues out there.

And amusingly enough, to fit this thread, I'm a former bowler. It was my sport while growing up, and before giving it up to play derby, I was averaging about 200. But I could see it dying, seeing leagues shrink in size as there weren't enough new people coming into the sport while others left. Seeing establishments close up, torn down, and be replaced with condos or car dealerships.

It's sad, since it is a challenging and technical sport. Even if the combination of oil patterns and new ball technology was making it easier and easier for your average bowler.
posted by evilangela at 8:37 AM on March 31 [1 favorite]


If anybody is interested in what the White House bowling alley looks like...pictures.
posted by COD at 6:10 PM on April 6


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