A Bowling League of Our Own

I felt a rush like I had personally just won the World Series!” said Al Glanz, a paunchy 51-year-old attorney. “Only in bowling can an out-of-shape middle-aged short guy win that kind of victory.” Glanz, a college-days SDS comrade and current lead-off man of my five-person bowling team, Al’s Animals, was remembering our 1997 league championship.

After 38 Tuesday nights of competition against 17 mixed-gender teams, we Animals found ourselves in the final roll-off matched against some big bruisers. Miraculously, we split the first two games. And, going into the 10th and last frame, we were neck and neck. Al bowled two strikes and finished over 150. In the anchor position, I beat my 198 average.

As 100 league members looked on, the opposing team’s anchor, Big Kahuna, was shooting his 10th frame. Apparently he miscalculated the narrow difference between us and–grossly overconfident–whipped his 16-pound Code Red ball out toward the lone 10-pin standing on the back right-hand corner of the alley. Hubris has a price: The Kahuna’s ball angled sharply to the 5 board and, skidding in the conditioning oil, failed to stabilize, then plunked unceremoniously into the gutter three feet short of the pin.

The electronic tote board flashed our one-point victory as we basked in applause and cheers. After the awards ceremony we left elated, with armfuls of trophies and $287 in prize money. A year later we still talk excitedly of our razor-close win.

Such are the wonders of organized, serious bowling. I’m the only team member with a high average. At the time of our championship, Al hadn’t bowled in 25 years and had worked himself up to 125. Team member and printer Miki Jurcan was a first-year bowler averaging 137. Bookkeeper Kim Yoh shot in the high 150s, and her developmentally disabled brother, Dale, in the 140s.

But bowling is the most democratic of sports. You play in your own neighborhood, with teams drawn from networks of friends or co-workers; the squads are often mixed gender and usually mixed generation. It’s relatively inexpensive and easy to learn (at least the basics). But most important, 95 percent of bowling leagues rely on the socialist notion of handicap–a formula that adjusts for differences between teams. We won the championship against much better bowlers not because we outbowled them but because first they had to “spot” us 65 pins a game, and, this time, we outbowled ourselves. From each according to his ability…

Bowling is a literate sport. In a two-team matchup you must follow 10 evolving narratives through three games and 30 frames. Much as in baseball (and unlike soccer or basketball), in bowling virtually every moment of play can be studied, analyzed, regretted, or celebrated. Even on a losing night you might pick up two different splits, or finally perfect your conversion of a troublesome spare. Bowling also requires basic mathematical skills. Even with automatic scoring, you still have to calculate quickly in your head to know where you stand.

Maybe this is why a younger generation seems to be giving up on bowling. Many claim it’s too boring, too square. But maybe for a culture that is becoming allergic to narrative and sequential logic, it’s just too demanding. With alarming frequency, bowling alleys are converting to places with names like Cosmic Bowl, where irony has replaced competition and acquired skill, and where black lights, fluorescent pins, pounding disco music, and cheap beer induce a crowd of kids to come “bowling”–In quotes.

Make no mistake. I harbor no nostalgia for retro bowling, at alleys untouched since V-J Day, with hand pinspotters, scoring pads and pencils, lacquered wood lanes, and hard rubber balls. These are museums, if you ask me. My love affair is with brightly lit, well-scrubbed, air-conditioned, suburban 48- and 52-lane palaces. I like the new technology that has, in the past 15 years, redefined the game.

Like the handicap, technology is a great leveler for those not born with raw bowling talent. To reduce fire hazard, urethane replaced lacquer as the protective coating over wooden lanes; it soaked up less conditioning oil and made the lanes “faster.” The old balls wouldn’t hook well on the new surfaces and so were replaced by highly engineered “reactive” urethane balls, which made the “break point” of your shot–where the ball would start curving into the pocket–more stable and predictable. Depending on urethane and resin mix, the hardness of the shell, the placement of the weight block, and the angle of the finger grips, you can get a ball that “breaks” hard or easy, short or long; one that performs well in oil or is better suited to dryer lanes.

There is a downside: Bowling balls have gotten expensive–as much as $200. Their specialization encourages fleet ownership (I have six active bowling balls and buy about two a year). League play–$10 to $12 a week for three games of competition–is still cheap for a night’s entertainment, and everyone gets back some prize money. But as leagues have declined, bowling alleys need to charge, on average, an outrageous $3.50 a game for open play. An hour’s worth of practice can cost you $20 or more.

And yet, that unmistakable smell of conditioning oil and the rumble and crack of the pins still hold the same allure for me that they did when I was a child in the ’50s. I would watch in wonderment as Dick Weber hung out a string of seven or eight strikes at the Hollywood Legion Lanes. In no other organized sport is the line between amateur and pro so blurred. Almost every bowling alley pro shop is staffed by a pro–a major-league bowler. When my mentor, Rick Polzien, isn’t fitting me for a new ball or working with me out on the lanes to keep my head up and shoulders straight, he’s likely to be on tour competing for the big bucks. Next time Mike Piazza’s in town, try calling him and asking if he’s got a few moments to play catch with you.

At my neighborhood bowling alley there are, apart from Rick, half a dozen other card-carrying members of the Professional Bowlers Association playing side by side with bookkeepers, teachers, and mechanics in the Thursday-night singles league. To enter the PBA you need only to average 200 for any two years of amateur league play–for me, a wholly attainable goal. Into mid-middle age, I still toy with the notion of going on tour. I might even be a contender.

Part of January/February 2000 cover story section. From The Nation (August 10, 1998).

When he was a teenager in the 1950s, Marc Cooper bowled at the youth championship level. “Then later, in the 1960s, I found other things more alluring, and I dropped out,” he says. But not for good. In “A League of Our Own”, Cooper, now host and executive producer of the syndicated news show Radio Nation, writes about his recent rediscovery of bowling, praising the sport’s “deeply democratic” roots. Cooper is currently hard at work on a book about the sport for Verso Publishing.

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