No duckpins in southern Oklahoma, but when I went to college in Maryland, I discovered duckpins, a wonderful game. We were only 25 miles from Baltimore, so we bowled Baltimore ducks: 3 balls per frame. But the game is fading. Dan Barry has a good article in the NY Times:
The world’s best female duckpin bowler holds so many bowling records that she has lost count, but her game-day shirt features a star for each of her tournament wins — a sartorial requirement of the Women’s National Duckpin Association. With 19 stars so far, her polyester constellation is running out of sky.
The world’s best female duckpin bowler lives here in the Berkshires, where duckpin bowling is neither played nor followed. If she wants to bowl, she must drive two hours to an alley in Connecticut, where bowlers sometimes ask her for shared selfies and autographs.
The world’s best female duckpin bowler is Amy Bisson Sykes, a slight woman of 37 who dominates a black-and-white pastime in a Technicolor world. Her sport is so yesterday that whenever another duckpin alley closes, the remaining alley owners descend like predatory relatives to cart off the mechanical parts of duckpin setting machines that have not been made in two generations.
But Bisson Sykes was reared in the duckpin bowling alley her father owned in Newington, Conn., amid the drone of rolling balls on pine and maple, the clatter of pins scattering like startled waterfowl. The soundtrack of her youth.
In leagues and tournaments, Bisson Sykes used to slip into an all-business cocoon that others found intimidating and even off-putting. Wearing the mask of singular purpose, she would stand with the same red-and-white ball firm in her right hand and raised close to her chest and then release it with the twinning of a ballerina’s curtsy and a fencer’s thrust.
“I was there to win,” she said.
The cognoscenti of duckpin often pause before describing Bisson Sykes’s talent and impact, as if searching for the proper superlative.
“Phenomenal,” said Al Zoraian, the president of the National Duckpin Bowling Congress.
“Not unbeatable,” Lauree Schreiber, a friend and longtime opponent, added. “But she’s about as close as it gets.”
Bisson Sykes has retained much of her intense focus on the 10-pintriangle. But motherhood has taught her that the lanes of life are curlicue, with pins that can move about and refuse to fall. Now she offers high-fives to opponents who throw strikes and embraces the sense of community that has always enveloped the ancient game of bowling.
It’s been an epiphany. Turns out some things in life are even more important than duckpin bowling.
It’s Not Easy
To all those armchair athletes rolling their eyes instead of balls, let’s be clear: Odds are, you’d be lousy at duckpin.
The grapefruit-size ball weighs less than four pounds and has no finger holes, and the squat duckpins look like out-of-shape cousins to the more familiar bowling pin. And even though a turn can include throwing three balls, instead of the two in the more common game of tenpin bowling, scores are still much lower.
According to the United States Bowling Congress, there were 55,266 certified 300 games — that is, 12 consecutive strikes, for a perfect score — in the 2013-14 season of tenpin bowling. But there has never been a 300 game in duckpin bowling. As all serious duckpinners know, a Connecticut man named Pete Signore Jr. came closest in 1992, bowling a 279.
The history of duckpin is a murky pond. It was long believed that the game emerged around 1900 from a Baltimore gaming hall owned by John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson, future members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. But research has since found references to duckpin dating to the early 1890s, in New Haven, Boston and Lowell, Mass.
The sport became popular along the Eastern Seaboard, finding particular passion in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Maryland. Men now gray and halting in step will recall their glory years as pin boys, setting pins and clearing deadwood for the greats: Harry Kraus and Wolfie Wolfensberger and the singular Nick Tronsky, out of Connecticut. And don’t forget the female standouts: Toots Barger and Sis Atkinson and Cathy Dyak.
Big matches drew standing-room-only crowds. Local newspapers chronicled the scores and profiled the stars (“Nick Tronsky of New Britain stole the show at the state duckpin tournament today with a nine-game total of 1,203”). Companies hired ringers for their league teams, and some stars barnstormed, taking on all local heroes. In certain American crannies, duckpin was life.
Some pastimes just fade away, to resurface only with the smirk of irony. Like so many other endeavors, duckpin has been a casualty of the fundamental change in how Americans choose to spend their leisure time. But some of the duckpin faithful will also cite what is known as the Curse of Ken Sherman.
In 1953, a submarine designer named Kenneth Sherman invented an automatic pinsetter for duckpin. It was an elaborate, Rube Goldberg-like contraption of more than 1,000 moving parts — cast-iron gears and gaskets and pin holders — that did away with the need for pin boys and made the game faster and more efficient.
But the story goes that when Sherman’s company stopped operating nearly 50 years ago, he refused to sell the patent for the Sherman Pinsetter to Brunswick Equipment — some say because he feared that Brunswick would end production so that duckpin could no longer compete with tenpin.
“But we’re in the same situation as if Brunswick had shut us down anyway,” said Stan Kellum, 72, the executive director of the National Duckpin Bowling Congress, which is run out of a small office in a Maryland bowling alley. “Nobody is manufacturing the machines.”
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That is why, if you go behind the lanes at, say, Highland Bowl, in Cheshire, Conn., the back wall is lined with cardboard boxes crammed with cast-iron bits, duckpin nests and assorted other parts no longer manufactured — all scavenged and saved from closed alleys.
When all 20 lanes are operating smoothly, the deafening roar is mere background music for the owner, Todd Turcotte. But his ears are attuned to the faintest false note in the mechanical syncopation. When that happens, something is broken — off.
And what does Turcotte do then? “Pray,” he said.
His situation reflects why the game of duckpin could not grow. No new automatic pinsetters means no new alleys.
Today there are 41 congress-certified duckpin bowling alleys, down from nearly 450 in 1963, Kellum said, “and we’re losing houses all over the place.”
In fact, he said, “We just lost T-Bowl last year.”
That would be T-Bowl Lanes in Newington.
The alley in which Amy Bisson Sykes grew up. . . .