The Story Behind Duckpin Bowling

June 5, 2019
Duckpin Bowling

Fran Lane

I grew up with Duckpin bowling. My brothers, sisters and I used to bowl at the old Vilma and Seidel alleys on Belair road. We were even in the after school leagues at the old Fair Lanes on Perring Parkway. It’s fun to see the reactions of people who have never experienced Duckpin bowling before…

Duckpin bowling was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1900 and it was one of Babe Ruth’s favorite games! Because it was much harder to get strikes and spares, the rules were changed to allow three bowls on each turn but only counted as a score of ten if all ten pins were knocked down with the third ball. Duckpins became so popular that during the 1920′s duckpin bowling spread along the east coast, fromNew England toGeorgia.

For a brief history of how this game started~ the following excerpt is taken from The Book of Duckpin Bowling, by Henry Fankhauser and Frank Micalizzi:

The sport of duckpins was born at the old Diamond Alleys on Howard Street in Baltimore, Maryland. Diamond Alleys was owned by a couple of members of the old Baltimore Orioles minor league club — Uncle Wilbert Robinson and John McGraw (you may remember McGraw as manager of baseball’s New York Giants in the early 1900′s).

At the turn of the century, bowling leagues operated only during the winter months. In the summer, many centers closed down. However, a few centers (including Diamond Alleys) remained open for open play during the spring and summer. Diamond Alleys had some smaller six inch balls that were used for such off-the-wall games as cocked-hat (using only the 1, 7, and 10 pins) and five back (using the 5, 7, 8, 9, and 10 pins).

During one of these matches, Frank Van Sant, the manager at Diamond Alleys, was drawn into a conversation about the small balls. Someone suggested that a set of his old, battered tenpins could be made over into little pins to conform to the six inch ball. Several days later, an old set was sent to John Dettmar, a wood-turner in Baltimore. About ten days later, Van Sant gathered all his regulars and dumped the new little pins in front of them.

Within minutes, the little pins were set up on the tenpin spots and the first unofficial “small ball” game was underway. Only two balls were used, as in tenpins, and score was kept in the same way. When Robinson and McGraw (whose other hobby was duck hunting) saw the pins fly as the ball plowed into them, they remarked that the pins looked like a “flock of flying ducks.” Bill Clarke, a sportswriter for the Baltimore Morning Sun, wrote a story on the fascinating new game and christened them “duckpins.” The name has stuck ever since.