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Jerry Lindquist's Sports Memories: When bowling was big

Jerry Lindquist's Sports Memories: When bowling was big

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Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear … from out of the past comes Volume XXXI: “Out Of The Streets … And Into the Alleys.”

I remember when …

… bowling was big here, and duckpins were bigger — figuratively — than tenpins. So how big was it? Well, in its wisdom, The Times-Dispatch suddenly, without proper warning, began a column: “Down Your Alley.” Seriously. No kidding. Down Your Alley? Really.

Yours truly had the honors, bestowed upon me by James K. Sanford, the sports department’s proprietor of the slot — which meant he ran the desk operation, laid out the pages, handed out copy to be edited (with designated headline) and, basically ran the show. That is, unless sports editor Chauncey Durden objected, which was seldom. Mr. Durden spent most — if not all — of his work day crafting a daily column that was right up there with the best of his time.

It should be noted here that the year was 1960, about seven months after I arrived fresh out of Washington & Lee — and, NO, I wasn’t responsible for the title. Don’t blame me. It was Sanford, who thought it was great. I think. Or, at the very least, a clever play on words. You know, to bowl you roll the ball …

At one time, many moons ago, there were as many as 200 alleys (lanes) — for tenpins mostly — in the Richmond area but assorted reasons, like buildings burning to the ground, cut the number by more than half. The birth of the National Duckpin Bowling Congress in 1927 reportedly led to the transformation from big to smaller pin interest here.

Both Sanford and Mr. Durden — I could never bring myself to call him Chauncey — are long gone, and they’re undoubtedly looking down with critical disdain, so I can only guess what prompted Jim to throw a gutter ball and hand me my initial column. While duckpins had multiple homes here, like Willow Bowl and Plaza Bowl — both of which opened in 1959 — and Regent, Tiny Town, Wyatt’s Lanes and Playdium Lanes, the big boys were on their way.

A Times-Dispatch headline said it all: “Tenpin Bowling Business Is Booming in Richmond.” In less than a year, said the 1960 story, the local area had gone from no lanes to “128 in use or under construction.” Tiny Town? I kid you not!

By then, according to another article, bowling had become the country’s No. 1 participation sport. So, why not give the game specialized local treatment in the morning paper? (The afternoon News-Leader already covered the sport on a sort-of regular basis because sports desk man Ken Black, who wrote about it, was an accomplished duckpinner himself.)

Anyhow, I liked to bowl, which helped. We had a Richmond Newspapers, Inc., duckpins league that met every Tuesday morning run by late T-D graphic artist Chick Larson at no-longer-with-us Willow (Lawn) Bowl. Roll 100 or better, and you were pleased — unless, of course, you missed several singles and/or filled that rare strike with a two. Once in a while a 120-plus left you thinking you finally had the game solved only to follow up with a terrible if more typical result. Sounds like golf, doesn’t it? No, compared to hitting that little white-yellow-green-pink-black-blue (etc.) ball, duckpins were a snap.

Say were, because tenpins slowly took over the territory — again. Sunset Bowl on West Broad Street started the monster comeback. Former Heisman Trophy winner (1951) Dick Kazmaier ran it for a while before leaving to move uptown and become — among many other things — director of the American Red Cross, director of the LPGA and president of the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame. Meanwhile, duckpins slowly began to fade to the point where only Plaza had a few lanes for the once-dominant game here.

One by one the duckpin emporiums went from thriving to dying. In late 1961, the Duckpin Bowling Council suggested changing the scoring system to make it more comparable to tenpins — like 20 plus the next two balls for a strike and 20 if all pins were knocked down with the three balls. The state’s representative on the council wrote a letter to proprietors, asking them to consider the changes “in the interest of duckpin game’s future.” After four months of experimenting with the proposal, the reaction was anything but favorable. From the low average to high average bowler, the general feeling summed up in one word was nonsense. How dare they tamper with my sport of choice?

They didn’t, and chances are it wouldn’t have made any difference if they did. Tenpins on television grew the sport — with the potential of a 300 (perfect) game adding to the suspense of every show. No one has thrown a NDBC-certified perfecto in duckpins. Best all-time is a 279 rolled in Connecticut in 1992.

Another — perhaps THE major — reason for duckpins demise was the lack of new equipment. Sherman, which made the only duckpin pinsetting machines for 20 years, went out of business in 1973, which meant parts became difficult to come by. A new duckpin-bowling establishment had to cannibalize parts to make new machines.

As a result, sad to say, the small-ball game — as we know it — has become only a memory here. Plaza Bowl was the last holdout, and the house on Southside shuttered its duckpin operation in 2010, according to NDBC records. Elsewhere in the heretofore strongholds, all in the East, the game is going, going, almost gone.

In 1963, there were 450 bowling alleys devoted to duckpins. By 2016, that had shrunk to 41. As of Tuesday, the total number nationwide was 24 — but that included the last two houses in Virginia, and they were all but officially gone. The pandemic led to a shutdown in Portsmouth. In Shenandoah, faced with dwindling interest, the owner decided not to make much-needed improvements. There also is concern over the future of three duckpin homes in Hagerstown, Md., where the owner died recently.

Some of the names that pop up from the old, OLD memory bank are duckpin bowler deluxe Hellen Hatch, who was rated No. 1 here for more than 15 years and ranked No. 2 nationally for the 1959-60 season; Bob Winston, who was a one-man regulatory machine; Garvin Hamner, former pro baseball player turned manager at Willow; and assorted out-of-towners mostly from Maryland and Tidewater, the other former hotspots for duckpins south of the Mason-Dixon Line. No surprise they dominate the national duckpin hall of fame, organized in 1960 by the NDBC with its first class of inductees the following year — which begs the question: How have they managed to overlook Mrs. Hatch?

It’s questionable how much “Down Your Alley” added to — more likely subtracted from — the game here. For example, we told readers about Frank Clause, self-proclaimed “Bowling Schoolmaster” who came for a tenpin clinic at Azalea Bowl and told us “the game has taken kids out of the streets and putting them into the alleys.” And, on why he quit teaching English after 23 years to take up pro bowling: “I love money.”

In 1962, we talked to a man who said bowling had become too easy. He cited super-dry lanes he called “creek beds” as well as lighter pins that didn’t present the same challenge to the balls he also didn’t like because they were made of plastic or fiberglass.

“The time is not far away when bowling is held in the same low regard as professional wrestling — false, counterfeit, fraudulent, not a contest but an exhibition,” he said.

Who was to blame? The manufacturers of bowling equipment because “in trying to outdo each other, they have allowed the game to get out of hand.”

Suddenly, like it began, “Down Your Alley” was gone. Why the plug was pulled after a couple of years, I don’t recall. Now, before this look back at bowling gets out of hand … oops … that was Laura Bowden calling. She’s the NDBC executive director and, as you might suspect, worried about the game’s future. She means tenpins, too. “Until the pandemic, I felt pretty good about it,” Bowden said.

Most bowling centers were built on land where the escalating cost of real estate also has been a major factor in going down your alley potentially a thing of the past. Owners can make big, BIG bucks by selling out — and have. “Bowling is in free-fall,” Bowden said, “but we’re trying very hard to save it.”

I remember when …

… before pinsetting machines, they had pin boys. You’ve got it. You’d knock ‘em down, and they’d set ‘em up. In Lexington, a block or so from the W&L campus, there was an old, dirty bowling facility that used pin boys. And a fun, if rowdy, time was had by all.

If the boys were in a good mood, they would be quick about resetting the pins. Sometimes they’d inadvertently help by knocking over a wobbler for your spare or strike. Of course, they’d expect a larger tip which you were afraid not to give them. (Not really.)

Bowden said she’s met a man who is trying to make duckpin machines like Sherman did but doesn’t know how far along he is — or how much they will cost. Meanwhile, there’s new form of small-pin bowling that “uses pins on a string.” It uses shorter lanes but the same size ball “so they call it duckpins,” but they are found as part of an overall entertainment experience. Bowden thinks you will see this invade tenpins, too. “Its cheaper,” she said. Just what we need: puppet bowling.

I remember when ...

… Muhammad Ali came to town. In 1967, during his two-year banishment from boxing for refusing to be drafted into the armed services during the Vietnam War, arguably the greatest heavyweight of all time was on a national tour to develop sympathy for his new Nation of Islam faith and raise a few bucks while he was at it. He arrived at Byrd Field with an entourage — that seemed large then, about five or so — and proceeded downtown where they drew a few gawkers as Ali made his way along 4th Street north of Broad. I tagged along, watching, listening to a bunch of guys doing nothing remarkable but doing it seriously. If anybody — other than Ali — smiled, I missed it.

The man who was formerly known as Cassius Clay acknowledged some brief cheering on his behalf. He signed a few autographs. If he expected more, Ali didn’t let on. There had been little advance warning of his appearance, after all, presumably fearing for Ali’s safety. Extremely popular for most of his life across all racial lines, he had entered a difficult, if brief, time because of his anti-draft stance for religious reasons.

(Actually, Ali liked Virginia. He spoke at Randolph-Macon’s convocation. He attended the inauguration ceremony of governor Doug Wilder. Ali, who died in 2016 at age 74, also bought a 47-acre farm near Afton Mountain in Nelson County in 1982. “I like the people here,” he was quoted as saying. “They leave me alone.”)

The short stroll took them to a small eatery that had a milk bar and a few tables. The owner seemed pleased he was chosen for their break stop, took mostly drink orders, did it quickly then, just as quickly, Ali and friends left to resume their journey.

Hold on! Did anybody bother to pay the bill, small as it was? “No,” the owner said. How much? “It’s all right.” No, how much? I don’t remember the exact amount but it was less than $20. The owner got his money after all. “Thank you,” he said. I felt a lot better, too.

I remember when …

… the Atlanta Braves bivouacked their farmhands in the world-famous Alma Hotel in West Palm Beach, Fla., during spring training. This was during the mid-to-late 1960s and early 1970s. So, what made the Alma so famous? Roaches. You know, those ugly, brown, creepy, crawling insects usually associated with filth. They were everywhere, all the time.

There was little to no way to exterminate them en masse, no spray, just a rolled up newspaper, shoe or foot-in-shoe. SPLAT! You would be lying in bed, look up and saw roaches crawling along the ceiling pipes (through which hot water flowed to warm the room, when necessary. It was a very old hotel, you understand.) Or, about to take a shower, check the roaches climbing up and around the curtain. SPLAT! There was one good thing: they weren’t smart enough to band together and attack. In truth, they were very docile.

SPLAT! SPLAT! SPLAT!

Eventually, mercifully, the Alma burned to the ground. It was replaced as headquarters for the Braves’ minor leaguers by a hotel in the center of town. Guess what called the old building home? SPLAT! SPLAT!

I remember when …

… Bob Lemon was manager, if briefly, of the Richmond Braves. The Hall of Fame righthander was between major-league assignments when Clint Courtney died of a heart attack in Rochester, N.Y., 59 games into the 1975 season. Lemon, as easy-going as Courtney was constantly wired, accepted Atlanta’s offer to come here. The R-Braves, 29-30 under Courtney, were 33-45 with Lemon and finished sixth.

Hall of Fame-bound, Lemon had been fired as Kansas City manager in 1974 but, in 1977, became White Sox skipper. After an AL Manager of the Year season, Lemon was fired early in 1978 only to replace Billy Martin and lead the New York Yankees to a World Series championship. That was the season the Bronx Bombers overcame a 14-game deficit then beat Boston in a playoff when Bucky Dent hit a three-run home run then Reggie Jackson hit the winner.

Lemon would be fired twice by Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner. Chances are, Lemon took it all in stride. Frankly, he did nothing remarkable here but that was OK because he didn’t have a whole lot to work with in the Braves’ organization.

Lemon was known for his success as Cleveland Indians’ rigthander and, for New York Giants’ fans — like yours truly — for serving up Dusty Rhodes’ Game 1 wining homer in the 1954 Series. The Giants swept the series 4-0.

He also had a bunch of words to live by, including my favorite: “Baseball was made for kids; grownups only screw it up.”

Until next time ...

Jerry Lindquist can be reached

by email at mbl749@comcast.net.

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