Wednesday, 20 February 2013


A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook, about her child’s birthday party; and bowling was one of the activities for the afternoon.  It made me smile because I remember doing the same, once or twice, during my childhood birthdays.  Lots of giggling and gutter balls, if I recall.

These days, on the rare occasion that I bowl, it’s in a trendy, cocktail bar/restaurant/karaoke bowling alley, such as Bloomsbury Lanes, in Central London.  Still a lot of giggling and gutter balls; but the cocktails and karaoke add a whole new level of fun!

In 1895, the American Bowling Congress (ABC) was established in New York City, by restaurateur, Joe Thum, becoming the first bowling organization in the United States. This was soon joined by similar organizations geared toward female bowlers, the Women International Bowling Congress (WIBC). These groups began creating the standard rules for bowling that have survived to the modern day. At the same time, the sport's image among the upper classes was enhanced by the opening of more luxurious and elegant alleys like The White Elephant in New York City, opened by Joe Thum, whom many consider to be the father of bowling, along with Dick Weber.

Joe Thum
Membership in the ABC also peaked at just under 4.6 million male bowlers by the 1960s. The popularity of the sport in America was perhaps no more evident than when Don Carter became the first athlete of any kind to sign a $1 million endorsement contract, cementing a multi-year deal with Ebonite International, the leading bowling equipment company, in 1964. By comparison, pro-golfer, Arnold Palmer, earned just $5,000, in 1961, endorsing Wilson golf equipment; and NFL quarterback, Joe Namath, made just $10,000 in 1968 to famously shave off his moustache with a Schick razor.  Bowling was kingpin!

Don Carter

Milwaukee became America's Tenpin Capital a century ago when Milwaukee proprietor Abe Langtry lobbied to bring the American Bowling Congress tournament to Milwaukee in 1905, then was elected secretary of the men's governing body two years later. The Women's International Bowling Congress joined the ABC in Milwaukee when Jeannette Knepprath governed that body from 1924-60.

American Bowling Congress Tournament, 1905
Jeannette Knepprath

1907 female bowler

The ABC and WIBC cooperated to share headquarters in Greendale, Wisconsin, and then merged to form the USBC, which includes the former governing body of junior bowling, as well.  
The USBC is now headquartered in Arlington, Texas.

Meanwhile, in 1930, British anthropologist, Sir Flinders Petrie, along with a team of archaeologists, discovered various primitive bowling balls, bowling pins and other materials, in the grave of an Egyptian boy, dating to 3200 BC. Their discovery represents the earliest known historical trace of bowling.

Sir Flinders Petrie

Ironically, although Egyptians are considered to be people of color, and seemed to have founded the sport of bowling, the ABC, WIBC and eventually, USBC, did not accept people of color into their clubs.

So, the only solution was to form a bowling club that African-Americans could join. The National Negro Bowling Association (NNBA) formed on August 20, 1939, in Detroit, Michigan, for the sole purpose of encouraging Black people to develop their skills in the game of Ten Pin Bowling.

1939 National Negro Bowling Association members

The NNBA held its first tournament in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1939. The organization included teams from Detroit, Michigan; Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus and Toledo, Ohio; Indianapolis, Indiana; Chicago, Illinois; and Racine, Wisconsin. Teams from other parts of the United States joined the association; but bowlers from Cleveland, Chicago, and Detroit dominated the league until the 1950s.

The Association welcomed people of all races, but African-Americans continued to dominate the group's membership. One of the organization's presidents, during the 1950s, was William DeHart Hubbard, an African-American sports legend, from Cincinnati.

William DeHart Hubbard

When not bowling, the members actively participated in the fight for "Equality in Bowling"; and in 1950, both ABC and WIBC removed the Non-Caucasian clauses from their constitutions – thus allowing for Whites and Blacks to compete in the same leagues and tournaments.  A primary reason for this change was legal pressure from the NAACP, in partnership with The National Bowling Association (TNBA).

The TNBA continues to exist today. In 2007, the organization had a membership of thirty thousand adult members. The association also oversaw approximately five hundred separate leagues within the United States.

TNBA Tournament

Some significant, TNBA milestones include:

·      1978: J. Elmer Reed, from Cleveland, Ohio, became the first Black person to be inducted into the American Bowling Congress Hall of Fame
·      1980: Mr. Aubrey Harrison bowled the first 300 game in TNBA in Los Angeles.

J. Elmer Reed
When bowling if one wants to really look the part, they wear a bowling shirt (in fact, bowling shirts can also be considered to be quite fashionable. Earlene Fuller was an African-American seamstress and bowler, who designed and made bowling outfits for numerous, Black and White teams, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and elsewhere, from 1970 through the mid-1990s.  An excellent bowler, herself, Earleane won several regional tournaments, was TNMA’s Women’s Single Champion in 1979, and bowled a perfect 300-game in 1983. She was elected to the Milwaukee Women’s Bowling Association Hall of Fame, in 1992.  Louise Fulton was the first African-American to win a professional bowling championship.  Eric DeFreitas was the first Black bowler to become a member of the AMF Staff of Champions, and one of the first Black members of the Professional Bowlers Association.

Earlene Fuller, with teammates

Louise Fulton
Eric DeFreitas

Until the mid-1980s there was little, if any, new investment in the sport, with the decline in interest being partially attributed to the complicated scoring system, especially as it was a manual process then. However, this all changed with the introduction of automated electronic scoring systems.

However, eventually, re-investment occurred, in the 1980s, which led to the construction of many bright, modern and attractive sites and began the second golden age of bowling. During the late 1980s and early 1990s the number of ten-pin bowling alleys across the UK, for instance, rose to over two hundred. This was higher than it had ever been in the sixties, then the peak of the sport's popularity.

Today, over 100 million bowlers play in over 90 different countries. More men and women worldwide bowl than play any other sport, with the possible exception of football (soccer). Bowling has far more registered dues-paying participants than any other sport. Even President Obama bowls! The USBC, for example, reported over 2.6 million members in 2008. The bowling industry spends significantly more money, each year, than any other sport, on airlines, restaurants, hotels and rental cars.  There is also an active movement to make bowling an Olympic sport.

President Obama Bowling

Bowling may not be the most glamorous of sports; but it does have an appeal that has endured for centuries.  How can you not like a sport where a ‘strike’ means you’re probably winning?  TNBA, in its 74th year of existence, has over 23,000 members contained in over 100 local chapters throughout the country, plus Bermuda.

If you are looking for me, this weekend, I will probably be at Bloomsbury Lanes, with my friends, who are from every race. Now, if we could only do something about the shoes…

Sources:  The National Bowling Association, Ohio History Central, Wisconsin Historical Society, Google Images

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