Jon De Vos " Five millennia and still rolling strong
May 28, 2009
Strolling through the rows of slot machines in Reno’s newest and largest casino, the Silver Legacy, there are no clocks or windows to distract you. It’s a fantasy world of flashing lights and electronic noises, punctuated by the occasional clunking of quarters in the payout tray. The whole scene is underscored with the smell of stale cigarettes and alcohol … Oh, My God, look! Over on that back row, there’s a skeleton in a tattered dress sitting in front of one of the penny machines, arm outstretched with her bony fingers wrapped around the lever … how gruesome. Don’t they ever dust these places?
We were in Reno because my wife and her Grand County teammates, the Fallen Angels, were bowling in the 90th Annual USBC Women’s Championship Tournament, a contest that will draw more than 60,000 bowlers from all over the world before it ends July 5. We were in the Silver Legacy because gambling revenue is so far down, casinos are giving away the rooms to entice people to part with their unemployment check. The National Bowling Stadium, an extravaganza this country boy has never seen, is less than a block away. In gratitude to the casino, I slipped a quarter into a slot machine and walked away without pulling the handle. You do what you can.
Bowling is an ancient sport. Archeologists recently unearthed a turquoise shirt with wide black lapels that had “ERNIE’S PLUMBING ” CIRCA 1068″ embroidered in pink letters on the back. OK, I made that up, but it is true that King Edward III banned it in 1366 because it was interfering with archery practice. Artifacts in Egyptian tombs place the origins of ball-rolling games more than 5,000 years ago.
Dutch settlers brought the sport to America in a gambling game called ninepins but quickly ran afoul of flinty-eyed Puritans who outlawed it under penalty of death for repeat offenders. To avoid that setback to their game, bowlers added one pin, creating the theoretically legal game of tenpins, much like the game we play today.
Bocce is an Italian style of lawn bowling played with a backstop. In France, it’s called Boules except in the south where it’s called Petanque. English Lawn Bowling has origins back in the Roman Empire.
The American Bowling Congress, chartered in 1895 in New York City, brought some standardization to the game. Twenty years later the Women’s International Congress was formed, accidentally forgetting the word “Bowling” in their haste to grab onto men’s bowling balls. A pint-sized version called duckpins led to the foundation of The National Duckpin Bowling Congress in 1927. Despite throwing three balls per frame, duckpin bowlers have never achieved a perfect 300 game.
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Now, as fascinating as all this is, the story isn’t over. There came a heresy among duckpin advocates in the late 1930s when adherents began wrapping their pins tightly with rubber bands, claiming far more “action” and excitement but still no perfect game. In 1946, they formed The American Rubberband Duckpin Bowling Congress with membership limited to those who could still say the name after half a dozen beers.
In the early days of American bowling, children were a dime-a-dozen and pins were set by hand. Pin-setting was a dangerous job for nimble kids until 1945 when AMC invented the automatic pin setter and began installing the new-fangled devices throughout America, spurring popularity of the sport as they spread. Automatic scoring machines became popular in the 1990s, causing the demise of the tiny yellow pencil.
So, next time you line up on the 7-10 split, remember some Egyptian plumber first picked it up 5,000 years ago.