BOWLING, once the leading participant sport in the nation, bowling's growth was tied to the development of the large urban areas where the game was most popular. In its early days, bowling was essentially a workingman's sport played in taverns, where a few alleys were set up to attract the drinking trade; as interest in the game grew, however, it moved away from its saloon-origin and gained respectability. During and after World War II the number of bowlers increased dramatically when technological advances and prosperity encouraged the building of large, commodious establishments where whole families could enjoy the sport. Bowling's popularity leveled off in the 1970s and began to decline as other athletic interests claimed the public's attention.
Over the centuries, various forms of bowling with and without pins developed in many countries. The American colonists, particularly the English and Dutch, enjoyed bowling out of doors; however, the organized indoor sport as it evolved in this country derived from the German game of ninepins, bowled on baked-clay alleys. The first indoor alleys were built in New York City in 1840, where the game was popular among German immigrants. Closely associated with gambling, ninepins play was forbidden by law in Connecticut and New York, and to circumvent the prohibition, a 10th pin was added to the game. It was this indoor game of American tenpins that became popular in urban areas of the country after the Civil War. The efforts to standardize the game rules, equipment, and alley conditions were not successful until the American Bowling Congress, founded in 1895, slowly gained authority over the sport. The ABC's organizing efforts were concentrated in the growing midwestern cities, such as Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Cleveland, and it was there that the game flourished.
In Cleveland, the first bowling alley was established in 1872 at 97 Bank (W. 6th) St., but the game did not grow in popularity until the first decade of the 20th century. Between 1901-07, the number of bowling alleys more than doubled, and by 1905 the Cleveland Bowling Assn., an affiliate of the ABC, had been organized to govern the sport. In 1907 the CBA identified 29 leagues made up of 240 teams, many of which were sponsored by local businesses. Independent teams and hundreds of occasional bowlers also utilized the alleys, most of which were still operated in conjunction with saloons, where patrons could drink and gamble on the matches. Although the sport was popular with Germans in Cleveland, who owned a number of the major alleys, participation was citywide, encompassing most groups. Women also began to bowl, and by 1916 there was enough interest, particularly in the Midwest, to form the Women's National Bowling Congress—later the Women's Intl. Bowling Congress (WIBC). Cleveland women were specifically encouraged to bowl at E. M. Helm's alleys on E. 13th St., and in 1918 the Cleveland Women's Bowling Assn. was organized. Although bowling was still primarily a male sport, by the mid-1930s about 7,000 women were bowling.
The game's popularity grew steadily throughout the 1920s and 1930s. In Cleveland there were approx. 20,000-21,000 men and women bowling in 3,000 leagues by 1937, with another 12,000-13,000 occasional bowlers. Although the sport remained popular during the Depression, competition for patrons among proprietors was keen. The smaller alleys cut prices to attract more customers in the early 1930s, and in an effort to establish uniform prices, a local committee of proprietors prepared an industry code under the National Recovery Act. Approved by the National Bowling Proprietors' Assn., a standard price of $.20 per game was set, with pinboys paid $.04 for each game they worked. Their wages were raised in 1938 when Cleveland's billiard and bowling alley employees organized Local 48A of the Building Service Employees and negotiated a contract with 46 of the 50 large bowling establishments. The contract, covering more than 500 pinsetters, pinboy supervisors, billiard-parlor rack boys, and janitorial help, called for a closed shop, with pinboys receiving $.06 for every league game they set and minimum wage increases of $2 per week for the other employees. The game benefited from improved technology when American Machine & Foundry developed a rack into which 10 pins could be loaded by the pinboy and then reset. The rack provided a more consistent alignment of the pins, and games could be bowled more quickly. They were used in Cleveland by 1939 and became standard equipment in bowling centers during the war.
The bowling boom began in earnest during World War II, when wartime employers sponsored teams in industrial leagues as a morale booster for their workers. The number of bowling centers in Cleveland increased from 59 in 1939 to 106 in 1945; with many alleys open from 8:00 A.M. to 3:00 A.M., 7 days a week, both league and open bowling provided needed recreation for men and women working in shifts around the clock. These centers installed modern lighting, comfortable furnishings, and air conditioning for year-round bowling. By adding lunch counters and soda fountains, they created a new environment in which the bar (now called a cocktail lounge) was no longer dominant but served as an adjunct to the main business of bowling. Whereas in 1940 there had been 12 million bowlers in America, by 1948 the figure had risen to about 20 million, making it the leading participant sport in the nation.
The spectacular growth continued after the war as further technological innovation and prosperity combined to expand the bowling population, which for the first time included black participation in ABC-sanctioned leagues and tournaments. Previously barred from the ABC, blacks (see AFRICAN AMERICANS) in Cleveland and other urban areas formed their own leagues in the 1930s. Clevelander J. ELMER REED organized the Cleveland Bowlers group (later known as the Cleveland Bowling Senate) and helped found the National Negro Bowling Assn., which governed black bowling. After World War II, industrial recreation groups were concerned about the ABC restriction, since black employment in manufacturing had increased significantly during the war, and industrial bowling leagues were still the backbone of the sport. Both the ABC and the WIBC were urged to change their policies, and in 1950 the ABC opened up its leagues and tournaments to all after being found guilty of racial discrimination in Illinois; the WIBC immediately followed suit.
The technology that truly revolutionized postwar bowling was the automatic pinspotter, which swept the alley clear of fallen pins, respotted the remaining pins, and returned the ball to the bowler, eliminating the need for pinboys. First demonstrated by AMF in 1946, it was made fully automatic by 1952 and installed in bowling centers all over the country. Bowling was now a big business; and although a large initial investment was required to install the automatic pin spotters, lane owners could profitably operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with little overhead. By 1971 there were approx. 51.8 million bowlers in the nation.
Cleveland shared the national postwar bowling boom and the economic prosperity that fueled it. Automatic pinspotters had been installed in 10 bowling centers here by 1955, and larger, more luxurious alleys continued to be built, particularly in the suburbs, where many offered free bowling lessons, coffee, and babysitting to attract homemakers to the alleys. Although construction costs were high (about $50,000 per lane for building, land, and equipment by 1970), the potential profit, availability of bank loans, and immediate cash flow when the lanes opened attracted groups of investors successful in business and professions unrelated to bowling. By the mid-1970s these alleys were filled with 100,000 men and women bowling in sanctioned leagues (those governed by the ABC and WIBC), an increase of about 28% since 1954. Non-sanctioned-league participants, junior bowling programs, and recreational bowlers accounted for more than 200,000 additional bowlers. Much of this increase was due to women bowlers, whose participation doubled in 20 years. League competition became so prevalent that the dominance of factory worker teams was challenged by thousands of professional businessmen and women who took up the sport.
As a participant sport all age groups could enjoy, bowling was a social and economic success, and TELEVISION made it a popular spectator sport as well by presenting professional bowling tournaments as entertainment. The Professional Bowlers Assn., founded in 1958, organized a national tour by attracting corporate sponsorship of its televised tournaments. Cleveland had been a regular stop on the PBA national tour since 1974. Nationwide, bowling's growth leveled off in the mid-1970s, and by 1984 participation had declined by about 13%. There was increased competition for the recreational dollar from other athletic interests; and with the more unstructured lifestyle of the 1970s, a weekly commitment to league bowling became a less attractive option. Women's participation in particular declined as more of them took jobs outside the home. In Cleveland these reasons, combined with the loss of jobs and population, resulted in a much sharper decline, averaging about 22% from 1974-84. According to the Greater Cleveland Bowling Proprietor's Assn., in 1974 there were 53,361 men's league bowlers and 50,838 women's league bowlers; in 1984 those numbers had dropped to 43,393 and 37,391, respectively. In the 1980s, however, more senior citizens took up bowling, and local proprietors offered special promotions to lure open bowlers to the alleys. In 1985 these efforts brought a slight upturn in the number of open games bowled.
Over the years Cleveland has produced outstanding bowlers, 7 of whom have been inducted into the ABC Hall of Fame: Walter War, Joe Bodis, Joe Kissoff, Steve Nagy, Harry Smith, Walter (Skang) Mercurio, and John Klares; along with Sam Levine, publisher of the Cleveland Kegler, and J. Elmer Reed, who were chosen for meritorious service to the sport. Local members of the WIBC Hall of Fame are bowlers Goldie Greenwald and Grayce Hatch, and Josephine Mraz, a founder and long-time secretary of the Cleveland Women's Bowling Assn. As an industrial urban area, Cleveland shared in the steady growth of bowling as a popular national sport from the turn of the century until the mid-1970s. Since that time, national interest in bowling has waned, but the decrease in economic opportunity and loss of population in Cleveland has caused a more severe decline in the sport.
Mary B. Stavish
Case Western Reserve Univ.