The game of duckpins is an acquired taste. Invented around the turn of the century by John J. McGraw and Uncle Wilbert Robinson, the baseball managers ("Lookit, they scatter just like ducks," one of them said, giving the sport its name), the game has never really caught on as a form of mass recreation outside southern New England, Baltimore and Washington—where it is preeminent over even big-pin bowling.
Last month the game's leading practitioners gathered at Fair Lanes Southwest near Baltimore for the 18th annual National Duckpin All-Star Championships. They were competing for $10,200 in prize money and another chance to call the world's attention to duckpins' superiority over set-'em-up-in-the-other-alley bowling. Unfortunately, the message did not penetrate much beyond the Alleghenies.
No matter. To the true believer, a game of duckpins is its own reward. In contrast to tenpins, it is an imperfectible pursuit; a 300 game has never been rolled and probably never will be. Played on the same alley as its parent game, duckpins uses a ball only five inches in diameter and pins about 9½ inches tall. Since the pins are placed on the same spots as regular bowling pins, the gaps are larger and pin action far less automatic. The result is often a series of frustrating splits.
Strikes and spares are scored the same as in bowling, but the duckpin bowler gets a third roll in each frame if necessary. If he knocks down all the pins in three rolls, he scores 10. He does not concentrate on strikes as much as on getting a good break with the first ball—something like breaking the rack in pool. The crucial balls in duckpins are the second and third; in the championships, for example, Art Anderson of Mansfield, Mass. had only 16 strikes in his 18-game set, yet bowled a record 2,691 series on the strength of 103 spares. Scoring is, of course, much lower. The highest men's season average on record is around 140, while the top-ranked woman player of all time, Toots Barger of Pasadena, Md., has averaged as high as 135. The highest score ever is a 257.
Things might have been different for the sport's popularity if an inventor named Ken Sherman had been a bit more acquisitive. In 1954 Sherman invented an automatic pinspotter for duckpins—before it was invented for regular tenpins. When Brunswick and others tried to buy the rights to his device, however, Sherman turned them down, "because I didn't want to leave New England." AMF came along and developed its own spotter—for the big pins. Once the big-pin machines were installed in bowling establishments around the country there was no chance of duckpins' dislodging them. Fair Lanes' Promotion Director Bob Haux sums up the position in which this left his sport. "We recognize the need to elevate the game through some showmanship," he says.
And so, when the 88 qualifiers paraded onto the lanes to the tune of something suspiciously reminiscent of Buckle Up for Safety, Baltimore Mayor William Schaefer was on hand to lend a touch of showmanship. He cut the ribbon that opened the tournament and tried his hand with one of the "Thing-amajiggers," as he called them, and scored a 10.
The field was truly all-star in duckpinning terms. Among the 56 men and 32 women who qualified were Toots Barger, back after three years for the one title that had eluded her; Jimmy Dietsch, the No. 1-ranked male bowler of all time; and ageless Nick Tronsky, ranked No. 1 five times—first in 1931, last in 1962.
Dietsch was singularly unimpressed by Tronsky's reputation the first time they played in the 1940s. "What did I care who he was?" recalls Dietsch. "I was just a kid hustling. The first time I rolled him he couldn't break 115. I figured he was easy. Later on I got a chance to roll him again, and he didn't have a game under 170. He still calls me kid."
The qualifying games at Fair Lanes wiped out Barger, Dietsch and Tronsky, leaving things to the two defending champions, Ann L'Heureux of Riverside, R.I. and George Pelletier of Manchester, Conn., plus a field of would-be successors that included Pete Buccieri, a West Haven, Conn. truck driver who has been out of work since November; George Stuart Jr., a public accountant from Wareham, Mass.; and a confident 27-year-old competitor for L'Heureux's title, Pat Rinaldi of Chevy Chase, Md.
In the men's finals Buccieri grabbed an early lead, then hung on grimly as his game started to come unglued. But in his last match, against Stuart, who had crept to within a single pin, Buccieri took some advice his wife had given him earlier about following through. It helped, and with an impressive 176 in the second game, he put Stuart away handily.
The best drama of the night came in the women's finals, into which Rinaldi carried a 55-pin lead against the defending champion. The two represented a perfect contrast in styles. Rinaldi throws an explosive ball off an arching, contorted backswing in which the ball appears ready to head any direction except down-alley. L'Heureux's style is compact and businesslike. Her delivery features a short, slow approach, modified backswing and a dead-straight ball that impresses nobody but her opponents.
In the first game L'Heureux rolled a 145, which with her 30-pin victory bonus chopped 48 pins from Rinaldi's lead. The younger bowler kept her confidence, however, and opened the second game with five straight marks while L'Heureux missed spare breaks of the lone seven pin twice. Rinaldi's lead moved up to a formidable 69 pins. At this point L'Heureux says she told herself, "Old girl, keep pushing."
The old girl certainly did, with strikes in the second, fourth, fifth and sixth frames. Suddenly Rinaldi needed a doubleheader (back-to-back strikes) in the 10th to win. She got the first one, bringing the crowd to its feet, but her second ball left two, and L'Heureux had her second consecutive title by just four pins. "People say duckpins are fun," the champion remarked afterward. "They're ulcerating, that's what they are."
Meanwhile, Pat Rinaldi, in good spirits, drank some champagne and vowed, "Wait till next year." Sounds like something John J. McGraw might have said.