An interesting conversation took place on Twitter recently between two regular Twelve Mile Circle readers, @CTMQ and @oxwof. They linked me in at the tail-end of their friendly discussion about two unusual and quite rare variations of Ten-pin bowling: Duckpins and Candlepins. They’d answered most of their questions by the time I arrived on the scene. I still had something to add about Duckpin bowling although it took me a few days to get back to them.
I had a vague recollection of playing Duckpins at a friend’s birthday party somewhere in the hazy past. I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old. Maybe I dreamed it. I’m not sure. It always seemed to be a "Maryland Thing." We Virginia folks didn’t like to cross the river into Maryland much except maybe to watch the Orioles play baseball a couple times a summer. I knew Duckpins existed although it always seemed so mysterious.
Duckpin bowling concentrated in the northeastern United States, in places like Maryland of course, and also in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. A few lanes existed as outliers here-and-there in other places as well. Nobody knew how Duckpins began with any degree of certainty. Some sources pegged Massachusetts as its birthplace, and others said Maryland, happening somewhere around 1900. Either way it retained a nostalgic popularity in its tiny enclaves. The sport even supported a governing body, the National Duckpin Bowling Congress.
I’m on the Case
I needed to try Duckpin bowling for myself. Most of the Maryland lanes clustered near Baltimore although a few straggled towards the District of Columbia border. One alley nearly penetrated the Beltway, only about a half-hour drive from my home. That fortunate placement convinced me to drag my wife and my younger son up to Silver Spring, Maryland (map) on a fine Saturday morning, to the White Oak Bowling Lanes. My older son decided he’d rather stay at home and sleep until noon like any other Saturday. His loss.
White Oak Lanes described itself as,
… Virtually Unchanged Since It Opened Way Back in 1959. There Are Still No Computers, All Scores Are Kept By Hand. If You Came Here As A Kid And Return As An Adult, It Will Feel Like You Never Left.
Check out the equipment! I think they were entirely serious about the 1959 reference. Nothing seemed to have been swapped-out or replaced in the last half-century. It made sense the more I thought about it. There couldn’t possibly be much of a market for new Duckpin bowling alley equipment anymore. They probably needed to improvise their own parts just to keep those ancient machines running. I noticed that they used an old doorbell ringer as a reset button. That was another interesting feature; nothing on these lanes happened automatically except for the ball return. Players had to get fresh pins after each frame by pressing the reset button. A little marker farther down to the left (along the rail by the balls) said "Deadwood." That cleared away any knocked-over pins remaining on the lane during a player’s turn. Players got up to three balls for each turn — not two — so the deadwood button got some use.
Giving it a Try
Then I rolled my first Duckpin ball in decades. The lane seemed normal. The balls, however, differed greatly from anything I’d ever experienced in Ten-pin bowling. They fit into the palm of my hand and they didn’t have any finger holes. Also they weighed a lot less, generally between 3 pounds 6 ounces (1.5 kg) to 3 pounds 12 ounces (1.7 kg). My son liked them a lot. He found them much easier to control. Actually we saw a lot of younger kids there, perhaps for the same reason. Duckpin bowling seemed well suited to their little arms and hands.
Those Tiny Pins
I didn’t have my good camera with me so I took photos with my outdated mobile phone with a lousy zoom. Nonetheless I think the photo gave an appreciation of the pin size. They were a lot smaller and more squat than traditional Ten-pin. Combining small balls with small pins created a devilishly difficult game. I threw a number of balls that would have been easy strikes or spares in Ten-pin that barely knocked anything over. Here, I could throw a ball directly into the middle of the pins and sometimes knock down only one or two of them. Duckpin balls carried significantly less force than Ten-pin balls and the pins didn’t bounce as much. It required much greater precision. That’s why players got three balls per turn, although it didn’t make much of difference for me because I lacked any skills.
Theoretically a player could score 300 points just like in Ten-pin. However, even after more than a century of continuous play, nobody has ever officially bowled a perfect Duckpin game. The highest score ever recorded remained at 279.
The duckpins.com website described an even more rare version called rubber band duckpins found basically only in Québec. A rubber band circled the pin so they bounced more, creating higher scores. I don’t think even that would have helped me.
Well, I lost, and I got robbed in the final frame of the second game too. I threw the ball perfectly and it knocked down only a single pin on my final try. Not that I’m bitter.
Keeping score was a little different because of the three balls per turn. Strikes and spares were recorded exactly like Ten-pin. Knocking down all remaining pins on the third turn just counted as ten though, with no bonus. It wasn’t like we had to worry about a lot of strikes and spares.
We’ll probably try it again someday. Actually now I want to try Candlepin bowling. It seems to overlap with Duckpins in parts of Massachusetts and Connecticut. I wondered if there was a place in New England were someone could find Candlepin, Duckpin and Ten-pin bowling all in the same town! That might be my quest the next time I go up there.