By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 3, 1999; Page D11
Squat little pins, palm-size balls and plenty of fried food -- the
combination has been splitting eardrums and clogging arteries in the
Washington area since duckpin bowling was born in Maryland nearly a
But the beloved "ducks" are endangered across the country and even in
the region where they were invented -- by a pair of Baltimore Orioles --
1900. Nationwide, 22 duckpin houses have closed in recent years, leaving
roughly 80. Seven of those that closed were in the Washington area. And
with the game's popularity sagging, more closings are expected.
Good riddance, some parents might say, recalling the clamor of children
bouncing bowling balls off hard-waxed duckpin floors.
Fans, however, are lamenting the carnage and blaming one company for
the rapid demise of their sport: AMF Bowling Inc., the Richmond-based
industry giant. "Eventually, there won't be any ducks," said John
Shanahan, president of the Baltimore Duckpin Bowlers Association.
Executives at AMF, owned by Goldman Sachs & Co., a Wall Street
investment bank, say they have nothing against the game. To understand
the closings, they say, look 7,000 miles away -- in China, of all places.
That country was in the grip of a bowling craze a few years ago, with a
new bowling alley built every other week and AMF scooping up profit
from construction. But the Asian financial crisis last year caused AMF's
China business to dry up, sending the company's profit into the gutter.
With money tight, AMF all but abandoned duckpins, which aren't nearly
as profitable as tenpin lanes.
"Asia killed us," said Merril Wreden, a company vice president. "If the
duckpin lanes aren't carrying their weight, we can't afford to keep them
Yet it isn't likely that another company will leap to fill the duckpin void.
The sport isn't exactly thriving. Plus, AMF has been selling its used
pinsetters overseas. That's a huge problem because the sole manufacturer
of the contraptions that reset tumbled pins went out of business in 1969;
duckpin owners have since been refurbishing pinsetters, or hoping to buy
old ones from competitors when they go out of business.
Wreden says AMF would love to make money from the game, but that
isn't happening. And he said nobody at the company remembers inquiries
from any prospective pinsetters buyers.
"There is no nefarious scheme here," Wreden said. "We don't denigrate
duckpin bowling at all. There simply isn't much demand for it."
Demand? Who cares, ask devotees, who view their game as a local
treasure that should be protected from standard profit-loss analysis.
AMF, on the other hand, views the game as a business and must answer
to unsentimental shareholders.
In its broad themes -- the demands of commerce colliding with those of
preservation -- the fight is older than the pulse-quickening rush of a
With its relatively light balls, duckpin bowling doesn't require much brute
strength, and the pins scatter like birds -- hence the name -- when struck.
The game can be played by children, who could never hoist a regular
bowling ball. But it's famously exasperating to anyone seeking super-high
scores. Spares and strikes are rare, and nobody has ever recorded a
perfect game of 300, a nearly routine occurrence in tenpins.
Even a superb shot to the headpin will leave stragglers if the ball doesn't
arrive at the ideal speed or angle. The balls are so small that they
frequently seem to whiz through crowds of pins without grazing them.
By contrast, tenpin balls are heavier and larger, and the bigger pins seem
far more willing to fall. More than 30,000 perfect games of 300 were
recorded in tenpins last year alone. The highest score ever in duckpins is
279, according to Chuck Lavin of the Duckpin Bowling Congress.
"There's no question, duckpins is a frustrating game," Lavin said.
That's a selling point to die-hards, though, who say that ducks, like life,
about the endless quest for perfection that seems forever out of reach.
Maryland nearly designated the game its state sport until politicians
realized that ditching the current one, jousting, would require making over
the state seal, which features a knight on horseback.
The low scores have limited the game's popularity to Maryland, Virginia,
pockets of North Carolina, Connecticut and Rhode Island. From a peak
of 1,200 houses in the mid-1960s, there are just 80 today. Bowl America
Inc., an Alexandria-based chain that started as a ducks-only enterprise,
now owns only two houses with duck lanes.
All of bowling is hurting. Though it remains the country's most popular
indoor sport, the nation's 6,500 houses are pinched.
Nonetheless, three years ago, Goldman Sachs spotted an opportunity in
bowling. Why not consolidate the nation's independent houses and create
a national bowling brand?
If the brand were strong enough, the company reasoned, customers would
seek it out and AMF would profit by leveraging its size into deep
discounts from distributors for food and beverage, a huge share of every
house's revenue. Sellers, they figured, would be easy to find because so
many houses are run by families eager to cash out.
In 1996 Goldman bought a majority stake in AMF for $1.1 billion and the
company began a buying spree, snapping up about 200 U.S. bowling
alleys and more than doubling the company's domestic holdings to 421
venues. Wall Street loved the concept; when AMF went public in 1997,
shares quickly soared from $19.50 to a high of $31. Rolling up the sleepy
bowling world seemed like a masterstroke.
"If we got into 1,000 markets, there could be $3 million in the registers
a Monday morning," Joe Schoenberg, an AMF vice president, said in a
recent interview. "There aren't too many businesses tossing off that kind
But in 1997, when the Asian financial crisis caused nearly all of AMF's
construction deals in China to vanish, "our bowling-products division went
from $80 million a year to $8 million a year," AMF's Wreden said. "Wall
Street looked at that and said, 'Not good.' "
Shares of PIN, as it's identified on the New York Stock Exchange,
started sinking, and closed Thursday at $4.18 3/4, up 18 3/4 cents. AMF
was forced to jettison houses that weren't contributing healthy sums to the
The duckpin houses were obvious cuts. The game has always been the
runt brother of the bowling world, and AMF makes tenpin balls and pins,
but no duckpin equipment.
The AMF house in Arbutus, near Baltimore, was closed. Next came the
24 lanes in Joppa, then 40 lanes in Middlesex, and then 32 lanes in
Harford. And so on. Aficionados tick off the names like war veterans
recalling fallen buddies.
Equally wrenching to them is the fate of AMF's pinsetters, many of which
wound up overseas. Since Sherman Co. went out of business three
decades ago, the only new pinsetters are those manufactured by Mendes
Inc., a Quebec company that markets a device using strings to re-hoist
pins. But veterans won't come near Mendes machines, worried, against all
evidence to the contrary, that the strings reduce scores. When a Glen
Burnie operator installed two Mendes lanes recently, they were snubbed
by regulars and quickly ripped out.
So duckpin owners are accustomed to patching up their Sherman
pinsetters and buying others when available. The seven AMF closings
could have yielded a mother lode, but the company sold some Shermans
in the Philippines and harvested others for spare parts for their remaining
Lavin said that's part of the reason nobody is building duckpin houses in
the United States. "We get two calls a month from people asking how
they can get into the business," he said. "We tell them you have to wait
somebody to shut down. Then they put their money elsewhere."
AMF's new acting chief executive recently announced that the company
has regained some of its financial footing and will resume purchasing
bowling alleys. On Monday, the company offered a shard of hope to
duckpin fans when it announced plans to restore the 12 lanes in Timonium
that it had recently replaced by tenpins. It's not much, but the Baltimore
Duckpin Bowlers Association's Shanahan will take the good news where
"I wish I could do something about it," he said, "but I can't make them stay
Tenpins vs. Duckpins
The duckpin game began in Baltimore about 1900 and was widely played
in the Washington-Baltimore area and on the East Coast, but its popularity
has been dropping.
Balls: Ball weighs from 10 to 16 pounds, not more than 27 inches in
Pins: 15 inches high
Rolls: Two per frame
Balls: Lighter, smaller ball: no more than 3 pounds, 12 ounces in weight
five inches in diameter
Pins: 9-13/32 inches high
Rolls: Three per frame
Number of duckpin lanes
Top areas for duckpins, number of lanes
D.C. area 208
Rhode Island 140
Hagerstown area 131
SOURCES: National Duckpin Bowling Congress, World Book
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company