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History of Duckpins

The origin of the sport is a subject of some debate. One possible origin is that duckpin bowling began in Baltimore around 1900, at a bowling, billiards and pool hall owned by future baseball Hall of Famers John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson, both of the then Baltimore Orioles.

The following excerpt is taken from The Book of Duckpin Bowling, by Henry Fankhauser and Frank Micalizzi.

The sport of duckpins was born at the old Diamond Alleys on Howard Street in Baltimore, Maryland. Diamond Alleys was owned by a couple of members of the old Baltimore Orioles minor league club — Uncle Wilbert Robinson and John McGraw (you may remember McGraw as manager of baseball’s New York Giants in the early 1900’s).

At the turn of the century, bowling leagues operated only during the winter months. In the summer, many centers closed down. However, a few centers (including Diamond Alleys) remained open for open play during the spring and summer. Diamond Alleys had some smaller six inch balls that were used for such off-the-wall games as cocked-hat (using only the 1, 7, and 10 pins) and five back (using the 5, 7, 8, 9, and 10 pins).

During one of these matches, Frank Van Sant, the manager at Diamond Alleys, was drawn into a conversation about the small balls. Someone suggested that a set of his old, battered tenpins could be made over into little pins to conform to the six inch ball. Several days later, an old set was sent to John Dettmar, a wood-turner in Baltimore. About ten days later, Van Sant gathered all his regulars and dumped the new little pins in front of them.

Within minutes, the little pins were set up on the tenpin spots and the first unofficial “small ball” game was underway. Only two balls were used, as in tenpins, and score was kept in the same way. When Robinson and McGraw (whose other hobby was duck hunting) saw the pins fly as the ball plowed into them, they remarked that the pins looked like a “flock of flying ducks.” Bill Clarke, a sportswriter for the Baltimore Morning Sun, wrote a story on the fascinating new game and christened them “duckpins.” The name has stuck ever since.

However, according to a 2005 baseball book by Howard W. Rosenberg (Cap Anson 3: Muggsy John McGraw and the Tricksters: Baseball’s Fun Age of Rule Bending), an article from May 1894 in the Lowell Sun confirms the existence of duckpins. Rosenberg traced the story of crediting the origins of duckpins to McGraw and Robinson as far back as Shirley Povich of The Washington Post in the late 1930s.

A major hole in the origin of the whopper has since come to light. Now accessible on the Internet, thanks to the scanning in of old newspapers, is the Pittsburgh Press of March 3, 1929, which ran an article from Baltimore saying that Robinson “originated” the sport and also gave it its name.

In 1985, a 130-plus-page publication called Duckpins: The Tenth Frame cited related Lowell, Mass., coverage of duckpin bowling in May 1894. Writing in that publication, Bob Tkacz, of Newington, Connecticut, noted finding articles showing that a duckpin tournament was being held in Lowell at that time. The 1985 publication is not readily available from any U.S. library, which explains why Tkacz’s finding was easy to miss as the earliest known “in print” rebuttal of the Baltimore origin myth. Articles can be found in the Globe earlier than May 1894 showing the existence of the sport around Boston, before the 1880 invention of the candlepin bowling sport in Worcester took over after that time, eventually eliminating duckpin bowling centers in the immediate Boston metro area after World War II. According to Rosenberg, the earliest Globe reference to duckpins was on January 2, 1893.

Rosenberg’s book methodically accounted for Baltimore newspaper reporting in late 1899 and early 1900, when the sport seemingly was invented in Baltimore (at the McGraw-Robinson center). Baltimore Sun next-day reporting seems to credit the center for introducing the sport to Baltimore the night before.

In 1982, the Women’s National Duckpin Association was formed to give women a venue to compete in duckpins at a professional level. The organization conducts several tournaments yearly in New England and the Mid-Atlantic. The final tournament each year is called the Grand Prix.