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Bowled Over

The room is completely silent. So silent, in fact, that everyone in the room is waiting to hear not one, but 10, pins drop. All eyes are on one man.

So far Pat Bottrall has bowled 11 strikes in a row. He steps up to the line. The tension is thick. Everyone in the bowling alley, whether they know him or not, is mentally wishing him well. He takes a moment to focus, steps and throws a perfect hook.

By Gary Artman
Photography by Jeff Hage/Green Frog Photo

All 10 pins go down, and the crowd erupts in a standing ovation that drowns out the announcement of the obvious — Bottrall has just bowled a 300, his first perfect game. It seems everyone comes over to slap him on the back and offer congratulations. Bottrall sits down to savor the moment. He has been bowling for 30 years.

“I was so close so many times before,” said Bottrall. “To be honest, what I felt more than anything else was a great sense of relief. I am glad I don’t have to worry about that anymore.”

But isn’t scoring a 300 the money shot of bowling? What else is there to do?

“ Score an 800 series,” Bottrall says. “Then I could retire.”

Bowling is a popular sport in the United States, but in Michigan, it comes close to a religion. According to the American Bowling Congress (ABC), the nation’s largest bowling association, Michigan has the highest number of registered bowlers (303,233) in the country and is second in the country in number of bowling lanes. Grand Rapids, which boasts about 8,000 bowlers on almost 400 teams, hosts the country’s largest bowling tournament, the City Tournament, which starts February 14 and ends April 25.

Unlike other sports (XFL, anyone?), bowling doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon, because throughout history it has successfully adapted to the changing times, surviving as a source of entertainment, fraternity — even penance — for thousands of years.

The earliest record of a bowling-like game comes from ancient Egypt, where archaeologists found drawings of Egyptian men rolling rocks down an alleyway at stone objects. Roman armies, who used to roll rocks down hills to take out large numbers of their enemies, adapted that war sport as a fun way to pass the time between conquerings.

During the Dark Ages, some churches in Germany and the Netherlands would house heides (later called kegles), a rounded wooden object with a flat bottom that stood about two feet tall. Each heide represented a sin. A sinner would enter the church, pick up a round stone, and roll it toward the hiedes. If all were knocked down, the sinner received atonement. If not, then it was his turn to buy the next round of ale at the local tavern.

In the 17th century, when Dutch, English and German explorers began coming in droves to the New World, they brought their games of kegling and skittles with them. As the country grew, so did the love of the game, although nothing was nationally organized until the 1890s when the ABC was formed and, with it, the rules of the game that have endured mostly unchanged to this day.

In the early days of the ABC, bowling was a sport primarily enjoyed by male factory workers. Alleys would form leagues with workers from local factories and would often stay open 24 hours a day to accommodate all shifts. World War II brought Rosie into the factories, and with the influx of female workers came a surge in women’s bowling. In 1900, there were 40 members of the Women’s International Bowling Congress (WIBC). Today that number is in the millions.

With the arrival of women in the bowling alleys came a fundamental change in the sport itself: While formerly a place where men could be men (read: where men could get drunk and start fights with strangers), bowling alleys soon became family affairs complete with florescent paint, bumper bowling and French fries.

So what is it about bowling that keeps people coming back? No matter whom you ask, the answers are surprisingly similar.

Pat Cross is secretary of the Grand Rapids Bowling Association. If you are a member of a sanctioned bowling league in Grand Rapids, chances are he knows your name. When asked why bowling has remained popular through the years, he says that camaraderie is a big draw.

“Bowling is a very social sport,” he says. “If you’re on a league, then every week you know you will have a few hours to spend with four or five people on your team and the members of the team you are bowling against. That is probably the biggest reason why people continue to play this sport. It is a big part of why I have been bowling for over 50 years now.”

Dan Schlenk, who bowls on two leagues in Grand Rapids, agrees. “I like the comraderie that bowling offers. Nobody has to bowl well to enjoy the sport. People are very supportive of your progress, no matter how fast or slow that progress is.”

Pat Bottrall offers a more practical answer: “If you don’t have a snowmobile, what else are you going to do all winter in West Michigan!”

Another reason given for the popularity of bowling is that anyone can do it—and has the potential to do it well.

“The nice thing about bowling in a league is that every time you throw your ball, it could be a strike. You simply never know until you throw the ball,” said Earl Haney, who helps run three leagues in West Michigan.

He pauses, then adds,“Of course, it’s easier if your lane isn’t too dry or too oily — that can really mess your game up.”

While the rules of bowling remain unchanged, the technology has plowed ahead, providing bowlers with less-than-perfect form more opportunities to score big. Wood lanes have been mostly replaced by polyurethane. There are bowling balls for people who hook and for people who throw perfectly straight. There are grips to stabilize hand movement. Depending on who you ask, these changes could either be a good thing — or not.

“ People are getting higher scores today, but I think the game itself is less competitive,” says Cross. “Someone could score a 230 this week and a 117 next week. A while ago, that didn’t happen too much — players stayed pretty consistent.”

Are there any other reasons for the continued popularity of bowling?

Well, there’s the money.

Every week, somewhere in America, there is a bowling tournament taking place. The majority of these tournaments award cash prizes to the top bowlers. How much money? Depends on the tournament, but individual prizes can number in the thousands.

Haney, who has won some of those thousands, says that going to a tournament is like going to a weekend-long party with your old college buddies. “You go to a different city and meet people in the hospitality suite and have a good time. Then you go and bowl nine games with them; then after bowling we go out to the bars and have more fun. I make friends in every tournament I go to. If I didn’t have so much fun, I wouldn’t come back every year.”

Which sums up the appeal of the sport. Despite the ways the world has changed, bowling has pretty much stayed true to its roots, and manages to attract new people every day. Bowling is in many ways the peanut butter and jelly of sports: It doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is, it offers a comfort level that few other sports can touch, and every time you try it you remember again how much you enjoy it. GR

Gary Artman is a free-lance writer who lives in Grand Rapids. He currently carries a 140 average.

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