Duckpin bowling was once a sport synonymous with the city of Baltimore. In its heyday during the 1960s, more than 1,200 lanes could be found throughout the region. Now the Patterson Bowling Center in East Baltimore is one of just a few facilities in the area keeping the sport alive.
Keeping the old Sherman pin-setting machines running at Patterson Bowling Center is a lot like keeping a 1955 car on the road, says Charles McElhose, Sr., co-owner of the duckpin bowling enterprise along with his wife, Theresa.
And just like old cars, “They don’t make the parts anymore,” he says. Since the machines haven’t been manufactured for decades, McElhose has parts fabricated and buys machinery from defunct bowling businesses to keep the pin-setting apparatus up and running. He is investigating 3-D printing as his next resource.
Billed on its website as “the oldest operating duckpin bowling alley in the nation,” Patterson Bowling Center has been around since 1927. The McElhoses bought the business in 1995 from Bernie Ruzin, son of Martin Ruzin, who started the bowling alley in 1927. Until 1955, the business used “pin boys” to set up the pins. Duckpin bowling uses smaller balls and shorter pins than the traditional 10-pin bowling.
The sport’s height of popularity was in the 1960s, “with more than 1,200 lanes and numerous bowling centers,” according to a 1993 article by Baltimore Sun reporter Jacques Kelly. Charles McElhose attributes the decline of the sport to the internet and a plethora of TV channels. “Over the years, the internet allowed people to sit at home and play games on the computer and talk to friends. … Back in the ’60s, there were only three [TV] channels.”
McElhose first played duckpin bowling in 1969 with his family when he was 14. “I liked the fact that it was a lighter ball that even a youngster could handle,” he says. His most exciting duckpin bowling day came 24 years later, in 1993, when he shot a “222 game.”
McElhose and Theresa, his high school sweetheart and wife of 40 years, each play in two leagues. The McElhoses like both the international and the local community atmosphere of the bowling alley. People of all ages play the game.
“We meet people from all over the world — from Africa, from Russia, from Switzerland,” says Theresa McElhose, adding that some come to Baltimore for conferences, and others are Johns Hopkins international students.
For Charles McElhose, “seeing the community come in and enjoy the game of duckpins the way I enjoy it is satisfying.”