There is a photo that hangs on the wall of a cedar-lined, windowless room. The subject is Babe Ruth, clutching a small, hard ball in his left hand, glaring menacingly at his target.
Ruth is not donning a baseball uniform. He’s traded in his spikes for slick-soled shoes.
The picture, taken in a building on North Howard Street in 1930, depicts baseball’s greatest figure, born in Baltimore, partaking in a local pastime: duckpin bowling.
Laura Bowden points to the image outside her office with pride.
“You know who that is, right?” she jokes.
The room, wedged in the corner of a bowling alley in Linthicum Heights, is the headquarters of the Duckpin National Congress. Bowden, the congress’ executive director, stewards one of Maryland’s oldest institutions.
Duckpin, which, as locals know well, is played with a grapefruit-size ball and nine-inch pins, is one of five main variations of bowling. Though the sport itself had early ties to New England in the 1890s, it ended up gaining a foothold in Baltimore, thanks to two players from Ruth’s old National League club: the Orioles.
“It had to do with trying to figure out some way to fill up summertime, because people didn’t bowl in the summer,” Bowden said.
In their newly opened Diamond Café on Howard Street – perhaps the city’s first sports bar – future baseball Hall of Famers Wilbert Robinson and John McGraw installed a bowling alley and used smaller pins and balls. Upon contact, the squat pins soared chaotically through the air, resembling a flock of scattering ducks – hence the name.
From there, the sport spread across the Northeast like pins across a lane.
“It was absolutely up and down the East Coast and even farther into Indiana and Ohio,” Bowden said.
Still, the mid-Atlantic was the game’s epicenter. The Duckpin National Congress was established in Washington in 1927, standardizing rules. That same year, Patterson Bowling Center in Upper Fells Point opened, hosting tournaments and regulars. “Duckpins & Dollars,” a game show in which contestants bowled for prize money, debuted on WBAL in 1964 and ran for more than 10 years.
“I’d say for almost 30 years there that it was a big, strong sport,” Bowden said.
Today, not so much. Only about 35 duckpin bowling centers remain, with Maryland housing more than any other state. The sport’s growth is hampered by a lack of equipment. The free-fall pinsetters that rerack the pins and return the balls haven’t been manufactured since 1973, making it nearly impossible to open a new center without closing an old one.
The Diamond is long gone, and the structure was demolished in 1989. Patterson Bowling Center shut its doors in December 2022, but the developers who purchased the building have vowed to bring duckpins back to the location.
The centers that still exist continue to bring in regulars. There are around 2,500 registered duckpin bowlers nationwide, with almost 1,000 of them hailing from Baltimore and its suburbs. AMF Southwest Lanes, which houses the Duckpin National Congress, boasts 40 duckpin-only lanes.
“Many of the centers are real throwbacks,” Bowden said. “I think they have this really fun retro feel, and I think that’s kind of nice.”
The competitive side of the sport remains strong. The Pop Whitten Pro Tour runs 11 tournaments a year, all in Maryland. The Duckpin Professional Bowlers Association Pro Tour reached seven stops, including ones in Connecticut and Rhode Island, in 2023.
Facing an uphill battle, the Duckpin National Congress aims to grow the game by promoting these tournaments and attracting younger players through youth leagues. But, even as the number of access points to the game decreases, Bowden believes the sport’s wide-ranging appeal can keep it afloat.
“You’ve got little kids, 2 years old, who can throw the ball themselves,” Bowden said. “And we had a birthday party right out here in this center a couple years ago for a lady who was 99 years old. She was bowling in the league. I think the longevity of the sport is one of the things.”