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.
far Pat Bottrall has bowled 11 strikes in
a row. He steps up to the line.
The tension is thick. Everyone in the
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
by Jeff Hage/Green Frog Photo
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
Bottrall. “To be honest, what I felt
more than anything else was a great sense of
I am glad I don’t have to worry about
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
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
The earliest record of a bowling-like game
comes from ancient Egypt, where archaeologists
drawings of Egyptian men rolling rocks down
an alleyway at stone objects. Roman armies,
used to roll rocks down hills to take out large
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
up a round stone, and roll it toward the hiedes.
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
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.
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
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.
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
strangers), bowling alleys soon became family
affairs complete with florescent paint, bumper
and French fries.
So what is it about bowling that
keeps people coming back? No matter whom you
ask, the answers
Pat Cross is secretary of the Grand Rapids
Bowling Association. If you are a member of
bowling league in Grand Rapids, chances are
he knows your name. When asked why bowling
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
five people on your team and the members
of the team you are bowling against. That
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
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
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
who hook and for people who throw perfectly
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
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.
tournaments award cash prizes to the
top bowlers. How much money? Depends
individual prizes can number in the thousands.
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
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,
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
pretend to be anything other than what it is,
it offers a comfort level that few other sports
touch, and every time you try it you remember
again how much you enjoy it. GR
Artman is a free-lance writer who lives in Grand
Rapids. He currently carries a