"Wisconsin State Journal" Book Feature
This book feature by Jay Rath appeared in the "Wisconsin State Journal" on February 7, 2008
Bowling them over: Author traces Wisconsin's fixation with the sport
Marge Simpson had an affair and did it. Princess Diana did it in Indonesia. Captain Kirk did it on a starship. Fred Flintstone lied and snuck away from Wilma to do it. President Harry S Truman installed a special room in the basement of the White House for it.
Actor Jeff Bridges held tight to sexy Julianne Moore 's breastplate, and did it on the poster for "The Big Lebowski. "
It is bowling, traditionally the sport for the common citizen, as much a part of the Wisconsin cultural landscape as beer, fish fries, cheese and bratwurst.
There have been many kinds of bowling over the millennia. Ancient Egyptians played a form of it. (Tut in a bowling shirt?) The game that the little men played while lulling Rip Van Winkle into a two-decade slumber was Nine Pins, with a narrow plank for an alley. Our modern game grew from that, thanks to Germanic wile.
"When the German immigrants first arrived in New York, a lot of bowling clubs were set up, " says Milwaukee bowling historian Doug Schmidt, author of "They Came to Bowl. ' '
"Legend has it that it was originally a game of nine pins that were set up in a diamond formation. And because gambling was always associated with the game, they passed laws to outlaw that. So, being creative-minded individuals, immigrants added another pin to it, to circumvent the law. "
Once, bowling was sunny, outdoor fun. In the 1850s, "the only bowlers were Germans and the only alleys were crude ones at the picnic groves and other German resorts, " wrote historian Andrew Rohm in 1904, quoted in Schmidt 's book.
"Then the immigrants started migrating toward Chicago and Milwaukee, " says Schmidt, whose book primarily deals with the bowling tradition in Wisconsin 's largest city. There, in the late 1800s, two Fredericks, brewmasters Pabst and Miller, each opened their own private parks and pavilions. The transplanted German biergarten tradition included their favorite game.
Bowling 's best features remain as satisfying as ever: simple rules; it 's low-cost and equipment is provided; there 's the satisfying, almost-musical crash of the Maple-wood pins; and when else in life do you get 10 second-chances?
Then there 's the camaraderie. "The big advantage is that it 's a team sport that promotes social interaction, " says Schmidt. "If you 're playing your basic other games, football or baseball, you 're either out on the field or on the sidelines, where in bowling you 're sitting around connecting with each other while you 're waiting for your turn. "
While Milwaukee literally is the capital of bowling -- it 's home to the United States Bowling Congress -- Madison has a proud tradition as well.
Just off State Street, the Plaza Tavern and Grill used to have a second floor alley. The UW-Madison 's Memorial Union once had an alley too, and Union South still does.
"For a long time the UW was a member of the state bowling conference, " says Schmidt. "They do have bowling designated as an intercollegiate sport at a lot of universities. "
And then there are the legendary Madison bowlers, such as Connie Schwoegler, who in 1948 invented the "fingertip grip. "
In 1930 Madisonian Jennie Hoverson became the first woman to bowl a perfect game in the history of league bowling.
"Nobody thought much about it back then, " says Schmidt, "so her game was never submitted for sanctioning. A Wisconsin State Journal sports writer, Joe Dommershausen, lobbied to get the Women 's International Bowling Congress to finally approve it. It took 10 years. "
Shamefully, African Americans were not allowed into sanctioned league bowling until 1951, four years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball. But in the 1940s they were already enjoying the game in Milwaukee.
"You had African Americans migrating because there were good factory jobs here, " says Schmidt. "As they started coming up from places like Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas, and they settled in the city of Milwaukee, bowling was pretty much a foreign activity to them. But there were so many places that had bowling in the neighborhoods, that they kind of assimilated bowling. A lot of them became well-known bowlers and really enjoyed the sport.
"People worked together and they bowled together. It was a social bonding network for them. "
These days bowling participation has declined. As in baseball, experts decry changes to the game and equipment that arguably have inflated scores. But Schmidt sees signs of comeback.
In the Midwest, bowling tends to peak over the winter months. In warmer parts of the country, however, it 's enjoyed equally all year. Young people are attracted to new entertainment centers that offer arcades and fast food besides bowling. And more and more high schools are taking it up as a letter sport.
"The advantage is you don 't have to be the biggest and strongest to make the team, " says Schmidt. "Anyone can participate. "
And, believe it or not, Schmidt knows of a trendy club in north shore Milwaukee, where the wealthy elite meet to enjoy the martini bar ... and to bowl.
"I think it is something that has no limitations on who it attracts, " he says.
Just as the game began with immigrants, so too is it spreading to the 21st-century American melting pot, says Schmidt.
"I think it 's sometimes a cultural shock when immigrants move here now from around the globe, and settle here in parts of the Midwest, and see that, gee, everybody seems to go out bowling once in a while."