This book feature by Jeff Richgels appeared in “The Capital Times” on January 9, 2008
How Milwaukee became 'Tenpin Capital'
Doug Schmidt will discuss "They Came to Bowl: How Milwaukee Became America's Tenpin Capital" from 12:15 to 1 p.m. Tuesday at the Wisconsin Historical Museum.
Mention Milwaukee to an outsider, and the first response you're likely to get is "beer." The second might very well be "bowling."
Which explains why Doug Schmidt has written "They Came to Bowl: How Milwaukee Became America's Tenpin Capital."
Schmidt, a Greater Milwaukee Bowling Association Hall of Famer who has been editor of the Milwaukee-based Ten Pin Journal since 1992, spends 220 pages, plus appendices, detailing the history of bowling in the city that embraced the sport more than any other city has.
Anyone questioning that assertion need only check the numbers: In the late 1970s, more than 100,000 adults competed in sanctioned leagues in the Milwaukee area, which was just shy of 10 percent of the population of Milwaukee County. Those figures don't even touch on the tens of thousands more who bowled casually.
Amazingly, that is well down from the 17 percent who competed in leagues more than 50 years earlier. But by 2004-05, fewer than 20,000 competed in sanctioned leagues in the Milwaukee area, although tens of thousands still bowl casually.
Schmidt's book explains the decades of boom times, as well as the recent decline.
The book is filled with fascinating tidbits, even for this lifelong serious bowler who warrants a couple of mentions in the book and one season actually drove from Madison to compete in Milwaukee's top league.
There were points as I read the book when I felt pangs of regret over missed opportunities in my youth to ask the famed veterans I was competing against for tales of when bowling was one of America's dominant sports. And when its top stars included Milwaukee legends like Hank Marino and Ned Day.
Schmidt devotes a chapter to those two national Hall of Famers. Marino was voted Bowler of the Half Century by the Bowling Writers Association of America in 1951. Day, a Los Angeles native who mingled with movie stars and earned and lost a fortune, saw his world come crashing down after a 1962 FBI gambling raid on his Milwaukee bowling supply store.
There also are chapters on the other men and women stars of the lanes through the years, as well as a chapter on the history of professional bowling events in Milwaukee, highlighted by hometown hero Fred Jaskie's almost unfathomable triumph over one of bowling's greatest stars, Marshall Holman, in the 1978 Miller Open.
For anyone who watched the PBA Tour on Saturday afternoons on ABC-TV, that chapter alone is worth the $24.95 price.
Schmidt details the early growth of bowling in Milwaukee, where many taverns included a couple of lanes, and delves into the turf battles and feuds that threatened that growth.
He explains how the city truly became America's Tenpin Capital when Milwaukee proprietor Abe Langtry lobbied to bring the American Bowling Congress Tournament to Milwaukee in 1905, then was elected secretary of the bowling congress two years later. Langtry's 25-year reign as head of the ABC firmly cemented the city as headquarters of bowling's governing body for male bowlers.
Schmidt also details the 1924-60 reign of Milwaukee's Jeannette Knepprath at the Women's International Bowling Congress, and how the men's and women's groups eventually cooperated to share headquarters in Greendale and then merged to form the current United States Bowling Congress.
A series of fascinating chapters focuses on the origination and growth of the Red Carpet chain of centers, their famed promotional coordinator Leo Pack, and the legendary "Bowling With the Champs" show on WTMJ-TV, which dominated Sunday morning TV in Milwaukee for four decades.
At its peak, thousands of men and women from across Wisconsin and into Illinois competed to make the prestigious show, which was one of the biggest titles a bowler could claim. I have never been more nervous bowling than the night I defeated a teammate to win the 1984-85 Champs in the live primetime title show.
I later was privileged to be the color analyst for the final five years that WTMJ produced the Champs, which died not from poor ratings — it had a market share of 17 percent for its time slot in 1994 — but due to high expenses from producing shows on weekends, when many high-salaried, veteran workers were on overtime.
Schmidt concludes with an analysis of organized bowling's decline and ideas and efforts for a resurrection.