They Came to Bowl: How Milwaukee Became America's Tenpin Capital

By Doug Schmidt

Paperback: $24.95

ISBN: 978-0-87020-387-9

288 pages, 87 b/w photos and illus., 8 x 9"


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A frozen rope. A urethane split on the drives. Chicken tracks on the telescore.* Do you know your bowling lingo? You will along with much more when you read "They Came to Bowl: How Milwaukee Became America's Tenpin Capital." From the thrill of the perfect strike to the agony of a ball gone astray, anyone who has rolled a ball down the lanes will find themselves or someone they know in the people, places and stories covered in this book.

In this authoritative and lively book, Doug Schmidt traces bowling's roots from a German religious rite centuries ago to the sport that made Milwaukee famous. From the taverns and saloons that housed recreational games to the sell-out crowds and million-dollar beer sponsorships of televised tournaments, this well-illustrated book covers both sport and city, charting the changing face of bowling over the century. Packed with memorable showdowns and improbable heroes, "They Came to Bowl" will take you back to the changing lanes of bowling in Milwaukee - and the sport as a whole.

* frozen rope=a ball rolled with excessive speed almost straight to the pocket; urethane split=2-8-10 or 3-7-9 split caused by sharp breaking point of reactive resin balls; drives=alleys; chicken tracks=string of strikes

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Doug Schmidt is generally regarded as Wisconsin's pre-eminent bowling historian. The editor and publisher of the state's "Ten Pin Journal" since 1992, Schmidt has been a contributor to United Press International, the Associated Press, "Bowlers Journal International Magazine," "Bowling Magazine," "Bowling Digest" and "American Bowler." A graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Schmidt was inducted into the Greater Milwaukee Bowling Hall of Fame in 2004.

Interview with Doug Schmidt

Wisconsin Historical Society Press: What motivated you to write this book?

Having been in the bowling publication business for more than 15 years, people often said, "You're from Milwaukee, that's a big bowling town." My response was, "It's not as big as it used to be." That got me to thinking — Milwaukee has such a rich and colorful tradition in bowling that someone should tell that story and I figured, Why not me?

WHS Press: Why Milwaukee? Is there something about Milwaukee that made bowling an obsession for so many?

That's a question that triggered my curiosity for writing the book. Germans forged the first great immigration to the area and bowling was an extension of their European culture, although not necessarily the game of tenpins. What started as a German religious rite in the Old World became a recreational and competitive outlet for the immigrants when Milwaukee became their mecca at the start of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1900s.

WHS Press: How did you go about doing your research?

My approach was two-fold: 1) I started using the reference library at USBC Bowling Headquarters in Greendale to create a time line of people and events in Milwaukee who influenced the evolution of the sport and 2) I wanted to interview as many individuals as I could who could reflect on how bowling affected their lives. I thought it would be a two-year project, but it became such a fascinating journey that it took me in several new directions which stretched it out.

WHS Press: What was the best part of putting together this book?

Interviewing people who had so many fond memories of their bowling experiences to share and uncovering little known facts about Milwaukee and the city's impact on the bowling industry.

WHS Press: What was the most surprising thing you learned?

At it's peak of popularity in 1980, approximately 100,000 residents of Milwaukee County belonged to a bowling league. That equaled nearly 10 percent of the county's population — a phenomenal total. That's why Milwaukee was considered America's bowling capital.

WHS Press: What are the most dramatic or important moments in bowling history?

There are at least a half dozen which I consider the most significant:
1) Creating the American Bowling Congress in 1895 to give the game structure
2) The ABC's refusal in 1900 to allow female members which led to formation of the Women's International Bowling Congress.
3) Milwaukee's dispute with the ABC in 1931 which threatened the ABC's viability as a governing body.
4) Opening the ABC to minorities in 1951.
5) The formation of the Professional Bowlers Association by Eddie Elias in 1958.
6) ABC's relaxing of rules pertaining to lane dressing requirements and approving honor scores in the 1990s.
7) Combining the ABC and WIBC into one governing body, the United States Bowling Congress, in 2005.

WHS Press: What does the history of bowling tell us about Wisconsin and/or sports history?

Whether you consider it a sport or just a form of recreation, bowling has continued to be the most widely organized game played in America for over 100 years. It also offers a form of social bonding that transcends racial, gender, age and physical boundaries.

WHS Press: What do you hope readers take away from your book?

A better understanding of how Milwaukee's German heritage influenced the city's cultural habits and the passionate role that bowling played in the lives of so many Milwaukeeans.


"Facing a formidable task in writing a history of bowling in Milwaukee, Doug Schmidt rolls a perfect game. From the founders, through the boom years and to the declining popularity of leagues, Doug's extensive research not only pays tribute to the greats of the sport but reveals the causes behind its fluctuations in popularity. All the names are there and revisiting them brought back a flood of pleasant memories for this reader." —Hank Stoddard, Retired Sports Director, WTMJ Milwaukee

"Bowling has played a significant role in the history of sports and games played in America. And 'They Came to Bowl' focuses on Milwaukee's contribution to that history. Anyone who has ever rolled a ball down the lanes will find the people, places and events covered in this segment of its history a worthwhile read." —Al Matzelle, American Bowling Congress historian and past Executive Director

"The rock solid roots of bowling have always been Milwaukee. In Doug Schmidt's monumental 'They Came to Bowl: How Milwaukee Became America's Tenpin Capital,' he digs, delves, researches, and reveals the names, dates, and doings to offer a fact-filled, fast moving, interesting, enjoyable adventure into bowling lore." —Chuck Pezzano, Bowling Hall of Famer, Author, Historian


This book feature by Jeff Richgels appeared in “The Capital Times” on January 9, 2008:

How Milwaukee became 'Tenpin Capital'

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.

Capital roots

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.

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."

This book feature appeared in the “Milwaukee Journal Sentinel” on November 13, 2007:

The Drill: Q&A with author Doug Schmidt

From the Holler House to early stars such as Hank Marino and Frank Benkovic to the long-running TV show "Bowling with the Champs," Milwaukee has a rich bowling history. Doug Schmidt, 59, of Franklin, editor and publisher of the "Ten Pin Journal" and a member of the Greater Milwaukee Bowling Association Hall of Fame, has captured that history in his new book, "They Came to Bowl: How Milwaukee Became America's Tenpin Capital" (Wisconsin Historical Society Press). Schmidt talked about the book with the Journal Sentinel's Gary D'Amato.

Q. There are a lot of instructional books on bowling but very little about the history of the game. Was that one of the reasons you did this book?

A. Definitely. I've always felt that bowling has a very colorful history and very little is known about some of the great players, especially the ones that came out of Milwaukee.

Q. Why did you limit it to Milwaukee? Would it have been too much work to do a U.S. bowling history?

A. I felt from the get-go that I wanted to do a Milwaukee bowling history, to a large extent because it always had the title of being "America's Bowling Capital."

Q. You uncovered much about the origins of bowling in Milwaukee that had not been previously documented. Give me an example.

A. It was assumed that bowling headquarters has always been in Milwaukee. But why? It all goes back to Abe Langtry, who was the first successful proprietor in Milwaukee. He established a 24-lane center in an office building downtown in 1900. He was recognized as the most successful proprietor in the Midwest and was elected secretary of the American Bowling Congress in 1907. He wound up running the ABC for the next 25 years.

This book feature by Bobby Tanzilo appeared on on November 10, 2007:

Schmidt rolls strike with bowling history book

Despite our sometimes desperate attempts to shake off the stereotypes, Milwaukee retains its image as a hard-workin' beer, brats and bowling town. With a bronze Fonz on tap and the Brewers season boosting the urge to tailgate, maybe we're getting comfortable with the image.

Certainly, we're not ashamed to bowl.

"Name another participation sport that allows you to compete rain or shine; allows you to socialize with friends and opponents while you compete; provides statistical results of every game you play," says Doug Schmidt, author of the vibrant and readable, "They Came to Bowl: How Milwaukee Became America's Tenpin Capital," published in paperback by Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

"And in what other sport does the ball automatically come back to you no matter how bad you throw it?"

Schmidt, an active league bowler for 38 years and a veteran writer on the sport, says Milwaukee was a natural place for bowling to settle in as a major sport.

"Bowling's popularity grew out of the wave of German immigrants who began arriving in Milwaukee during the mid 1800s and the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1900s. Bowling was an extension of German religious and cultural values -- even Martin Luther had a bowling alley in his home. "It was accentuated by the Milwaukee beer barons who incorporated bowling into their lavish parks and beer gardens. When Milwaukee became a manufacturing hub of the Midwest, it's blue-collar workforce headed to the saloons for a few schooners of their favorite brew, a game of schafskopf and some kegeling. Streetcars and trolleys linked the neighborhoods to the factories and taverns."

In 1924, Milwaukee had a record-setting 760 bowling teams and 2,766 league bowlers, surpassing much larger cities like Chicago and Philadelphia, where the sport was also popular. Eleven years later, Schmidt notes, Milwaukee was fifth in the nation in the number of bowling league with 200. Chicago was tops with 493, but had nearly six times the population of Brew City.

Schmidt writes in the book that Milwaukee's religious community also embraced bowling, which in a city full of steeples didn't hurt the
popularity of the game, either.

"In its earliest incarnation, bowling was a German religious rite before it ever became recognized as a sport," he says. "At least a dozen Milwaukee churches -- predominantly Lutheran -- installed two to four lanes in their basements for socializing. Milwaukee's second great wave of immigrants were Polish who were almost exclusively Catholic and some of their parishes adopted bowling as a wholesome cultural activity as well."

But the real action was in the taverns and amusement center, and "They Came to Bowl" shares fascinating information -- and lots of great pictures -- of places like Holler House, Plankinton Arcade, Falcon Bowl and South Milwaukee Arcade.

Bowling hasn't managed to maintain its dominance here, however, thanks to TV, video games and all the other distractions available, but the sport hasn't exactly landed in the gutter here, either, says Schmidt. "Bowling will always have a niche in Milwaukee, but it will never reach the heights of sanctioned competition it enjoyed through the 1970s. We live in a much faster-paced world. Fewer people are interested in long term commitments -- whether it is to a bowling league or a marriage.

"Bowling has a viable future as long as industry leaders right down through the local proprietors make a concerted effort to market the game as a lifetime activity. It's a safe social activity for youths -- whether they discover bowling through youth leagues, a high school letter sport or simply as a fun night out with friends. Bowling is still the number one participation sport in the country with 3 million sanctioned members, but that doesn't even include thousands more who have discovered the game as a healthy form of recreation in open play."

Despite Milwaukee's love affair with kegeling, "They Came to Bowl" is the first comprehensive look at the history of the sport in the city. The most recent "good history" of bowling, according to Schmidt, was Herman Weiskopf's "The Perfect Game" article in Sports Illustrated in 1978.

After 15 years publishing Wisconsin's Ten Pin Journal newspaper, Schmidt decided it was time to correct that situation.

"About six or seven years ago, I started thinking that Milwaukee has such a rich, colorful bowling history that it's a story that should be told," he recalls. "In 1978, Robert Wells published a book called, 'This Is Milwaukee.' It was such an enlightening and entertaining history of this city that I read it twice and I thought, 'this is the kind of story I would like to write about bowling.' I wanted to write something that displayed the human side of Milwaukee's numerous great bowlers and industry leaders and how they reflected Milwaukee culture. Mr. Wells was my inspiration."

The result is a detailed examination of the sport, of the places and the people in Milwaukee that made the game so beloved here. Schmidt also explains how the main governing bodies of the sport came to be headquartered here.

With a bevy of photos and a comprehensive list of all Milwaukee's bowling houses over the years, it's a fun read and informative at the same time. Schmidt says he'd consider doing a follow-up, too, in the future.

"I would definitely like to write another book. If I were to write another bowling history, I'm sure cities like Chicago, St. Louis, New York and Detroit would have equally entertaining material to unveil. However, it took me five years to research and write 'They Came to Bowl' on a part-time basis and I'd like to write something that requires less fact-checking. I'm thinking about doing a collection of my dating experiences. It would be called, 'Musicians Always Get the Girls, So Why Did I Become a Writer?'"

This book feature appeared on on October 23, 2007:

"They Came to Bowl"

To many people, Milwaukee always has been one of America's tenpin bowling hotbeds. The long-time home of the former American Bowling Congress and Women's International Bowling Congress, its metropolitan area remains host to the United States Bowling Congress.

That rich past and heritage has been captured in a new book titled "They Came to Bowl." Author Doug Schmidt, publisher of the Tenpin Journal, traces bowling's Milwaukee heritage from its early German roots to the sport that made the city famous.

Covering the sport and the city, the book looks at bowling from the taverns and saloons that housed recreational games to the sellout crowds and million-dollar sponsorships of televised tournaments. Schmidt's wide-ranging research and interviews with popular players chart the changing face of bowling over the century. One of his chief sources was retired ABC Executive Director Al Matzelle, who not only provided first-hand accounts of ABC's decision makers, but also helped fact-check and edit the book.

Featuring numerous photos from the archives at USBC Headquarters, the book includes chapters on Abe Langtry, the American Bowling Congress president who moved ABC's headquarters to Milwaukee from Dayton, Ohio, in 1907. Another chapter focuses on ABC's ensuing years in the area including its move with the former Women's International Bowling Congress into a state-of-the-art building in suburban Greendale in 1972.

USBC Hall of Famers Hank Marino and Ned Day are featured in a chapter of their own as is USBC Hall of Famer Jeannette Knepprath, president of the WIBC from 1924-60 and the first woman inducted into the WIBC Hall of Fame

Copies of the book may be obtained through most major bookstores, or the Wisconsin Historical Society Press at They also can be bought during 2007 Masters Week at AMF Bowlero and Saturday night at Bowlfest at Milwaukee's Miller Park.