Dead Ducks

AMF Bowling revealed last week that it would close three large duckpin houses in Baltimore at the end of the current bowling season. Word that the world's largest bowling corporation—a Richmond firm taken over in May '96 by New York investors Goldman Sachs for $1.4 billion—was downsizing its holdings in this region played well on Wall Street.

The news, however, didn't play so well on the streets of Baltimore, duckpin bowling's birthplace and its last stronghold. Over on Eastern Avenue, where you can hear pins drop inside the oldest house in the city, Patterson Bowling Center, bowlers took the AMF move as another sign that big business was out to exterminate the ducks.

"I don't know what AMF is doing to our sport," shrugs 76-year-old Bernie Ruzin. Ruzin, a member of the Friday morning seniors league, has bowled at Patterson Bowling Center ever since his family founded it more than 70 years ago.

As a native Baltimorean, Ruzin has every right to call duckpin bowling "our sport," for geographical reasons as well as his blood ties. According to legend, the game was invented in the summer of 1900 when patrons at Diamond Lanes, a tenpin bowling alley on Howard Street, shaved down balls and pins to create a less physically taxing endeavor.

Diamond Lanes at that time was owned by John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson, then of the Baltimore Orioles. McGraw, an avid hunter, remarked that the smaller pins reacted to being struck much as sitting ducks do to the report of a rifle, and as a result of that description a Baltimore Morning Sun scribe dubbed the game duckpins. McGraw and Robinson went on to greater fame as baseball managers of the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers, respectively, and their renown helped boost the popularity of duckpin bowling from Baltimore to D.C. and throughout the Mid-Atlantic states and New England.

But throughout its history, duckpin bowling has always been most beloved in Baltimore.

In his homage to a sportscentric Baltimore upbringing, When the Colts Belonged to Baltimore, author William Gildea illustrated the place duckpin bowling held in his hometown in the 1940s by divulging a family secret: His father chose a night with the ducks over witnessing his birth. Gildea grew to understand his dad's no-show.

"In Baltimore," Gildea wrote, "the game mattered."

The game mattered to Ruzin's dad, too. By 1927, Martin Ruzin, a Polish immigrant who labored in the Baltimore shipyards, had saved up enough money to convert a storefront broom factory into Patterson Bowling Center, a duck house with 14 lanes on two floors. A few years later, he used pin profits to open another, the Dundalk Bowling Center.

Young Bernie worked at Patterson Bowling Center from Day One, and he counts the daily jog between his family's dwelling across from Patterson Park to the bowling alley in the Upper Fells Point neighborhood as a great blessing.

"There wasn't a person on Eastern Avenue that I didn't know," he says.

Ruzin liked more than just his commute. He loved the bowling, too. And he got pretty good at it—good enough to beat the top duckers in the city and win the prestigious Baltimore Sun tournament in 1962, with his dad in the audience.

And Ruzin loved the bowlers who packed the joint night after night, year after year. Especially Vera, his wife of 52 years, whom he met at Patterson Bowling Center in 1945. Vera Ruzin still bowls there, too, every Friday and Tuesday night.

It's a good thing Ruzin enjoyed so much about his work: Except for a brief stint in the Army in World War II, it's the only job he has ever had.

"Duckpin bowling has been my life, and it's been very good to me," he says.

In 1995, 40 years after his father signed the alley over to him, Ruzin sold Patterson Bowling Center to an avid fan of the ducks, Charles Mackall. (No such luck for his family's other establishment: The Dundalk Bowling Center is now, ahem, a CVS.) The refurbishments Mackall made to the alley after taking over show he's in it for the long haul, and several neighborhood residents now volunteer their time to keep things rolling at the old lanes.

But while the future of Patterson Bowling Center looks secure, the same can't be said about the future of the sport.

No new alleys have been built in decades, and there's a nefarious, anti-duckpin pattern to the closings of several large alleys in the region. (All but one of the D.C.-area duck houses are gone, with the Falls Church Bowling Center the sole survivor.) Almost all the closings of the past few years have involved decades-old properties that were only recently purchased by AMF. The next round of shutdowns, following that same script, will hit May 31, when AMF closes duck houses in Harford (a 30-lane house that opened in 1939), Joppa (32 lanes, 1958), and Middlesex (40 lanes, 1959).

AMF, the conspiracy buffs like to point out, hasn't shut down any of its vast tenpin holdings in the area.

Making matters worse, no major manufacturers still build the type of equipment (automatic pin loaders, ball return machines, etc.) used in duck houses. And, according to Mackall, the word on the street is that AMF officials won't even talk to independent owners like himself about selling the increasingly hard to find duck hardware after the company shuts down the three alleys.

"What we're seeing is a tenpin company trying to do away with ducks," says Mackall. "They want to see us all die and go away."

AMF officials, however, deny that the upcoming shutdowns are evidence of any plan to kill off the ducks. Merrell Wreden, vice president of marketing for AMF, explains that the company's boardroom decisions aren't anti-duckpin, they're pro-dollar.

"Our profitable centers do a 30-percent earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization," he says. "This is strictly business."

That's not the kind of talk most bowlers can relate to, but investors apparently do: As of Friday's market closing, days after the downsizing announcement, one share of AMF stock was fetching $25.75. At the Patterson Bowling Center, that'll get you 10 games and a Coke.—Dave McKenna

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