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Frank's Place: Lamenting the decline in bowling as a societal glue

When I think of bowling, and I rarely do anymore, it's as a curious relic, like 45-r.p.m. records or paperboys.

At Cherry Hill's Playdrome, a member of a women's league bowls. Such leagues are down sharply. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)
At Cherry Hill's Playdrome, a member of a women's league bowls. Such leagues are down sharply. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)Read more

When I think of bowling, and I rarely do anymore, it's as a curious relic, like 45-r.p.m. records or paperboys.

Odd as it now sounds, bowling was once a vital strand of society's connective tissue, an American activity nearly as commonplace as churchgoing.

Far more accessible and affordable than golf or tennis, it was the people's sport. Its state-of-the-art bowling centers became country clubs for the middle class, its weekly leagues social melting pots.

What 1950s home was without a bowling bag or two in the closet or a rec-room shelf where bowling trophies were displayed? Whose parents didn't participate in weekly leagues? What community didn't have its own bowling center?

So popular was the sport that when the American Bowling Congress held its annual championships here in the 1960s, the only place large enough to accommodate them was Convention Hall.

Thousands competed on the makeshift lanes that filled that vast arena's interior. Thousands more watched from the seating areas. Philadelphia sportswriters and photographers covered the event. The Inquirer sent its bowling writer, Alex Rosen, a tiny man who wore a fedora and took notes on napkins and scraps of paper.

But somewhere along the way, bowling got tarred as banal, an unhip, outdated pastime for badly dressed beer-drinkers.

"It's really a sensory experience, you know," Shelley Long, as the snooty barmaid Diane Chambers, said of the sport on a 1980s episode of Cheers. "The scent of Aqua Velva on a beehive hairdo. The roar of polyester rubbing against old Naugahyde. The sight of a cigarette stubbed out on a patty melt. All this plus the anticipation of placing your feet in shoes only 7,000 others have worn before you."

League memberships plummeted. Bowling disappeared as a sports-page subject. Bowling alleys vanished, too, their number in the Philadelphia area alone dropping from more than 100 to barely a quarter that many.

And in the process, something was lost.

In his surprise 1995 best-seller, Bowling Alone, author Robert Putnam used the decline of bowling leagues as a metaphor for the breakdown of social interaction. We no longer join civic or fraternal associations, Putnam noted. We don't enroll our kids in scouting. We bowl alone.

I no longer know any bowlers, certainly none in a league. I haven't stepped inside a bowling alley since Billy Welu was a star. And it's been even longer since I saw a bowling trophy or spotted a newspaper story about a 300 game.

This dramatic social shift was swift, thorough, and, until Putnam, unlamented. There was no anti-bowling revolution. Instead, we shifted our interests elsewhere and a prominent postwar institution simply melted away.

I'm sorry to say I barely noticed its demise, somewhat surprising since bowling's rumble-and-clatter had provided much of my young life's soundtrack.

For my friends and me, the Lawrence Park Lanes was our Diner, the refuge to which we retreated whenever possible. It was our default location, our clubhouse, our second home. We loitered there. We worked there. We shot pool there. And, of course, we bowled there.

I made my senior-prom date on the LP Lanes pay phone. I had my first beer out back. I got so many calls there that the desk clerk, a transplanted Texan, was convinced I was Broomall's drug kingpin. I never told him most were from my non-driving mother, requesting that I bring home milk, bread, or Marlboros.

My mother bowled. My father bowled in several weekly leagues. The neighbors bowled. St. Pius X's scowling pastor, Father Dowd, bowled. Mike the Barber bowled. About the only people I knew who didn't bowl were the leather-clad guys who hung out near the alley's entrance and sang a cappella.

For decades I assumed that bowling, much like my misspent youth, was gone forever. So it was surprising to discover recently that, while it no longer occupies a regular spot on our social calendars or in our sports consciousness, bowling is far from dead.

According to data gathered for the 2010 census, Americans listed bowling as their favorite participatory-team activity, more than 43 million saying they did so at least once a year. The only athletic endeavors with more participants were exercise walking (89 million), exercising with equipment (52 million), and camping (47 million).

Even though league membership remains just a shadow of its '50s and '60s self, the number of people who bowl apparently has grown substantially. They just prefer not to do so in organized leagues.

A recent New York Times story pointed out that the fastest growing NCAA team sport is - women's bowling. There now are 63 collegiate programs, including those at Kutztown and Delaware State. That's up 50 percent from just a few years ago.

It's all so counterintuitive, like reading that America's top-rated TV show last month was Bonanza.

This bowling renaissance didn't happen in time to save the LP Lanes. It shut down 20 years ago. A Home Goods now occupies the building, and the only remnant from its heyday is a rear metal door through which, night after night, my friends and I entered.

That door is bolted shut now, a fixed symbol of all that separates us from that lost world of bowling, and from the friendships and community it once fostered.