There had been a morning deluge in Washington, D.C., and the rain threat continued, making it a bad day for visiting monuments. Our group of three decided to take a look at another historic sight in the area:

A duckpin bowling alley.

Yes, I’m aware that “alley” in a not a proper term for the bowling establishments that are now more game rooms and mini-restaurants. This was duckpin, though, a bowling variation of which I was not aware until my son, Jim the Jarhead, mentioned it as a possible diversion on a lazy afternoon.

We wound up at White Oak Duckpin Lanes in Silver Springs, Md., an “alley” in the finest sense.

You walk down steps at an older shopping center and find 16 lanes. On this day, a summer camp for kids had been rained inside, and there were 150 of these youth, firing away with 3½-pound balls and howling in delight.

Duckpins are more squat than the familiar bowling pins. The margin for error is as much smaller as the difference between the impact of a 3½-pound ball vs. 15 or 16 pounds. A strike is a feat and seldom the fortuitous kick of a couple of pins found in big-ball bowling.

There are three balls per frame, and an average of 140 is very strong. There’s never been a perfect 300 in duckpin, with Pete Signore Jr.’s 279 in 1992 as the highest official score.

What’s left of duckpin can be found in Maryland, Connecticut and Rhode Island. In the early 1960s, there were 450 duckpin centers on the East Coast, and that number is now 40 and declining.

A major reason is Ken Sherman’s distrust of Brunswick. A submarine designer, Sherman invented an exceedingly complex duckpin pinsetter in 1953. He refused to sell the patent to Brunswick in the 1960s, fearing the company would stop making those pinsetters to get rid of duckpin as a regional competitor to big-ball bowling.

Sherman died, and a duckpin-setter hasn’t been manufactured since 1973. When another duckpin alley closes, owners of the remaining houses are said to descend on the place to buy pinsetters that will be cannibalized for parts needed for future repairs of their machines.


Duckpin details:

• My result: One strike, several gutters, a score in the 60s and a wrench of my bad right knee that might not heal itself this time.

• There was a legend that duckpin started in 1900 at a Baltimore pool room owned by future baseball Hall of Famers John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson. That has been refuted by researchers.

• Further information on duckpin can be obtained by tweeting to @ChrisLongKSTP. He grew up near the Beltway and a share of his misspent youth was in duckpin houses 

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