While a seventh grader at Belt Junior High in the lat e 1960s a friend talked me into joining an afternoon duckpin bowling league. We played once a week after school at Tuffy Leemans’ Duckpin Bowling Alley located in the Glenmont Arcade of the Glenmont Shopping Center. Bowling was never considered a high brow sport but I grew to love it and still do to this day. I never was very good at duckpins but I found it to be more interesting than it’s big cousin, tenpin bowling. Duckpin bowling has never been a big draw. I really only know of a handful of bowling lanes that existed in this area. It is a very regional sport with virtually all duckpin bowling alleys located east of the Mississippi River. Around here there was Tuffy’s establishment in the Arcade and the Triangle Lanes in Wheaton also had duckpin bowling on the upper level. My wife tells me of duckpin bowling in downtown Bethesda when she was young. Bowling as a form of entertainment has been on a slow decline in Maryland over the past two decades. The issue has been both the cost of leasing a space for a bowling business and the general change in consumer tastes over the years. Duckpin bowling has suffered even more so than ten-pin, with only two duckpin bowling alleys that I know of left in all of Montgomery County. My young friends and I loved Tuffy Leemans’ in the Arcade because Tuffy was a legitimate NFL football star. Leemans played for the New York Giants in the era right before World War II and when he retired to Maryland he opened his bowling alley in Glenmont. He passed on in 1979 but his family continued to operate the lanes until forced to close it in 2002.
There was another place that we used to bowl and it is still in operation. It is the White Oak Duckpin Lanes located under the White Oak Shopping Center on New Hampshire Avenue. In operation since 1959 the White Oak Duckpin Lanes are a throwback to an older era. Most of the equipment in the lanes is original and although some of it looks a bit tired, there is also a bit of “retro coolness” to the place. It is not a big place with only about 25 lanes in all but it is cozy and the people who operate it are friendly and helpful. I dropped in today to take a few photos and on a whim decided to bowl a couple of games. The fellow behind the counter let me use the shoes for free and with the senior discount my total tab came to just over ten bucks. With shoe rental, normal humans can expect to spend about $20 to bowl a standard three game set. That is about as cheap a night out as you can get. Surprisingly there are a lot of duckpin fans left and being the only game in town the White Oak Lanes were buzzing at 11:00 AM on a Tuesday morning. They have a lot of leagues during the week and on weekends so call in advance to see when there are lanes open to the general public.
There are different theories but it is thought that Duckpin bowling originated in Baltimore around 1900. The game is very similar to tenpin bowling but the ball is much smaller (a little bigger than a softball) and the pins are smaller. It is harder to score than in tenpin as well and the big difference is that you get three bowls a turn over the standard two in tenpins. A very good scoring average in duckpins would be about 120 points a game. I always thought duckpin bowling was better for kids as it is easier for them to control the ball. My two young nephews always preferred duckpins over tenpins when giving the choice. The other kind of cool thing about the White Oak Duckpin Lanes is that the scoring is pure old school. You have to keep score with a pencil instead of your station doing it for you automatically. It is amazing thing to see but a lot of the fun for kids is learning how to keep score and do the math necessary to keep the score correct. To be honest, I don’t think the duckpin lanes at White Oak are long for this world. Rents keep going up and their current lease expires in 2017. I hope that is not the case and the lanes are around for future generations to enjoy. Duckpins were an important part of my childhood and should be a part of your children’s. It is just too fun to miss out on.