Little by Little

Little by Little

When I enter Woodlawn Duckpin Bowling, foam fills the gutters of the lanes. “I had the first-graders in today. They need the bumpers,” owner Bob Nugent explains.

Where those first-graders were hurling miniature balls into undersized pins, their great-grandparents might once have done the same. Woodlawn has been around since 1954, a survivor in a shrinking industry that once filled bowling alleys across the Northeast.

Nugent points out the original features of Woodlawn: “the approach, the ball return, the scoring tables with ashtrays…” He has, however, modified the lobby area to include long tables for parties and an arcade, which mixes vintage and newer games.

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The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven

Duckpin itself is definitely vintage. Nugent says it started as a lawn game more than a century ago, near Baltimore. “The story goes it was started by some baseball players that were out in a yard. They had cut down some big pins and made smaller pins,” Nugent says. Bowling out in the open, instead of within a confined lane, caused the pins to “fly everywhere. And somebody said, ‘They look like flying ducks.’”

After it was brought indoors, gameplay came to mirror regular bowling. Even the lanes are the same length. The balls, however, are much smaller—about the size of large grapefruits—and lack finger holes. The pins are equally shrunken. And instead of up to two throws per standard frame, players get as many as three.

No one on record, Nugent warns me as I prepare my first throw, has ever rolled a perfect game, and as my own ball knocked down a few measly pins, it became clear that such a feat would be difficult indeed. Because the pins are much smaller, they’re spread across a proportionately larger space. The small ball, meanwhile, can easily whistle through gaps.

The highest recorded score? 279. To play duckpin, then, is to strive for perfection while knowing you’ll never meet it.

The glory days of duckpin followed those of regular bowling, peaking in the 1970s. But duckpin had a special handicap: regionality. Since it’s only ever been played in a handful of areas east of the Mississippi (with a single exception, apparently: an alley in Potter, Nebraska), it’s not nearly as popular as its big brother.

Upon buying the alley in 2004, Nugent went prowling for bowlers, hoping to build regular leagues. He says other duckpin alley owners were skeptical. “They said, ‘Leagues are a thing of the past, people don’t do that anymore.’ Well, I have three hundred league bowlers.”

His hunting grounds were golf courses and softball fields, where he pitched duckpin to players of those pastimes. “Those are nice spring, summertime sports, but I said, ‘What are you doing all winter? Why don’t you try duckpin?’”

Nugent took me behind the circa-1954 pinsetters, where a whirring, clunking maelstrom was constantly placing pins before sweeping them away. Though the process is largely automated, the bowler has to tell it what to do. A foot pedal beneath the ball chute lifts the standing pins, clears the fallen ones and puts the standers back in place, while a doorbell-like button resets all the pins after each frame. Compared to the fully automated big-pin I’ve played, it was surprisingly fun to control the machine.

As fun as it may be for players, it can be a pain for owners like Nugent. “They haven’t made a part for these machines since 1973,” he says.

The most popular equipment was developed by an inventor named Ken Sherman, and by 1953, his pinsetters were the standard. But when a larger company offered to purchase the patent for the elaborate machines, Sherman refused.

His company faded away, leaving the duckpin industry only two options: repair and salvage. At Woodlawn, on the wall behind the pinsetters, tools and spare parts hang like trophies all the way to the ceiling, and whenever a duckpin alley shuts down, the owners get calls from other duckpin proprietors asking for components.

For Nugent, Woodlawn Duckpin would be personal even if it weren’t his business, since it was one of his favorite hangout spots as a child in West Haven. The lightweight balls, Nugent says, make duckpin doable for most anybody, from 5-year-olds to hardier nonagenarians. In fact, there are several of the latter who still come and play some pretty good duckpin, he says.

Which speaks to at least one advantage duckpin has over conventional bowling: it’s easier to pick up.

Woodlawn Duckpin Bowling
240 Platt Ave, West Haven (map)
“Hours change weekly… Please call for open bowling hours.”
(203) 932-3202

Written and photographed by Anne Ewbank.

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