HAGERSTOWN, MD. -- Bowling with stubby pins and a grapefruit-sized ball has been an East Coast sport for decades, but in recent years the squatty duckpins have surfaced as far west as Wisconsin and Indiana.
"We had two new duckpin centers open this past year, and right now, I'm working with prospective proprietors in Tennessee, Illinois, Georgia, Missouri and Colorado," said Manuel S. Whitman, director of the National Duckpin Bowling Congress in Baltimore. "My outlook is not bleak; it is cautiously optimistic."
Even a hint of new activity is encouraging to the 150,000 duckpinners who have lived in the shadow of the more popular tenpin game, played with taller pins and a heavier ball. The American Bowling Congress estimates that 67 million people bowl tenpin at least once a year, and 7.4 million people bowl in weekly leagues.
About 120 duckpin alleys dot the Eastern Seaboard from New Hampshire and Vermont to North Carolina, but for some reason, the sport never made its way west. In the last year, however, duckpin has been featured on cable television programs nationwide, and duckpinners hope the sport will catch on across the country.
"It was a regional game initially, but now with national TV exposure, maybe it's going to open up," said Bill Orchard of Frederick, current president of the National Duckpin Bowling Congress. "There's a lane in Indianapolis that has opened up with great results and also one near Milwaukee."
Bob Moore of College Park, president of Duckpin Bowling Proprietors of America, said people as far away as California have called him saying they had seen duckpin on TV and want to know more about the sport.
There are 70 duckpin centers that belong to the proprietors association in nine states and the District of Columbia, Moore said. The 70 centers have 1,640 duckpin lanes, 36 percent fewer than the 2,555 lanes at 119 member centers back in 1980.
"Up until this year, the number of member centers has been on the decline, but this year we increased," Moore said. "High land values in the Northeast have caused many centers that had been leased to close down because the landlords were looking to get high-rise apartment complexes or other businesses in there."
"I think we can survive, but we have to continue seeking exposure to people who don't bowl duckpin to try to spark some interest," he said.
Tenpin advocates acknowledge some growing interest in duckpin, but they doubt its popularity will ever rival tenpin.
"Duckpin could well take off now that it's being brought out of the East and Southeast, but it could never get to where tenpin is," said Mark Miller, a spokesman for the American Bowling Congress in Greendale, Wis. "People just favor the bigger pins and the bigger balls."
The majority of duckpin bowlers live in and around the nation's capital. Maryland, which has 55 of the 70 member duckpin centers, will be host to the national duckpin tournament this year. More than 13,000 games will be rolled, May 7 through June 6, in Hagerstown -- a hotbed of duckpin bowlers.
"They call this duckpin country," said Paul Wolfe, 55, who handles maintenance at Southside Bowl in Hagerstown. "You're either cut out to be a tenpin bowler, or you're cut out to be a duckpin bowler."
Except for minor variations, duckpin is played and scored the same as tenpin. The real difference occurs when the ball hits the pins. The smaller ball can knock out just the center pins, leaving difficult splits.
"You get the ball in the middle of the alley (with tenpin) and you get a strike," said Bettie Moore of Hagerstown, who was the top female duckpin bowler last season in the Tri-State Bowlers Association. "You put the ball down the middle in duckpin, and you don't know what you'll get."