What had once been relegated to the back rooms of bars with four, maybe six, lanes, had rolled its way to the suburbs and even downtown’s well-to-do Athletic Club. What Cleveland Magazine once described as “the Polack of the sports world, ranking just below horseshoe pitching in the hierarchy of uncultured pursuits” had become the domain of lawyers, bankers and, yes, women.
By 1974, more than 100,000 Clevelanders competed in at least one league per week, and almost half of them were women. In 1976, there were 96 bowling “houses” in which to get your kegle on — and about a quarter million Clevelanders did.
For years, my dad and uncles bowled in a league together on Tuesday nights. He wore a Sharon Auto Wrecking shirt and carried his shoes, a wrist guard and a black ball with his initials etched into it in a bag he kept in the side closet.
Their league started late — 9 o’clock or so — after a women’s league. And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stay up until he got home. “Boy, your Uncle Milan sure had it goin’ last night,” he’d tell me in the morning.
His stories were smoke-filled, competitive, exciting. Bowling seemed cool. Bowling was cool.
In fact, Stardust Lanes in Brook Park, Ohio’s largest facility at the time with 78 lanes, couldn’t contain all the 10-pin action. The Stardust used to open at 7 a.m. on Sundays with a crowd waiting at the doors. So it opened an hour earlier and people still got there early.
On Sunday morning, seriously?
Sure, it may be hard to imagine today. Bowling is now “cosmic,” with smoke machines, black lights and DJs. There’s a bowling alley on our city’s trendiest street, where a private VIP room in the back with four lanes will run you $350 an hour. (See page 101.)
Still, there are plenty of things to love about the gritty, old-school version of the game. Here are a few of our favorites:
- We have the country’s largest bowling alley, Freeway Lanes in Wickliffe, with 96 lanes.
- It was my first experience with gambling. I was 8 and bowled in a Saturday morning league. A group of us threw in a quarter each game. Best score won the pot. Winning meant a few extra games of Pac-Man or another mini NFL football helmet out of the vending machine.
- Lucille Perk.
- Where else could a guy named Ziggy Salata become a local celebrity? Dubbed “The Marcus Welby of Bowling,” the magazine profiled the ball doctor — who “serves as expert, coach and even psychoanalyst” — and his Broadway Road pro shop in 1976.
- A Cleveland tavern owner reportedly lost his bar in a marathon bowling match that stretched over several days at Brown’s Recreation on the near West Side.
- Cleveland’s first bowling alley (on what is now West Sixth Street) was established in 1872, more than 40 years before the Cleveland Museum of Art.
- Rental shoes.
- “Bowling is as close as most people will ever come to smashing someone in the teeth,” we said in that 1976 article.
- Cleveland was a regular stop on the PBA Tour for years. And who didn’t love Earl Anthony?
- The Thanksgiving Day father-son tournaments at Bell-Wick Bowl. I think I might have even brought home a trophy one year.
- It’s good for you! “Some enthusiasts have even attributed wondrous therapeutic and curative powers to bowling,” our article claimed. “They recommend it for a variety of aches and pains and for funks ranging from menopause to manic depression.” (Apparently, Ziggy was not a real doctor.)
- The beer frame. In case you’re not sure we like beer, see our Best of Cleveland list on page 100, in which we discover the best small-batch beer, beer coasters, paper bag drinking and bathroom walls to write on when you’ve had a few too many.