Bowling for Heathens


The Bowling Hall of Fame used to feature a full-sized diorama of Martin Luther tossing the ball down the alley, but when the Hall re-located to Texas, this fascinating piece of Americana didn’t survive the move. Too bad, since knocking down the “Little Heathens” was one thing Luther and Calvin agreed upon.


Besides being one of the fastest growing pastimes in worldwide popularity today, the sport of bowling has a rich and fascinating history. Archaeologists have discovered bowling balls, pins, and other related equipment in a child’s tomb in Egypt, dating the game as far back as 5200 B.C.

But the modern sport of bowling as we know it today probably grew out of a German religious ceremony, introduced to the masses by monks during the third and fourth centuries. At that time, every German peasant carried a wooden club similar to the Irish shillelagh, for protection. It became a customary test of faith in many churches for the parishioner to set up his club, called a Kegel, as a target, which represented the heathen. He would then roll a stone at it in an attempt to knock it down. If he succeeded, he was deemed to be free from sin. Today in many parts of Europe, and even in some areas of the United States, the sport of bowling is still known as Kegeling.

Bowling eventually moved out of the church’s domain and became a popular secular sport, spreading through Austria, Spain, Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries. Bowling greens began to appear in the homes of wealthy European royalty, and there are many references to the sport in documents from the Middle Ages.

As bowling increased in popularity it unfortunately gained a bad reputation because of its association with taverns, pubs and gambling. The earliest known legislation against bowling dates to 14th Century England. It seems the King’s soldiers were spending so much time bowling, they were neglecting the archery practice that was vital for the country’s national defense during the 100 Years War. Both King Edward III and King Richard II, who reigned during this conflict, banned the game in the interests of national security.

thumb_BowlingLanesCirca1910Although the early English settlers introduced lawn bowling (which doesn’t use pins) to the Colonies, it was the Dutch during the mid-1600’s who gave our fledgling country the precursor to modern day 10-pin bowling. Bowling was originally conceived as a 9-pin game in America, but because of bowling’s association with gambling and taverns, it was banned in Connecticut. One popular belief is that some enterprising bowlers added the 10th pin in order to circumvent this law, and that’s how modern-day 10-pin bowling was born. The earliest mention of bowling in American literature is in the story of Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving, when old Rip wakes up to the sounds of “ninepins”. In what is now New York City, Dutch residents bowled in a section of the city still known as “Bowling Green” today. From New York, German immigrants began to move westward, and soon popularized the game in the Midwest, most notably in Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and Milwaukee.

With interclub and interleague bowling ever increasing, it soon became apparent that equipment and rules needed to be standardized nationally. In 1875 the first bowling association, consisting of 9 clubs, was formed in New York City. Called the National Bowling Association, its main goals were to standardize rules and to eliminate gambling among its members. Although the organization itself did not last long, the rules it created are still the basic rules of bowling today.