Bowling in the fast lane
• 300 games, 200 averages skyrocket as ball, alley technology evolves
In his day, before the era of fancy balls and machine-oiled lanes, being an all-star bowler meant something, Champ Husted says.
Husted, 72, says he could come out of retirement and compete with any whippersnapper who would dare to slide on the lanes with him. Just give him three weeks, 'and I'd be averaging 200,' he says.
Husted hasn't bowled since the last century. And he never averaged better than 205.
'These guys today, they think they're really good. And they're not,' says the patriarch of the Portland area's first family of bowlers. Husted and son Dave, a 14-time winner on the Professional Bowlers Association Tour, own Milwaukie Bowl.
Go ahead and debate whether Babe Ruth could hit Pedro Martinez, Bob Cousy could beat Kobe Bryant off the dribble or Red Grange could break Ray Lewis' tackle. But also consider the evolution of bowling, especially from Husted's prime in the 1960s to now.
Bowling scores have been rising almost ridiculously, thanks largely to ball technology and the way lanes are oiled. Twenty-first-century keglers aren't simply throwing round orbs onto bedrock these days like Fred Flintstone did. It's high-tech,
baby. If you can't hit the pocket, you're a loser.
In 1983, according to the Portland Bowling Association, the metro area had 18,000 league bowlers. There were 190 bowlers who averaged 200 or better. There were 25 recorded perfect games of 300, and seven 800-plus series (three-game totals).
In the recently concluded 2002-03 season, there were only 7,019 league bowlers at the 21 American Bowling Congress-sanctioned Portland area houses ÑÊ11,000 fewer bowlers than in 1983. But 776 of them averaged 200 or better, with 243 games of 300 and 68 series of 800-plus.
'I'd put an asterisk by them,' Champ Husted says of those high scores.
Dave Husted's 16-year-old son, Corey, is a junior-to-be at Putnam High School and has bowled five 300 games in the last eight months. Dave didn't record his fifth 300 game until his second year on the PBA Tour.
'Lane conditions are much too easy, and equipment has far surpassed the bowler,' Dave says. 'It's the same way in golf, but it's 10-fold from there. A guy with limited knowledge can throw a lot of strikes.'
Then again, he adds, 'In five minutes, I could make it to where they don't even strike once.'
Grease 'em up
A little beer, a burger and having some friends around may help some league bowlers have fun. But, simply put, they mostly want to throw strikes and not just convert spares Ñ the true test of skills.
And bowling houses unanimously favor making lanes easy for their bowlers because strikes, 200-plus games and honors patches make the paying customers happy.
Traditionalists such as Larry Schwab are pained to see the game 'way too easy.' Sure, it's nice to have little old grannies bowling 200 and weeknight warriors rolling 600 series, but the art of deftly knocking down pins has been lost, they say.
Schwab, who owns the pro shop at 20th Century Lanes in Southeast Portland, remembers when people had to practice to be good Ñ and by paying to practice, they helped the house.
'We practiced a lot in my day. People have got away from that,' says Al Whiteman, a longtime Portland house player and senior pro from 1982-2000. 'Today, they can bowl three games a week and average 220. In my day, if you bowled three games a week and you were athletic and skilled, you could bowl 170.'
The technology started to turn in the 1970s with machines that disperse oil on lanes, not just to condition and protect the wood surface but also to greatly enhance the path of the ball. Before that, lanes were hand-oiled. The machines have gotten better and better, too. It isn't uncommon for a house to pay $25,000 for a high-end machine.
Typically for league bowling, a machine spreads 'units' of oil across the lanes Ñ say three units on the four edge boards, progressing to between 55 and 60 units in the middle boards to create a crown. The oil is tapered about 38 to 40 feet down the 60-foot lane, depending on how the house wants to set up the conditions.
Once the bowler releases the ball, flipping it with his or her fingers for spin, it slides for the 38 to 40 feet and then catches the dry part of the lane, and hooks and rotates before hitting the pin. Results depend on board placement, velocity and pocket entry ÑÊa ball hitting between the headpin and 3 pin, or sometimes a 'Brooklyn' between the headpin and 2 pin, usually produces strikes.
The PBA uses five patterns of oil to challenge the pros, but most houses stick to one or two patterns. That enables league bowlers to shoot for honors scores.
'You get out there and wing it, somewhere in the vicinity of the headpin, and it'll knock 'em all down,' Champ Husted says.
Dave Husted, shaking his head, says he hears whines from league bowlers if he makes the conditions too tough at Milwaukie Bowl.
In the tougher 'sport' leagues and some PBA events, the house spreads an even coat, maybe a 2-to-1 ratio of oil from edge to middle, putting the premium on shot making Ñ just like in the 1950s and '60s.
'In sport, you gotta hit one board, the 8 to the 10,' says Bob Jurgens, facilities manager at 20th Century Lanes. 'It's gotta be down and in, as opposed to a big belly shot.'
Out of more than 100,000 ABC sport games last year, there were only 20 recorded 300 games.
'If we did it for league bowlers, it would be disastrous,' Dave Husted says.
The evolution of the bowling ball also has had a huge impact on the sport.
'Bowling balls have gotten much better than the bowlers,' Dave Husted says. 'When a person can buy a hook, it's a different deal. When I was a kid, the balls wouldn't bite on the lane.'
Plastic balls replaced rubber in the mid-1970s, and then scores really took off with the introduction of urethane in 1981.
It was 'the biggest innovation in bowling history,' says Larry Schwab, who has drilled his share of balls. 'It moved so much stronger and hit harder.'
In the early 1990s came balls made of reactive resin, with calcium carbonate or barium sulfate weight blocks on the inside. By 1994, balls were screaming and snapping and scores had skyrocketed; the numbers went even higher with particle balls, as bits of acrylic or glass could be molded into the cover stock for extra grip.
'They'll bite in oil and hook when dry, and smooth out the reaction,' Dave Husted says. 'They're much more user-friendly to oils,' he adds, meaning the ball doesn't tear up the lanes.
'Coupled with the weight blocks, it's scary what bowlers can do,' he says.
Indeed, drillers like Schwab can manipulate balls with cover stock, weight, extra holes and the 'CG' (center of gravity) Ñ whatever the bowler wants Ñ to make them all but programmed to hit the pocket. 'We cheat, but it's legal cheating,' Schwab says.
'It's not that lanes are easier or different,' contends J.P. Muller, a Wilsonville proprietor. 'They've had to keep up with the technology of the bowling balls.'
You can spend $300 on a bowling ball now, and another $150 on a bag. You can get a transparent ball with a fake red rose inside. And the really good bowlers, like PBA pros, are sometimes carrying 10 balls into the house.
'I'll see league guys come in here with six balls, in ball bags on a hand truck Ñ none with motors yet, but I don't see that too far off,' Schwab says.
Corey Husted has brought eight balls to an event, and he has 25 to call on.
'Guys who drive the Tour, like Jason Couch and Parker Bohn, they'll bring 30 to 40 balls,' says Dave Husted, who competed as a PBA pro from 1978-2002, winning 37 titles on PBA national and regional tours.
Good bowlers, like the pros, bring balls for virtually every shot and any condition.
'If you look at the 800s, rarely do they bowl it with the same ball or same lines,' says Neil Stremmel, director of research for the ABC/Women's International Bowling Congress. 'In 1963, you had one ball. It was up to you whether you bowled well or not.'
The new generation
'I don't have to throw the ball nearly as well as I used to,' says Muller, 47, a 30-year veteran who averages 226 in a traveling league and 228 at Wilsonville Lanes. 'Not even close. The other night, my very first game, I threw a 299; I threw the ball in a variety of different places and it went into the pocket. Things like that would have never happened in the old days.'
But what are bowling businesses to do? Progress Ñ it's the way of the world. Bowlers don't want to be left behind. Most have even given up polyester stitched shirts.
Old-timers pine. In 1955-56, the high score in Portland was 279, with a top average of 194. In 1962-63, there were still no 300 games, and the highest average was 208. Corey Husted averaged 214 in the Oregon state juniors competition last year. His grandfather remembers winning the all-city tournament in 1960 with a 185 average.
The grandson would love to go back in time and bowl with just one, rubber ball. He loves the challenge of the sport lanes and says he once nearly bowled a 300 on them.
'Junior bowlers are asking for tougher lane conditions, saying, 'Let's see who the best bowler is,' ' Dave Husted says.
Because of the emphasis on junior play these days, Champ Husted says Corey has had more experience bowling under pressure than his dad had when he turned pro.
'He's better right now than his dad was at 16,' Champ says.
Yeah, but is he better than Gramps?
'If we took a pro bowler from 30 years ago and one from today,' Schwab says, 'the old guy would win. It wasn't how powerful you were. It was how good you were.'