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"Hindsights" by Michael Barr

Looking back at
Nine Pin Bowling

Michael Barr

Nine pin bowling was once a popular sport in Fredericksburg, but it was an obscure game that never caught on in Texas outside the German communities in the Hill Country. Fifty miles away, few people had even heard of it.

The game of nine pin bowling came to America in the seventeenth century, and for a time it was a fashionable sport in men's circles. Some men loved it too much, preferring to spend Sundays at the bowling alley instead of church. Bowling alleys, like pool halls, acquired sleazy reputations. Women and church officials were so unhappy with bowling, not to mention the drinking and gambling associated with the sport, they persuaded several state and local governments to pass laws making nine pin bowling illegal.

To get around the new laws some genius added a tenth pin, and the rest is history. By the twentieth century, ten pin bowling had far surpassed nine pin in popularity with the public. Ten pin really took off after World War II when automatic pin setters and electronic scoring made the game faster and easier. At the same time owners of bowling establishments cleaned up their act. Bowling "alleys" became bowling "lanes." Bowling became respectable.

Throughout the evolution of ten pin bowling, the game of nine pin remained stranded in the nineteenth century; untainted by anything modern or progressive. Because there were no automatic pin setters, the pins were set by hand. Players kept score on a chalkboard. The game honored tradition, refused to change, and slowly faded in popularity. By the 1980s, the German Hill Country, where tradition and heritage are treasured, was about the only area in the United States where the game was played. It is still played today in a few isolated places northwest of San Antonio.

Nine pin is a noisy, sociable game. It is a team sport, with plenty of time between turns for drinking and fraternizing. The rules are simple. The pins are set in the shape of a diamond. The center pin, called the kingpin or redhead, has a special red mark. A team gets nine points when it knocks down all nine pins but twelve points when it knocks down all pins but the kingpin. There are six people on a team, and each team bowls six frames or innings. Each team is led by a captain who gets to pick the bowling order. He will tell you his decision is based on a detailed analysis of the situation and intimate knowledge of each bowler's ability, but it usually comes down to who's buying the beer.

The Germans of Fredericksburg and Central Texas, more than any other group I know of, value leisure time and emphasize it in their community life. They play just as hard as they work and feel no guilt about it. A generation ago in Fredericksburg there were singing societies and shooting groups. There were dances and concerts. Some families spent every Saturday night enjoying the company of other families at the ice house down the street. But for most of the twentieth century, nine pin bowling consistently drew the biggest crowds.

There was a time in Fredericksburg when bowling leagues were active Monday through Saturday at Hermann Sons Hall and at the four lanes at Turner Hall. There were men's leagues, women's leagues, and mixed leagues, and there was a waiting list to get in. That's because nine pin bowling, more than anything else, was a social event. Skill level was not important. Even the score was a secondary concern. Nine pin was about laughing and drinking beer. It was about fun. It was about belonging and even romance. I know a surprising number of couples who bowled nine pin on their first date. Quite a few Fredericksburg husbands met their wives on a mixed league night at Turner Hall.

But times change. Outside influences have altered traditional cultural patterns in the Hill Country. Fredericksburg is both victim and beneficiary of that change.

Still it's too bad no one bowls nine pin in Fredericksburg anymore.


Michael Barr
"Hindsights" November 16, 2015 Column

Sources:
Interview with Frances Hartmann, October 28, 2015.
Brownsville Herald, December 28, 1934, "Sports Chats," p. 3
New Braunfels Herald Zeitung, July 17, 1988, "Nine Pin Hall of Fame in New Braunfels," p 11A.
New Braunfels Herald Zeitung, August 2, 1987, "Traditional German Sport Kept Alive by Die-Hard Fans," p B1.


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