June 7, 2011
BOSTON — Greater Boston native Jimmy Keefe has three passions: The Bruins, the Red Sox and candlepin bowling.
But although the Bruins' run to the Stanley cup represents a historic high for the team, and the Sox pick up steam as they move through their season, Keefe's hobbies aren't all secure. Across the state, his beloved candlepin alleys are closing at a fast clip.
Most Massachusetts residents know that when you bowl here, you may not just be bowling. There's a good chance you're candlepin bowling -- and connecting with a distinctive state tradition. Candlepin bowling, with its smaller pins, smaller balls and extra throws, is historically more popular here than the conventional 10-pin bowling.
But fans of the game are worried the sport might soon go the way of VCRs, Walkmen and 8-track cassettes. Keefe wants to keep that from happening. “My goal in life is to keep candlepin going. I don’t want it to die,” Keefe said.
The game was first developed in Worcester in 1880 and remained popular in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. Unlike the ten-pin version, candlepins are smaller and bowlers use grapefruit-sized balls without holes. To Keefe, the larger ball style is no fun at all.
“That’s not real bowling to me. Real bowling is candlepin,” he said.
Candlepin bowling’s popularity peaked in the late seventies. John Leverone, who has worked at Lanes and Games in Cambridge since 1976, where he is now the manager, rode the wave.
“Leagues were very strong at that time,” Leverone said. “We had many school groups come in. We had buses pick the kids up at school. We had school league every afternoon, every day of the week.”
Soon after, women began to enter the workforce in droves and the daytime leagues disappeared. But nothing impacted the industry more than when the indoor smoking ban went into effect in 2004. It got slammed.
“Probably because 75% of league bowlers smoked. They didn’t want to go outside,” Leverone said.
Jimmy Keefe still bowls three nights a week and plays in the increasingly rare leagues and tournaments. But he has a guess as to why it’s disappearing: It's the economy.
“If you had to choose between food, blah blah, gas or bowling, bowling will go last,” Keefe said.
And that's another strike against the bowling industry.
MORE GREATER BOSTON
Sign-up for WGBH News updates, WGBH promotions, and previews of what's coming up on WGBH TV.