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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Monday, Oct. 20, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment

In old Milwaukee, everybody was a bowler! (PHOTO: Wisconsin Historical Society & United States Bowling Congress)

In Arts & Entertainment

Hank Marino graces the cover of "They Came to Bowl." (PHOTO: Wisconsin Historical Society & United States Bowling Congress)

Schmidt rolls strike with bowling history book


Despite our sometimes desperate attempts to shake off the stereotypes, Milwaukee retains its image as a hard-workin' beer, brats and bowling town. With a bronze Fonz on tap and the Brewers season boosting the urge to tailgate, maybe we're getting comfortable with the image.

Certainly, we're not ashamed to bowl.

"Name another participation sport that allows you to compete rain or shine; allows you to socialize with friends and opponents while you compete; provides statistical results of every game you play," says Doug Schmidt, author of the vibrant and readable, "They Came to Bowl: How Milwaukee Became America's Tenpin Capital," published in paperback by Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

"And in what other sport does the ball automatically come back to you no matter how bad you throw it?"

Schmidt, an active league bowler for 38 years and a veteran writer on the sport, says Milwaukee was a natural place for bowling to settle in as a major sport.

"Bowling's popularity grew out of the wave of German immigrants who began arriving in Milwaukee during the mid 1800s and the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1900s. Bowling was an extension of German religious and cultural values -- even Martin Luther had a bowling alley in his home.

"It was accentuated by the Milwaukee beer barons who incorporated bowling into their lavish parks and beer gardens. When Milwaukee became a manufacturing hub of the Midwest, it's blue-collar workforce headed to the saloons for a few schooners of their favorite brew, a game of schafskopf and some kegeling. Streetcars and trolleys linked the neighborhoods to the factories and taverns."

In 1924, Milwaukee had a record-setting 760 bowling teams and 2,766 league bowlers, surpassing much larger cities like Chicago and Philadelphia, where the sport was also popular. Eleven years later, Schmidt notes, Milwaukee was fifth in the nation in the number of bowling league with 200. Chicago was tops with 493, but had nearly six times the population of Brew City.

Schmidt writes in the book that Milwaukee's religious community also embraced bowling, which in a city full of steeples didn't hurt the popularity of the game, either.

"In its earliest incarnation, bowling was a German religious rite before it ever became recognized as a sport," he says. "At least a dozen Milwaukee churches -- predominantly Lutheran -- installed two to four lanes in their basements for socializing. Milwaukee's second great wave of immigrants were Polish who were almost exclusively Catholic and some of their parishes adopted bowling as a wholesome cultural activity as well."

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