I’M sure most of you have read about how the sport of bowling may have been played in the beginning of recorded history. Supposedly there were figures of ten pins and other essentials of the game on hieroglyphics from the times of ancient Egypt, and we know about the so called “roots” in present day Germany.
I’m also quite certain that many of you are vaguely or even reasonably familiar with the evolution of today’s modern bowling ball. A May 2019 article written by Phil Regan and found in Bowling This Month provides an excellent review of the process.
Since it’s early in the season, and there’s not a lot of local information currently available here is a brief synopsis of the article. For those who have been in the game a considerable amount take a trip down “memory lane” and enjoy the mention of some of the old balls that were so prominent. For you newer bowlers, please enjoy the history lesson.
If you want to get technical, the evolution of the bowling ball can be traced to 1600 B.C. when a native tribe of southern Mexico called the Olmecs (translated meaning rubber people) began finding ways to make use of some sticky substance that came out of the nearby trees (today known as latex) that when hardened changed into what is now rubber. These people and the peoples that followed expanded their knowledge of latex to the point where it was being used for tools, shoes, and even recreation.
But, the rubber used by the Olemecs had no effect on any type of recreation and bowling balls continued to be made of a very dense hardwood called lignum vitae.
The quality and use of rubber continued to improve, but had little if any effect on bowling until 1844 when Charles Goodyear patented a rubber-hardening process called vulcanization.
Vulcanization didn’t change the game immediately as wood remained the top choice of bowling ball manufacturers. However, in 1905, someone came up with the thought of producing bowling balls using vulcanized rubber and the 1st rubber ball named the “Evertrue” was introduced. Thus, bowling’s technological revolution had begun.
Bowling ball manufacturers of that era were no different than present day companies. They all had to promote their merchandise as being the best. Some of the hard rubber balls that were commonly used included the Brunswick Mineralite introduced in 1914 with its glossy cover, and the AMF Magic Circle that featured a large red line around the circumference of the ball. The Magic Circle was designed primarily for full rollers as they could track the rotation of their ball.
Other rubber balls that were prevalent included Manhattan balls that were advertised as “more live rubber; the AMF Three Dot Classic and Ebonite’s “precision balanced” Gyro.
Rubber balls continued to be the top selling balls, but by today’s standards, a strange thing occurred. Some of the balls manufactured were much harder than the above mentioned equipment and hooked even less. These balls became excellent equipment for dry lanes.
In the late 50’s some of the manufacturers began to dabble in plastic (polyester) equipment and produced a variety of plastic balls in various colors and weights However, the various colors and weights seemed to resign these balls to league and recreational bowlers.
Recreational bowlers continued to use plastic. However, in the early 70’s, some of the high average and pro bowlers began the switch to plastic because they realized it had more hook. Still, rubber remained the top choice.
In 1973, bowling and bowling balls would see a dramatic change. Pro bowler Don McCune realized he could make the outer shell of the ball softer by soaking it in a chemical solvent called “mek”. After soaking, the shell became so soft that it generated more friction then any ball manufactured.
More friction created a domino effect. More friction meant more hook and more hook meant greater entry angles. Greater entry angles meant less deflection and less deflection meant more strikes.
McCune and his “soaker ball” changed the game. He was able to soak his ball because there was no rule preventing the procedure. That would soon change. Both the ABC and the PBA eventually prohibited soaking the ball and set a standard for hardness by using a durometer that measures the hardness of the shell. U.S.B.C. hardness is 72 while the P.B.A. sets their hardness at 75.
It didn’t take the bowling ball manufacturers much time to begin producing “legal” soaker ball shells and today we have hundreds of them on the market. We will continue this discussion next week.
GABE D’ANGELO is a member of the Mercer County Bowling Hall of Fame and Professional Bowling Writers Association who writes this weekly column for The Herald.