Philly’s two blind bowling leagues head to nationals this weekend

The competition has been around since the ‘50s, but local groups are striking out with new bowlers.

A middle-to-older aged woman in black pants and a lavender shirt lets go of her orange bowling ball at the beginning of the lane, while the rest of the bowling alley stretches behind her

In the Philadelphia Area Blind Bowlers League and the Delaware Valley Blind Bowlers league, players don't use bumpers. 'The goal is to hit the pins like anyone else.'

Rian Watkins for Billy Penn
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Kathryn Foster bowls at least a 100, though she used to hit 150. All told, it’s a pretty good average for someone who’s 82 years old and visually impaired due to albinism. For reference, an average of 175 is considered impressive, with pro bowlers hovering around 200.

She isn’t sure how much longer she has on the lanes — but she’s not stopping yet.

“I go year by year,” said Foster, who has bowled since high school. She admits age and various health challenges have slowed her down, but not her vision. “It’s funny because my sighted friends stopped bowling years ago.”

She’s the only remaining original bowler from the Delaware Valley Blind Bowlers League, a branch of the American Blind Bowling Association, which was established in 1951.

Foster remembers commuting every Friday night from Maple Shade, N.J., to a long-since gone alley below 30th Street Station when the league began in 1978. Now in Collingdale, Foster bowls with the league at Playhouse Lanes in Drexel Hill on Monday nights.

Blind bowling leagues are grouped based on vision. Each is allowed to have a mixture of “totals” — people who are completely blind — “partials,” who have partial vision, and auxiliaries, aka full-sighted bowlers. The game runs like a standard bowling match, with bowlers relying only on rails to center themselves.

“We don’t use bumpers,” said Mike Patterson, 66, current president of the Delaware Valley Blind Bowlers League. “The goal is to hit the pins like anyone else.”

In its heyday between the 1960s and 1980s, the two Philadelphia blind bowlers leagues had close to 100 members — and waiting lists. Today, both leagues’ presidents are worried about the future.

“In 10 years, there may not even be blind bowling,” Patterson told Billy Penn.

Larry Smith, 61, president of the Philadelphia Area Blind Bowlers League, echoed that sentiment: “I don’t think it will even be that long.”

Membership problems aren’t just a local thing. ABBA national president Joyce Spencer-Mitz confirmed that numbers are dwindling in leagues across the country, with the pandemic taking a sledgehammer to enrollment.

“Back in the ’80s and even early ’90s we had over 3,000 members. We’re probably down to about 1,000 now, and after the pandemic, we really lost a lot of members,” she told Billy Penn.

A white-haired man in a collared shirt and black pants sits on a bowling bench next to a black Labrador dog, who is lying beneath him

When do dogs go bowling? When they're assistance animals to help the competitors.

Rian Watkins for Billy Penn

‘There were so many bowlers back then’

The 2022 ABBA National Convention and Tournament takes place in Chicago on Memorial Day weekend. About 10 bowlers from the two local leagues are attending — including Patterson, who’s a veteran of national competition.

The lack of players has consequences for game play. A bowling team typically has four players. But for the first time in its history, the Philadelphia league lacked enough bowlers for standard play and could only field four 3-member teams this season.

ABBA seasons begin in September and run through May, with teams relying on auxiliaries to keep matches on track. These sighted bowlers keep score and call pins.

Currently, the Philadelphia Area league is seeking people to fill this position. “We need at least two sighted bowlers, or we may not be bowling in September,” Smith told Billy Penn.

Right now, the Delaware Valley league is down to six teams of four-members each. Yet Patterson — the league’s president — recalls a time when ten teams thrived alongside one another.

The back of a bowler wearing a gray shirt and black pants at the moment they're about to release a bowling ball down the lane, with the pins at the far end in the background

Visually impaired bowlers use rails to start their throw, but otherwise the game is the same as for sighted players

Rian Watkins for Billy Penn

When Patterson lost his vision as a teenager in the late ’70s from the eye condition aniridia, his older brother Richard, who is also totally blind, introduced the league to him. “I wanted to continue with some kind of activity and I wanted to be with people in the same boat,” he said.

Patterson started as a substitute, bowling only as needed.

“There were so many bowlers back then. There was no room except for subs,” he reminisced. Currently, he averages upwards of 100, but used to bowl a cool 140 back in the day.

Shirley Brotman, 78, also has fond memories of hitting the lanes with the Delaware Valley league. Visually impaired due to congenital glaucoma and a retinal detachment, she served as the league’s president in the eighties, while her now-deceased husband, Abe, was treasurer.

“It was really amazing what we accomplished all those years,” she said.

A younger woman in a striped hoodie and jean vest holds onto the side rail as she is about to release a red bowling ball into the lane

A few younger players are joining, but interest is not like it used to be

Rian Watkins for Billy Penn

A strike of hope for the future

Now, both the Delaware Valley and the Philadelphia Area leagues are in desperate need of new members as their current roster ages well into retirement. Smith, the Philadelphia Area league president who has been totally blind since birth, said most members are in their sixties or seventies. Meanwhile, it’s also losing two of its youngest members, both in their thirties.

Both leagues said attracting new bowlers is harder now that more sports and adventures are accessible to the blind and visually impaired.

“You can do just about anything these days. We just didn’t have all those options then.” said Brotman, the former Delaware Valley league president, who stopped bowling a few years ago after an unrelated fall.

Skiing, rock climbing, running, and golfing are just some of the sports that have gained popularity in the blind community. Just last month, a blind racecar driver broke a new speed record.

But bowling is still captivating the occasional youngster.

Stephanie Algarin Diaz, 24, is the newest bowler to the Delaware Valley league, having joined this past September. Diaz, considered a “partial” due to having low vision, bowled in high school. After a coworker brought her along, Diaz ended her first season with a 70 average.

As for the next season, Foster has made up her mind. “I am going to bowl in September.”

“I love bowling,” Diaz said, “and this is the only way I can do it.”

 

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