Twenty-five years ago, Glenn Allison bowled three consecutive 300 games, the first to record the feat in a sanctioned league. But nothing has been the same in the sport since Allison's 36 strikes in a row were initially heralded, then, after a protracted legal fight, disallowed because of what officials cited as noncomplying conditions at La Habra 300 Bowl in California.
High-tech balls and synthetic lanes have replaced the plastic and wood of Allison's era. Higher scores and dwindling memberships are dividing purists and recreational bowlers over the sport's priorities. Even the once-sacred 900 series and the 300 game have become so common that bowling parties have upstaged late-night leagues.
In the last 10 years, 12 sanctioned 900 series have been bowled, including two by Robert Mushtare, an 18-year-old from Carthage, N.Y., who also rolled a third that was disallowed by the U.S. Bowling Congress. But the most startling statistic is the number of 300 games: 51,162 in 2004-5 and 56,212 in 2005-6. In 1981-82, the total (which did not include the few 300 games by women and children) was 5,949.
"It's easy conditions that's kept my average up, not excessive talent," said Allison, 77, who was averaging 215 and 227 in two summer leagues. He added, "I'm truthfully a 190 average now."
Even Mushtare, who said he tried to bowl 10 games a day, found himself having to defend the three perfect series he rolled at the Pine Plains Bowling Center in Fort Drum, N.Y., from November 2005 to February 2006.
"They thought I cheated and was lying," he said during a telephone interview last week. "I can understand where it was coming from. Jealousy is a factor, too."
Four other bowlers as far back as 1931 preceded Allison with 900 scores, but none were in a sanctioned league or under tournament conditions. Allison said he was not upset that noncompliance with oil distribution on his lanes left him as an asterisk in bowling record books. If Allison rolled a 900 series in a league tonight, it would be approved without an inspection. Rule changes now allow for season-long certification of lanes, another accommodation that rankles traditionalists.
But as tennis and golf have had technical and tactical shifts in their sports with the introduction of new equipment, science has found bowling. Allison used one ball for every shot, but many league and pro bowlers now have three or four. The new balls "grip the lanes better," he said, creating a coefficient of friction that is much higher than years ago. "You can buy a hook with these new balls, and it's so much easier," Allison said.
La Habra 300 Bowl is commemorating the anniversary of Allison's achievement with a tournament this weekend. Allison, who has been working the desk there for the last seven years and is affectionately known as Mr. 900, will join in the celebration.
"It's an altogether different game," said Mickey Curley, who has worked at the lanes for 44 years and whose son Dennis bowled with Allison on the night of his perfect series. "Fitting and drilling bowling balls now is a science."
Roger Dalkin, the chief executive of the U.S. Bowling Congress, said: "One of the difficulties we have as a governing body is trying to manage the technology and not eliminate it. There's always a debate: What's too much, what's too easy?"
Registered membership in the bowling congress fell to 2.7 million last year from close to 10 million in 1982. But according to Simmons Research, 70 million Americans (37 million men, 33 million women) bowl at least once a year, and many are prepared to spend $10 a game and more for the lively social activities at places like Bowlmor Lanes in Manhattan.
The bowling congress has also initiated Sport Bowling, a division that tries to emulate pro tour-type conditions for more serious competitors. Begun three years ago, it has 40,000 members and has doubled in membership each of the last three years.