I grew up in Detroit, a blue collar city for which bowling is much more than a mere sport. In the smoky environs where the game is played, participants take bowling seriously, and league matches with large payouts assume the importance of the Final Four in their sublimity.
Moreover, bowling in Detroit is not only intertwined with individual masculinity, but also with one's group acceptance as a stand-up human being. The failure to pick up a crucial spare in the tenth frame, thus sealing a win for your team, can lead to ignominy.
It is within this context that I pondered over the effects of Barack Obama's pathetic bowling score of 37 in an Altoona, PA bowling establishment last weekend. The visit to the center was an attempt to woo blue collar voters in the upcoming Pennsylvania primary, but I suspect that the move might have hurt Obama's image.
For the record: bowling does not have the racial exclusivity associated with it that does a sport like golf. Black and white bowlers compete, sometimes on the same teams, and a bowler's skill level is the determining factor in the hierarchy of bowlers, pure and simple. I remember being in youth leagues in which there were "black" teams and "white" teams in the 1970s, but there was always a grudging respect when your team got soundly trounced by a team whose members were of a different race.
My father instilled in me the virtues of being a quality bowler, and he was talented enough to have turned professional. Even in his seventies, my dad still carries a 200 average, and is a threat to add to his collection of 300 and 299 gold rings. He and I could bowl 20 games, and I bet he would whoop me in at least 18 of them.
I carry about a 160 average, though it has been years since I was last in a league. I recall bowling with my teenaged son a few years ago at a point when our relationship was a bit strained. He was in a high school league and carried a 150 average, learning as he was to roll a 15-board hook. I dusted off my sanded Gyro, rolled a few practice frames, and proceeded to toss a 235 in my second game, much to the awe of my previously-cocky kid.
Now, bowling cannot cure family problems, but there is much to be said for the values associated with the sport, and for a few hours my son and I were able to put aside our generational differences and connect.
My suspicion is that Obama's political advisers - those Washington elites who thought that a few video clips of Barack Obama tossing a bowling ball would help him similarly connect with blue collar voters - are even more clueless than Obama about the significance of bowling to its working class aficionados. While I doubt that the abominable 37 pin count will cause as much PR damage as, say, Michael Dukakis on an M1 Abrams tank, Barack Obama failed to score in more than one way in Altoona.