Apr 1, 2008

On Barack Obama and Bowling

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.


microdot said...

Mike, I bowled in Detroit when I was growing up. When I went to High School at Cass Tech, as part of gym class, we would bowl at the alleys with real winos as pinboys...10 extra points if you got a wino!
But, I don't think that Barack Obama's bowling performance is going to help or hinder him in Pennsylvania. I found it interesting to listen to the reporting in the different media and their attempt to spin it.
Some of the reports were very good natured and put it into the proper perspective and made it fun.
Other reports were harsh and judgemental and tried to make him look an idiot.
There are a lot of us, who consider ourselves patriotic Americans who haven't set foot in a bowling alley for 30 years and if I picked up a bowling ball in front of a camera, I don't think I could have done much better.
It only made me and the rest of the bowling inept masses identify with him all the more!

historymike said...

Interesting take, Microdot. Perhaps the "he's as poor of a bowler as us" effect will negate the "this guy can't bowl to save his life" backlash.

Robin said...

LOL! I suck at bowling. I always manage to break a nail, when I play.

Ben said...

brings back fond memories of John Kerry's windsurfing

Tim Higgins said...


As a former bowler as well, I found the performance amusing at best, humiliating for the candidate at worst.

Now I would assume that among Barack Obama's many handlers, there are a few lawyers. I would suggest that in the future they follow one of their own precepts "never ask a question that you don't know the answer to ...", and by extension "never allow your candidate to show his sporting prowess unless you know he has it". I'm just saying...

Mr. Schwartz said...

I was actually pretty good at bowling years ago, I was up to a 190 average and I threw my strike ball with out my thumb, which made for a wicked hook. The last time I went, I couldn't throw a thumbless ball and wound up barely breaking 100....

But 37?? My daughter at 4 had a higher score without the bumpers!!!