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Blind bowlers prepare for national tournament, even as membership is shrinking

Soo McClure celebrates a successful round at the DuBowl Lanes in South St. Louis.
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
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Soo McClure celebrates a successful round at the DuBowl Lanes in South St. Louis.

Soo McClure steps up to the lane with a bowling ball the color of green marble. She lines herself up with the help of a guard rail, takes a deep breath and bowls.

Nine pins go down. A sighted bowler calls out the pin number for the last one, and she tries again for a spare, but her ball ends up in the gutter. 

“Oops,” McClure said, clapping her hands. “There’s that for that turn.”  

McClure is one of about a dozen blind or partially sighted bowlers who gather at Dubowl Lanes in South St. Louis every Monday evening. They’re all members of the Pinsplitters bowling league. Three of the leagues will travel to Chicago next week for the national championships of the American Blind Bowling Association.

“It won’t actually be a full team; we’ll have to bowl with somebody else,” said Jack Lenk, who is president of the Pinsplitters league. His teammates, Jennifer Miner and Jimmy Lasley, will compete in a doubles competition, and all three will bowl in a master’s tournament.

Soo McClure chats with team member Chris Judd (right) as they wait their turns to bowl.
Credit Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
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Soo McClure chats with team member Chris Judd (right) as they wait their turns to bowl.

McClure isn’t one of the teammates heading to nationals this year, but she’s had a long season of local and regional competitions.

Though born with partial sight, McClure’s vision began to deteriorate when she was still a child. Around that same time, her father taught her how to bowl, and she continued to practice.

Rails weighted down by bowling balls help players measure where to throw and how to angle the balls.
Credit Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
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Rails weighted down by bowling balls help players measure where to throw and how to angle the balls.

“As my vision deteriorated it was something I had to hold on to,” McClure said. “I guess for me it was a little bit of a security blanket. It was something I could stick with. It wasn’t, ‘Oh, my sight is going. What do I do with my time? With my life?’”

Today, McClure says her sight in one eye is like looking through a pinhole. The other eye is completely blind. But bowling continues to be a lifelong hobby, and something to look forward to on Monday nights. McClure even met her husband at the league.

How bowling works for the blind and partially sighted

There are two blind bowling leagues in St. Louis: the Pinsplitters and the Railrollers. That’s more than most cities. But perhaps it's not surprising, considering that St. Louis is the former home of the International Bowling Hall of Fame.

On weekly bowling nights, the leagues set up rails in between the lanes to help bowlers position themselves before throwing the ball.

Members of the Pinsplitters bowling league compete against each other at Du Bowl Lanes in South St. Louis.
Credit Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
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Members of the Pinsplitters bowling league compete against each other at Du Bowl Lanes in South St. Louis.

“In my head, I go to the end of the rail and step back a couple of steps. If I get a good result, that’s where I stick,” said Chris Judd, a Pinsplitters bowler who joined the league a few years ago. After a throw, a sighted or partially-sighted person lets the player know which pins are left standing by calling out the numbers between 1 and ten that correspond to each pin’s placement.

A screen displays which pins are left standing after a throw. Sighted and partially-sighted bowlers call out the corresponding pin numbers for those who cannot see them.
Credit Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
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A screen displays which pins are left standing after a throw. Sighted and partially-sighted bowlers call out the corresponding pin numbers for those who cannot see them.

“If I hear a lot of pins go down, it was a good shot. But it really helps when someone tells me,” Judd said.  

Scoring follows guidelines from the U.S. Bowling Congress: a perfect score is 300.

Angelo Trapasso is a 74-year-old bowler who is also partially sighted. He has bowled with the league since the 1970s. He uses a handheld monocular (which looks like one half of a pair of binoculars) to make out which pins are left standing after a throw.

“The highest game was a 229 for me,” Trapasso said. “But that was when I first started … I’ve got a hip replacement now. I can’t throw the ball like I used to.”

Bowling by mail: A short history of bowling while blind

It’s hard to say exactly when bowling was adapted for people without sight. Members of the Pinsplitters claim that blind bowling leagues have been operating in St. Louis for at least six decades.

Angelo Trapasso peers through a monocular, which helps him make out the pins left at the end of the lane.
Credit Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
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Angelo Trapasso peers through a monocular, which helps him make out the pins left at the end of the lane.

According to the American Blind Bowling Association, national competitions for blind and partially sighted bowlers began in the late 1940s, and standard rules were determined in the 1950s.

Pinsplitters league president, Jack Lenk learned how to bowl before he turned 10, as a student at the Missouri School for the Blind. Back then, each student learned how to play, and teams would compete with other schools by mailing their scores around the country.

“We’d bowl against Overbrook School in Philadelphia. They’d send us their scores, we’d send them ours. I don’t know if our teams ever won, but it was a lot of fun.”

Lenk also remembers working as a pin-setter. This was before the lanes were automated, so people had to manually reset the pins on to the racks. Lenk said this practice helped him improve his game dramatically.

“When they told me what pins were there (after a bowl) I knew exactly where the pins were,” Lenk said. 

At their home in St. Louis, Jack and June Lenk hold a first-place trophy from a city-wide tournament in 2002. They won while competing on a team together.
Credit Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
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At their home in St. Louis, Jack and June Lenk hold a first-place trophy from a city-wide tournament in 2002. They won while competing on a team together.

Years later, Lenk met his wife, June, who is partially blind, and they began competing together. Their memories include international competitions as far away as Australia and Malaysia, and personal records in the 190s and 200s.  

A classic sport sees new competition

Bowling is one of many sports that have been adapted for people who don’t see well. Technology has expanded the list dramatically: Dart boards can be wired for sound to allow visually handicapped people to play; baseball players can use balls that beep; bells are placed in basketballs and backboard sound systems to facilitate basketball games for the blind.

“There’s skiing, horseback riding, goal ball—and that’s just a game played with blindfolds — everybody blind and sighted — must wear,” June said. “Many sports are now adapted for the blind and vision impaired.”  

Jack says increased competition from other sports could be one reason it’s been hard to recruit new people for the bowling league. But there are other issues, too. Sometimes, potential members cite the cost of league fees, ($11 a week) or transportation to and from practice as barriers.   

“We’ve gone from 70-something bowlers down to 20,” Jack said. “I’d like to get the leagues built back up. I don’t think we’ll get to where we have a waiting list again, but more than four teams if we could, we’d get a little more competition.”

Jack said achieving that goal will take all bowlers: blind, partially sighted and people with sight, who can call the pins the bowlers have knocked down. 

For more St. Louis news, follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB

Four members of the Pinsplitters bowling league.
Credit Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
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Four members of the Pinsplitters bowling league.

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