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Guest column: Wall 'em up, Hugh Miller wrote in the 1990s

JEFF RICHGELS | Posted: Friday, September 30, 2022 7:00 am
Hugh Miller after winning the 2021 South Point Super Senior Shootout Championship. Photo by Phyllis Punturiero.

Big Mike (Weinert) of Sweep the Rack podcast fired up social media with his guest column offering "My beef with house shot leagues" at on Sept. 22.

Luke Rosdahl, a Storm staffer whose ball reviews have made his YouTube page a popular page for people looking for Storm products reviews, was among the readers of Big Mike's piece. And he wanted to offer his views on the topic, which he did in offering "A less dramatic perspective on house shots" earlier this week.

Ohio bowling center manager and Eagle winner Jerry Kessler followed up with his take, "Not all house shot bowling is the same!" after Rosdahl.

Rosdahl then wrote a second piece "The gloves are off!" that he posted on his Patreon page and said I was welcome to run it.

Retired PBA Tour champion Hugh Miller sent me a piece he wrote in 1998 for Van Port Bowling News that offers some nice historical perspective, although it obviously and naturally is dated in some respects.


As this website has always been open for guest columns that bring value to bowling topics of interest, and the legitimacy of house shot bowling definitely is such a topic, I am happy to run these pieces.

Wall 'Em Up


In a recent article, syndicated columnist John Jowdy spoke his mind concerning today's lane conditions. He criticized the ABC and the bowling proprietors for allowing today's "soft" scoring environment. He went as far as calling some of today's easy scoring conditions out and out "cheating". John Jowdy is a man who has a wealth of knowledge about the game of bowling. He has been involved with the sport for many years, among his credentials are membership in the PBA Hall of Fame, and he is a coach to many top pros. While there may be some areas where Mr. Jowdy and myself may disagree (at times his approach may be a little to the "right" while mine may be a little to the "left"), but when it comes to the subject of today's lane conditions, I couldn't agree with him more. John is right on target, dead flush in the 1-3 (or is that 1-2) pocket. In almost every bowling center today across America, the lanes are walled to the hilt. In most cases there is very little, if any conditioner on the outside boards, and a relative flood of conditioner in the center of the lane. The last 10-15 years, scores have gone through the stratosphere. What once was a very good average, 175-190 (an average which you could not achieve without being a good spare shooter) is now maybe mediocre. What once was a great average, 190-205 certainly won't make you any money in a scratch tournament. If you don't average 220 or better, most of the local hotshots won 't talk to you. How did the sport get to its current state? Who do today's conditions benefit, who do they hurt? Where is the sport headed?

Oil became the method of choice to condition lanes in the post-shellac era (late 1950's). The original intention of oiling the lanes was to protect the wood surface (coated with lacquer) from the wear and tear caused by bowling balls. It did not take long for the lane men of that era to figure out how to doctor the lanes, a heavy concentration of oil in the middle and not much on the outside would tend to "steer" the ball to the pocket, resulting in higher scores.

The ABC frowned upon this method of dressing lanes. Oil, after all, was used to protect the lane surface, not steer the ball to the pocket. The ABC instituted rules regarding use of the modern oil, or "lane dressing". The rule read something like this: oil shall be applied in a manner so there is no discernable "oil edge" or "oil line" or "slip out" from one board, or area of the lane to another. Visual inspection or tactile inspection (running your finger across the lane surface) were the methods used to check the lanes. In the event of an honor score, lanes had to be inspected by an ABC official within 24 hours. The inspection usually occurred later the same night the score was bowled, so there was no chance to tamper with the shot before inspection.

The rule was intended to allow a slight taper or "crown" toward the center of the lane, thus allowing extra oil in the worn or "track"areas. The intention of this rule was good, but it was hard to enforce. Most houses complied, some did not. The houses with the higher scores were usually illegal, whether they passed inspection or not was a "judgment call" by the local association, and quite often depended on the inspector's interpretation of the rules, or his like or dislike for the proprietor or the laneman.

Whether a shot was legal or "illegal" was totally up to the discretion of the local associations. Just like the strike zone in baseball, the rules were usually stretched a bit to accommodate the bowlers. The local officials usually allowed a heavy taper or "soft block". Only when an outbreak of unusually high scoring occurred would the rules be enforced by the book. What was O.K. in one association may not be O.K. in another. I remember when I first started traveling to tournaments in other parts of the country, I concluded the northwest had tougher scoring conditions than everywhere except the East Coast. Many times I heard opinion this is why our area developed some of the greatest bowlers of all time (John Guenther, Earl Anthony, then Marshall Holman, and a few years later, Dave Husted).

This was the status quo for the 60's and the 70's, until 1976. ABC decided they were giving away too many 300 rings, it was costing them too much money. The integrity of the game was also being tainted; scoring had become too easy. A brand new set of rules was on the books in 1976, the rule regarding lane conditioning was called "Amendment Four". The rule read something like this: "Oil (conditioner) is to be applied evenly for the entire width of the lane, from edgeboard to edgeboard, for a predetermined distance down the lane. In other words, gutter to gutter oil. No more crowns, no more tapering, no more "soft block". Every oiling was to be done evenly across the lane, gutter to gutter.

The results were disastrous. If enough oil was applied to keep the middle, or track from hooking uncontrollably, the outsides were slick as ice, and scores were low. If the oil was backed off so the ball might wrinkle on the outside (remember, we are talking about rubber and hard plastic equipment, the most aggressive ball on the market in 1976 was a yellow dot) the middle hooked uncontrollably and the scores were low. In a time when ABC membership was reaching its peak, scratch leagues folded everywhere. The bowlers screamed bloody murder; proprietors threatened to pull out of the ABC. Amendment four lasted one year, it was back to the old rule for the 1977-78 league season.

The status quo remained in effect until 1986. With the advent of urethane equipment and especially porous urethane equipment (blue hammer) scores continued to soar. The ABC claimed they were going broke giving out 300 rings. Once again it was time for a change. This time it arrived in the form of limited distance dressing, or "short oil". The ABC had been at loggerheads with the proprietors over scoring and the awards program. The ABC wanted to tighten the rules and enforcement concerning lane dressing; the proprietors did not, citing the amendment four fiasco ten years previous. Limited distance dressing was a compromise, the rule read something like this "if oil is applied to a distance of 26 feet or less, it can be distributed in any manner desired. In other words, as long as lanes were not oiled further than 26 feet, you could put as much conditioner as you want in the center, and none on the outside. The ABC had concluded that oiling only 26 feet was not enough distance with the oil to "steer" the ball to the pocket. Almost overnight, it seemed everyone was oiling 26 feet, seven board to seven board, and almost never stripping. Once the oil carried down a little bit, it was the Berlin Wall. Scores skyrocket, 300 games became a nightly occurrence, it seemed whatever chance the sport of bowling had to find some integrity had been lost. Almost every scoring record was smashed to pieces. The next year the LDD rule was amended to 24 feet, it made little, if any difference. High average bowlers became immediately spoiled, if the lanes were not walled to the hilt, they cried the blues and threatened to take their business elsewhere. Within a few years even the grandfather of all tournaments, the ABC's own yearly event, caved in to the soft conditions, and 300 games became an almost daily event there, too.

The limited distance-dressing rule stayed in effect until the early 1990's. Coincidentally, this was also about the time reactive resin came out. The ABC decided once again, after much testing and research, to rewrite the rules on lane conditioning. By then there was a new method of measuring the amount of oil present on the lane surface, a magnetic tape was placed across the lane which picked up the oil (all lane oil now had "UV", or ultra violet additive, mixed in). The tape was then fed through a machine, which read the UV off the tape and gave readout of how much oil was present on each board. The ABC, through their testing, had concluded that 3 "units" of oil was enough oil to eliminate most of the friction between the bowling ball and the lane surface, and therefore if at least 3 "units" were present across the entire lane, it would be difficult to put down a condition that would "steer" the ball to the pocket. The new lane dressing rules were adopted under the "system of bowling". The rule read something like this: "at least 3 units of oil must be present at all times for the entire length of the lane dressing". Also, in the event of an honor score, checking the lanes were no longer mandatory within 24 hours, it could be done anytime within 30 days. Gold rings with diamonds were no longer awarded for 300 games, a much cheaper silver ring was awarded, and the diamond ring could be purchased.

The days of short oil were gone, and the new system of bowling was ln. Several things became immediately apparent. The UV readings were only an indicator of how much oil was present, after all the magnetic tape was reading the ultra violet additive, not the oil itself. By adding a little more UV to a batch of oil, the tape readings were boosted significantly higher, thus making it easier to create a "legal" condition with little, if any conditioner on the outside boards. Furthermore, some oils were more

"lubricous" than others, oil "A" may react totally different than oil "B". Once again, it didn't take long for most centers to adopt a similar shot, a minimal amount of oil (3 Units) on the outside, and a flood (30-40 units) from 10 board to 10 board. Today, many centers use upwards of 100 units of oil in the center, and little, if any on the outside. Call it what you want, "wall", "block", "ditch", the fact of the matter is a bowler with a weak release and minimal accuracy can create a five to eight board area to the pocket on this condition. This is, in my opinion, about the same as putting up a 100-foot high Plexiglas wall down both sides of the fairway on a golf course. You could never hit a shot out of bounds, just swing away, who cares about a hook or a slice. Or for any of you hunters out there, today's bowling conditions could be likened to hunting in a zoo, using a rifle with an infrared scope.

This is the state of today's game, like it or not, take it or leave it. There may be some out there who might disagree with this analysis, but I guarantee you just about every industry expert and top flight pro feels about the same way. Averages today are inflated 15 to 20 pins per game, and in some cases as much as 25-40 pins per game. There was a day when a bowler aimed at a one-board target, and if they had two or three boards, they had "the world". Today, bowlers want at least a three-board area, and look for five boards or more. If they don't find it they cry the blues. The egos of scratch bowlers have become larger than life. These days, a local league bowler can out average a pro by 20 pins per game, only because they bowl on a wall and pros compete on tournament conditions.

The only place one can find legitimate conditions these days is on any of the pro tours, the megabucks tournaments, Team USA competition, or the World Team Challenge. This past July I went to the first YABA Gold event in Reno, where Kegel Co. did the lanes. They put down a tournament condition, and they also stripped and re-oiled before every squad. The shot looked pretty wide open by PBA standards but compared to most league shots they probably seemed a bit on the tough side. Basically, you could swing it, but there was no pull area. While some of the kids bowled well, quite a few struggled, not because they don 't have the ability, they just don't have anywhere to practice on a tournament condition, because everywhere they go the lanes are walled.

While walled up conditions stroke the egos of some bowlers, it is becoming increasingly difficult to finetune the skills necessary to compete at the highest levels. The learning curve is now much greater (and more expensive!) than it used to be, simply because of the vast difference between walled up local conditions and realistic tournament conditions one faces at the highest levels. The ones who get hurt are the kids and the new bowlers who want to step up to the next level. If there is a young bowler out there with the talent of an Earl Anthony or Marshall Holman, it is difficult to refine this talent when errant shots are guided to the pocket.

Even though I don 't particularly care for walled up conditions, I must admit if I were a proprietor I would probably have the easiest shot up possible (within the rules) for the league bowlers. However, I would do lanes for practice with a tougher shot so those who want to go to the next level would have that opportunity. I would also have a realistic condition for scratch tournaments. I know it costs a few extra bucks to strip and re-oil more often, but that is a price I would be willing to pay. In the meantime, I recently joined a league (for the first time since short oil came out!) that bowls on today's standard condition. I know I will rarely, if ever, miss the pocket (after all, I have five boards). If I cannot figure out how to carry the seven (which, as of this writing, I have not) I will average 225 or 230. If I do figure out how to carry the seven, I will average well over 240. Is this a legitimate average? Hell no. But what the heck, that is the state of the sport, so wall 'em up!