When you think about college sports, bowling is usually not the first one that comes to mind.
Today, bowling is an NCAA sport only offered for women by 198 schools across the country. Not a single Ivy League school has a varsity program.
But that wasn’t always the case. Bowling was among the earliest sports offered by Penn, closely tied with the construction of one of the most prominent buildings on campus.
Houston Hall was originally built in 1894 as the first student union in the United States. When it first opened, Houston housed a swimming pool and a four-lane bowling alley in its basement. The alley and other amenities were only available for members of the Houston Club, which students could join for a small fee.
With these new facilities, Penn began a bowling team in 1896. A tournament was held at Houston Hall to find a six-man team that would play against other schools and local clubs, from Columbia to a team of florists.
There was high demand for spots, and no man’s position on the team was secure. It was determined that those interested in representing Penn in intercollegiate competition were required to bowl at least 32 games each month. The 12 members with the highest average at the end of each month would constitute the official squad.
In the early days, the alleys were extremely popular, and the team ran for several decades. The Houston Club also sponsored interclass bowling tournaments and competitions between different graduate schools.
In 1906, Penn joined an official intercollegiate bowling league, also composed of Haverford, Columbia, and Lafayette. However, interest within the league didn’t last long. Penn won the 1908 championship by default with a single victory over Haverford. While the league also officially included Columbia and Amherst that season, neither team played a match.
The alley was closed and converted into storage space in 1914. Although there was renewed interest for a Penn bowling team in 1917, the lanes were not reopened and were instead used for gun storage for the University Battalion with the onset of the United States’ involvement in World War I.
Bowling became a feature of campus life again in 1927 with the construction of the Walnut Street Alleys at 37th and Walnut. While it first gained popularity as an individual sport, an interfraternity league was quickly established, and the university soon began to look towards reinstating a varsity program.
In 1933, Joe Travis became the proprietor of the Walnut Street Alleys and the first official bowling coach for Penn. Beginning with just 10 bowlers, an intramural league was drawn up that same year. By 1936, 40 teams had entered.
The varsity bowling team was re-established in 1936. Competing against a field of teams including Cornell, Columbia, Syracuse, Penn State, and Villanova, the Quakers came away with the league title in just their first year of competition.
“Bowling is a real sport here, taking in several hundred players each week, and having a longer schedule than at any other school,” Travis told the Daily Pennsylvanian on May 6, 1937.
The Red and Blue won their fifth annual intercollegiate bowling invitational tournament in 1939, topping both Lafayette and Penn State. The following year, since Lafayette had dropped out of the tournament, the only competitor they had to beat was Temple, and they were victorious again at home.
The Walnut Street Alleys were also a part of a “Bowl for Victory” campaign in the 1940s. Students could purchase 100 games for a dollar, with all proceeds going to raise money for the British-American Ambulance Corps. The organizer of the campaign, Carl E. Mau, was later arrested for abusing the fundraiser for his own financial gain.
All Penn sports were affected by the United States’ involvement in World War II, with intercollegiate competition briefly suspended in 1940. While other teams were back in action by the end of the year, bowling remained chiefly an intramural and interfraternity game until 1957, when Penn announced the team would officially return.
In 1958, the bowling team announced a 14-match schedule that culminated in the Eastern College Athletic Conference bowling tournament, hosted in New York that April. There was even enough interest to also field a JV team composed of freshmen. However, neither team received funding from the university, technically relegating both to club status.
The Eastern Intercollegiate Bowling Conference ranked the Penn varsity team second in the East on Mar. 27, 1958. Three Quakers ranked individually in the top 10 in the conference, with sophomore Mark Posnick claiming the second-highest spot. Penn bowling was back on the rise.
The Red and Blue finished the 1958 season with an 8-3 record. In their final match, hosted by Fairleigh Dickinson, Penn’s victory was observed by a crowd of 2,000.
Despite the program’s success, funding remained an issue. While the 24 other members of the EIBC were fully funded by their universities, the Quakers had to pay out-of-pocket for all expenses.
“The result of the lack of funds is the poor road record of the team,” the DP wrote on Apr. 22, 1959. “As most of the away matches are played in the New York area, the only men who can make the trip are those who live in that vicinity. It would be asking too much to have the bowlers pay for their accommodations while representing the University of Pennsylvania.”
In 1959, the bowling team only received $200 from the Undergraduate Council, barely enough to cover the cost of uniforms and half of their Walnut Street matches.
The money troubles were so severe that members of the bowling team seriously considered disbanding the program midway through its second season on campus. The team was saved in 1959 when the university agreed to fully sponsor the sport.
The university even financed the bowlers’ trip Midwest over spring break for the 1959-60 season, when the Quakers would face powerhouses such as Michigan State, Ohio State, and Notre Dame.
In 1962, the Red and Blue keglers defeated Villanova to capture the title of the Delaware Division of the EIBC. A year later, Penn senior Tony Kaptzan and junior Jim Birkel won the Eastern Intercollegiate doubles bowling championship. Co-captains, Larry Levin and Glenn Jacobs, secured the title again in 1965.
As the men’s team was dominating the East, women’s bowling slowly became a feature on campus as well, competing against teams such as Drexel in 1964.
Despite their successes, bowling had again been demoted to club status by 1965. While they continued to compete in the EIBC, they were no longer funded by the university, and the program itself slowly became forgotten by the Penn community.
“So it is that one of the more successful Penn teams is one which virtually no one on campus knows of,” the DP wrote on Nov. 21, 1974. “The bowling team keeps on going about its business of winning, knowing full-well that it will receive very little, if any, recognition of its accomplishments.”
In the early 70s, as women’s athletics were expanding at Penn, women’s bowling fell behind. The sport was dropped when women’s athletics moved out from under the budget of the recreation department. While the men’s team continued to win the odd championship, securing the Delaware Valley Bowling League title in 1976, it never recaptured the dominance of the 50s and 60s, and calls for full varsity status eventually died down completely.
The final nail in the coffin was the demolition of the Walnut bowling alley in 1976. Replaced with a parking lot, the lanes that Penn had called home for more than 40 years were gone.
While they continued to advertise the bowling club in the DP through the 1980s, with practices held at Gehris Lanes on 69th and Market, bowling no longer had a presence on campus.
Penn bowling, at one time counted among the university’s strongest teams, faded completely into obscurity.
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