New York City’s first public indoor bowling action in months started today, with the state allowing bowling alleys to roll out under coronavirus-prompted social-distancing measures. The development is the latest in a long lane of bowling advances in the sport’s kingpin city.
Joseph Thum, a late New Yorker who was widely and affectionately known as Uncle Joe, has long been regarded as the father of both tenpin and international bowling.
Thum was a guiding force in the revolution of the indoor sport. In Manhattan 125 years ago next month, he co-created bowling’s national governing body, 300 as the maximum match score and other bowling standards. Starting six years later, when he opened a 24-lane operation on Broadway in Midtown Manhattan, he transformed bowling from an activity relegated to saloon basements to a sport played by millions of men and women.
Thum met many doubters on the road to respectability. When he talked to friends about his plan to build his Broadway establishment as an above-ground, street-facing bowling center with the goal of attracting a mainstream and more wholesome audience, some warned him that the place would be a “white elephant” that would render him bankrupt. Buoyed by optimism, the good-natured Thum called the business White Elephant Bowling Academy.
The vanguard of bowling’s development had arrived nearly 175 years earlier, at the southernmost end of Broadway. There in 1733, Bowling Green became the city’s first public park, named after the ninepin bowling played there by Dutch settlers.
In 1840, bowling’s public transition to indoor venues and tenpin setups was driven by so-called bowling saloons. Although the alleys were customarily in bar basements as a gambling-heavy diversion for men, private bowling alleys in the city drew a more upscale clientele.
An 1843 news story amplified this divide. That March, outside a bowling saloon on Broadway near Leonard Street in Lower Manhattan, proprietor Charles Corlis was shot and killed over a dispute about a mistress. The New York Daily Herald noted that Corlis “kept two bowling saloons in Broadway, one of them was strictly private, and appropriated to the use of fashionable ladies, who went there to play ninepin between the hours of 10 and 2 o’clock.”
The world would follow the indoor model, and Thum would help forge tenpin bowling as the public standard. After he immigrated from Germany to Manhattan as a teenager in 1876, Thum found work in a German cafe on Greenwich Street in Greenwich Village. After the cafe’s owner decided to return to Germany in 1880, Thum was deeded the eatery. Echoing some other German immigrants who brought turnvereins to the city, Thum had been inspired by sports. He installed two bowling lanes lit by kerosene lamps in the cafe’s basement for use by upstairs patrons.
Thum’s bowling operation was a hit. By 1891, Thum saw bowling as his future. That year, he opened a six-lane bowling business with wooden balls and pins in the basement of the Germania Assembly Rooms building, on Broadway near Houston Street on the Lower East Side, and called it Germania Bowling Alleys. At the venue, Thum organized the annual American National tournament as the nation’s leading bowling event.
In January 1992, New York’s The Sun reported that at an event at the Germania alleys, “the excitement was quite as great as that occasioned by the gentle passages at arms in the days of chivalry.”
During the 1890s, Thum was regarded as a talented bowler, and was on the New York team that won multiple annual Tristate Bowling Championship titles during that stretch. He worked with leaders of New York bowling leagues to form the United Bowling Clubs, the nation’s first powerful regional bowling group.
United Bowling Clubs went to work to form more universal rules and regulations for the sport. In 1895, the effort went national. That September 9, during a 15-hour meeting at Beethoven Hall in a building still standing on East Fifth Street near where Thum had opened the Germania lanes, Thum and some fellow bowling enthusiasts created the American Bowling Congress (following some mergers this century, now known as the United States Bowling Congress).
During the Beethoven Hall session, many standards were established for the game that continue today, including the 300 high score and 12 inches between standing pins.
Before the turn of the century, Thum and a teammate on the Tristate Bowling title team, Berman Kahlsdorf, were operating another Manhattan bowling venue on Lenox Avenue in Harlem. With another business partner, Herman Ehler, Thum would also manage lanes after they opened to the public in 1900 at Brooklyn’s Fulton Street and Jay Street intersection.
In 1901, three months before he opened his White Elephant lanes at 1241 Broadway, The Sun reported of Thum, “He is today almost at his best and can roll down the ten pins with the accuracy of a sharpshooter at target practice… for years has been champion of all bowlers, and who today is not quite so active because there is younger blood in the field.”
The White Elephant lanes were opened on April 1, 1901. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that day, “The alleys have been finished in the latest style and, being so centrally located, should prove very popular.” A two-man team tournament was staged on opening night to determine Greater New York’s team champion.
Five months after the White Elephant’s Broadway debut, Thum transferred the American National from the Germania bowling venue, which he continued to manage, to the Broadway lanes. And as Thum added tournaments and leagues in New York and beyond, so did the sport.
By 1915, Thum’s thriving White Elephant occupied the second, third, fourth and fifth floors, with some of the room devoted to a restaurant and billiards action. The pins were reset by “pin boys,” as automated pinsetters were introduced more than a quarter century later.
Thum was attracted to bowling’s entertainment potential. Before he launched the White Elephant, he wrote passionately about fan support. Strikes “arouse spectators to a burst of enthusiasm,” Thum noted, but not as much as as a difficult spare, which “will awaken the most sleepy individual.”
Thum attracted many ladies to the sport, as spectators and participants. In a spring 1922 all-comers event at the White Elephant — “jammed to the capacity,” reported The Sun, with “close to 1,000 bowling fans” — 15 of the entrants who bowled 90 or higher were female.
Thum also courted a larger following through fundraisers at his Broadway lanes — including during World War I for such organizations as the Jewish Welfare Board, National Catholic War Council, Salvation Army, YMCA and YWCA — and through management of Harlem Place Alleys at the corner of Third Avenue and East 125th Street.
Thum left an indelible mark on international sports. He formed a host of competitions between American and European bowlers. In 1926, he was the driving force behind the creation of the International Bowling Association, for which he served as the first president and helped standardize bowling in Europe.
Thum went on to successfully campaign for a bowling tournament to be staged in conjunction with the 1936 Olympics in Germany. In Berlin, some 5,000 bowlers from 14 countries took part in the demonstration. As with some other ventures, Thum attached his name to the event, calling the team of American bowlers the Joe Thum Sport Club and the top team award — won by the Americans — the Joe Thum Trophy.
Often sporting a JTBC (Joe Thum Bowling Guard) mark on a sailor’s cap and bowling medals pinned military style on a blazer, the white-mustached Thum enjoyed courting attention as a way to gain more public traction for the former dark-alley sport.
Thum did not live to fulfill his goal to make bowling an Olympic sport. On January 19, 1937, six months after the Berlin tournament and 15 days before his 79th birthday, he died in New York City.
The day after his passing, The New York Times described Thum as “the father of American bowling… inspired by his tremendous love of the sport of bowling and his desire to see the representatives of his adopted country lead the world in it. Today, as a result of the spark ‘Uncle Joe’ set off, 7,000,000 men play the game in the United States, Canada and Hawaii… 1,000,000 women play the game in church clubrooms, in schools and in public academies.”
Through his death, Thum clearly proved that the White Elephant was not a white elephant. He had provided a tailwind for the sport, a legacy that would remain strong even after the closing of the White Elephant in 1945. Tournament bowling would capture viewers’ interest in television’s pioneer days and create a thriving professional circuit. In 1964 for a bowling goods company, champion bowler Don Carter would become the first athlete of any sport to score a seven-figure endorsement deal.
The rise of tournament play can be pinned on Thum. “Uncle Joe,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle concluded in a 1915 editorial, “brought tournament bowling into vogue.”
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