A lane of their own
Trailblazing organization returns to its Detroit birthplace for TNBA National Tournament.
Published: May 27, 2014
The battle they fought didn’t play out on the gridiron of the football field or the diamond of the baseball park. It may seem odd today, but it was a struggle starring African-American fans of the game of ten-pin, and it played out on the wooden lanes of America’s bowling centers. And it turned a corner in Detroit, 75 years ago this August, with the formation of the National Negro Bowling Association. That trailblazing organization, since 1945 known simply as The National Bowling Association (TNBA), is back in its birthplace this spring, in the midst of its TNBA National Tournament and Convention, drawing an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 people to bowling centers from Detroit to Ann Arbor.
To back up a bit, a whole generation has grown up seeing the sport of bowling lampooned in such comedies as The Big Lebowski and Kingpin, and may not realize that, in the middle of the 20th century, bowling wasn’t a punch line — it was insanely popular.
The U.S. government pushed it as a healthful activity for working people with “Bowling for Health” campaigns. From World War II forward, the military promoted the sport, making bowling centers a regular feature on military bases. By the 1960s, almost every big-city newspaper had a sports reporter following the bowling scene. In the 1970s, bowling was a heavily watched televised sport, and its champions were minor celebrities.
Like many organized sports, bowling became popular at a time when the American frontier was vanishing and the country’s cities were growing. But what set ten-pin apart was the resource-intensive nature of the game. Most inner-city kids could toss a football or bounce a basketball. Bowling, however, appealed to working-class adults, mostly white, with money to spend. In a consumer society, it was the ultimate resource-sucking pursuit, involving polished wooden floors, ball-return systems, a small staff of janitors, shoe-checkers and pin-setters, as well as an entire building to house the action.
In wartime Detroit in the 1940s, with its free-spending, predominantly white working class, and its bone-chilling winters, bowling provided a year-round getaway from war work, a way to recreate and socialize right in the neighborhood.
But it was a segregated oasis, one that barred black Detroiters from almost all the best lanes. And with trainloads of black Southerners coming to town seeking newfound prosperity and social equality, the game of ten-pin began to symbolize equality in a way that’s hard to understand today.
When Mark and Diane Voight come into our offices at Metro Times to talk about the upcoming TNBA tournament, we can hardly believe our eyes. Almost the very caricature of a sweet elderly white couple, the Farmington Hills residents look like the last people you’d peg as advocates for an African-American bowling organization.
But the Voights got involved with TNBA shortly after they acquired the now-razed Satellite Bowl in Dearborn Heights, which Mark fondly recalls as “an iconic 84-lane center that was one of those personalities in and of itself.” A few months after the Voights bought the center in January 1985, Mark met TNBA National Tournament Director Jim Alston, with whom a friendship began over a drink at the bar. He says he later convinced Alston and his group to come to the Detroit area to host their national tournament here in the mid 1990s, when the couple had moved on to run another bowling center, Canton’s Superbowl. It makes sense the Voights would woo TNBA for its prestigious tournaments, still among the largest in bowling.
It’s good business for the Voights, of course, but Mark sounds a more personal note, saying, “We’ve struck up a friendship with quite of a few of the people that were bowling, including those in the local senate [TNBA’s local chapters are called senates]. And we became close to them. We’ve gone to their national conventions and we’re fairly regular attendees, much more so than the other proprietors around the country. And out of this, we’ve made a few long-term friends.”
For the Voights, it’s just the way they do things. “We treat all of the tournaments that come to town as personal relationships,” Mark says. “So we became friends with the head of the national Elks, we are friends with the people from the International Knights of Columbus,” he allows himself a laugh and adds, “Here’s a nice Jewish boy and girl going to the International Knights of Columbus bowling association meetings in the various cities. … So that’s our story — that’s how this unusual couple became involved.”
With decades of experience in bowling, Mark gives his spin on the turmoil of Detroit’s bowling scene at midcentury.
He says, “Throughout southeastern Michigan, we had an influx of people from all different areas. There was a large segment that came from the South — from African-Americans to, for lack of a better term, hillbillies. They came from the Middle East, Germany, and from Italy — and they all came because the jobs here were plentiful.”
But one thing war workers’ impressive wages couldn’t buy was quality recreation. For all its economic might, wartime Detroit was a city of cheap diners, clip joints, and noisy “cabarets.”
“Back then,” Mark continues, “there were not a lot of activities for people, and all of a sudden they had some time on their hands and they also had money, and they were looking for something to do. So when bowling came along … people were just flocking to these places. They had a large bowling center downtown, on Jefferson, that, as I understand it, was a six- or seven-story building with eight to 10 lanes on each floor. People used this as a diversion because they had the time and the money and nowhere else to go. Back then, they didn’t have racket sports, TVs, movies, etc. So this became, for many people, their evening out — sometimes as many four or five times a week.”
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