Kathleen Hoffmann could have been a ghost.
As the 87-year-old toed the foul line of her team’s lane at Solms Bowling Club, there wasn’t much around her to separate this moment, in 2023, from 1983, when Hoffmann was a fairly new member at Solms; or from 1933, shortly after the club moved to this spot from its original location across the street; or even from 1903, when the club was only five years old. Bowlers still scrawled their scores on chalkboards, teens still scrambled to set up pins at the back of the lanes, and club members still watched the action from wooden benches—the same ones where their grandparents once sat. Small advances had been made over the decades: there were eight lanes now, instead of two; indoor smoking had been banned a few years ago; and the teens scrambling to set up pins at the back of the lanes earned $50 to $60 a night now, not a dollar or two. But the number and formation of pins on each lane remained the same: nine, arranged in a diamond.
Clutching a featherweight plastic bowling ball, Hoffmann stared down the lane for several seconds before lifting her skeletal right hand and tossing the orb. A hungry pinsetter could have wolfed down a sandwich in the time it took the ball to reach the pins, but it was on target, and the right half of the formation toppled in slow motion. When Hoffmann’s second throw veered too far to the left, she waved a bony arm like a windmill, directing the ball away from the gutter. It didn’t obey, and she turned around, her face blank. Hoffmann, whose mind and body were failing and who would be retiring from bowling in a few weeks to enter hospice care, inched back toward the bench where her family was waiting. “Good try!” called her nephew Rick Hicks. “A good try,” she repeated slowly. “You did great. Love you,” Hicks said, giving her a smack on the cheek.
Texans like Hoffmann have been practicing the traditional German sport of ninepin bowling for almost two hundred years. The eighteen private ninepin clubs tucked amid the fields north and east of San Antonio are America’s only remaining guardians of a sport that once blanketed the country. At these small establishments, solemn German forefathers in black and white photographs stare down from the walls at their descendants quaffing Lone Star and picking tunes on internet jukeboxes. Most clubs use either chalkboards or bulky overhead projectors—the kind that might have been essential to an algebra class in the nineties—for scoring. Many don’t take credit cards, and some only got internet a few years ago. About half still allow smoking, though it’s mostly limited to designated areas. Stepping into any of the clubs is a little like stepping up to the bars of a zoo animal representing the last of its species. Rapid development around San Antonio in recent years, coupled with Americans’ shifting interests, has left many ninepin clubs strapped for cash and serving a graying—and dwindling—membership. For many in the tight-knit community, a question looms: Can ninepin survive here for another hundred-plus years, and if so, how will it have to change?
On a winding two-lane road near a field of browsing cattle, east of towering pillars that signaled a new stretch of highway going up in the San Antonio metroplex, the Marbach brothers were bowling like it was 1893.
“There you go, Jeffrey!” yelled one of 69-year-old Jeffrey Marbach’s teammates, all clad in matching camo bowling shirts, as Marbach picked up a split. “Payday!”
Michael Kozowyk, Marbach’s son-in-law, plinked a quarter onto the table next to the older man’s jar of coins. The jar sat beside a 1.75-liter bottle of Maker’s Mark that was less than half full. “Way to go,” said seventy-year-old Ricky Marbach, high-fiving his little brother as Jeffrey returned to the table.
“You owe me a quarter,” Jeffrey said.
“High-dollar stakes here,” Ricky sighed.
The team was playing a game in which you had to pay someone a quarter if they got a ringer or picked up a split. In ninepin bowling, the pins are spaced farther apart than in tenpin. The pin at the center of the diamond formation is traditionally red—colors at today’s clubs range from orange to neon green—and the object is to knock down all the pins except the middle one. Doing so will get you a score of twelve (if you do it in one roll, that’s a twelve-ringer). Knocking down all the pins gets you a score of nine (in one roll, a nine-ringer). Each member of a six-person team bowls twice per frame, for a total of six frames, and unlike in tenpin, the pins aren’t reset after each bowler. If one teammate leaves a nasty split, it’s up to the next person to pick it up. The team captain calls the bowlers up in any order, adding an element of strategy: a captain must know the members’ strengths and judge who would most successfully tackle each situation.
Kozowyk’s wife, Tarah, added a quarter to her father’s jar, though she cheerfully admitted she had no idea how the payment system worked. She was subbing on the team tonight, and her family kidded her with the nickname “Dash-Dash” (in most scenarios, the only scores in ninepin are a nine or a twelve; everything else typically garners no points, denoted by a dash on the scoreboard). On an iPad, the Kozowyks’ nine-year-old daughter drew a nine in the row next to her grandfather’s name. The score appeared on an overhead TV screen. Germania Bowling Club is the only ninepin house that has digitized its scoring, but in many ways, it’s one of the most old-school of the alleys. Members pronounce the name with a hard g (“Grr-mahn-ia”), because that’s how the old Germans said it. And at Germania, many of the members’ families have been doing ninepin for generations.
“When we were growing up, Mom and Dad and another couple and another couple would bowl,” Ricky said. “As little babies, we’d be sleeping on the bench, under the bench, under the table—wherever you could find. We grew up at the bowling alley.”
Believed to have been invented in Germany in the Middle Ages, ninepin, known in German as Kegeln, spread across Europe and eventually to the U.S. through immigration. Its sister, tenpin, a popular sport in the UK, also made its way across the pond, and by the mid-1800s both were fixtures in American society. (There’s a common myth that tenpin was invented to circumvent a Prohibition-era ban on ninepin due to its association with drinking and gambling. But, while both ninepin and tenpin have been sporadically banned and taxed in certain localities over the centuries, both existed long before the 1920s.)
Tenpin quickly became the more popular sibling in the U.S., but ninepin also took root, particularly in German communities. The rural areas around San Antonio were a hotbed of German immigration, and private ninepin clubs boomed there in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Gradually, Texas ninepin evolved into its own subspecies. There’s no red pin in German Kegeln, and the Germans use a selection of small, differently sized balls, which U.S. bowlers replaced long ago with the standard tenpin ball. It’s not clear why ninepin has endured in Texas after dying out in other German hot spots like Missouri and Nebraska, but the remoteness of Teutonic enclaves in Texas helped preserve language and culture. Though German immigration to Texas peaked in the 1890s, German remained the primary language in many rural Hill Country communities until after World War II. Many older bowlers today, whose parents and grandparents were born in the U.S., didn’t know a word of English when they started school.
Harvey Sassman, a 77-year-old subbing with the Marbachs at Germania that night, remembers those days. He grew up on a nearby farm, where his family butchered hogs and made German sausage (“We ate meat at home. It wasn’t from the store.”). He started setting pins when he was about fifteen, before it was customary to tip the pinsetters: “A tip was, they bought you a nickel soda—if you got a tip,” he said.
Sassman sauntered up to one of the club’s six lanes and smashed all nine pins, returning in triumph. “All right, pay me, you bunch of tightwads.”
Ninepin wasn’t just about drinking and bowling, Jeffrey told me. It was about ancestry, about tradition. “We’re trying to keep these doors open so that our descendants . . . can just keep continuing this on,” he said.
Of the eleven trucks in the small gravel lot, the SUV with the “Baby on Board!” sticker stood out. It was a stifling summer evening east of the city of New Braunfels, and three cows grazed about twenty yards away from a small white building, the only notable structure in view alongside Texas Highway 123. Inside, a crowd of predominantly older men and women smoked, drank, and laughed, taking turns on Zorn Bowling Club’s four wooden lanes as Merle Haggard’s voice drifted from the internet jukebox. Though German names survived on Zorn’s membership roster, the club, like most of its brethren, was no longer an ethnic refuge but remained a fixture of small-town farming and ranching life. Several bowlers had the tan skin and callused hands of years spent working in the sun; one man was decked out in a plaid shirt and suspenders. Much like Germania, where bowlers share homemade venison sausage from deer they’ve hunted, Zorn embodies the classic ninepin establishment: rural, parochial, unpretentious. Sitting near his opponent Bubba Neumann, member Bubba Martin summed it up this way: “If you go to a ninepin bowling alley and holler ‘Bubba,’ you’re probably gonna get some looks.”
But things were changing—in the surrounding area, at the other ninepin houses, and at Zorn. At a table by lane two, Jordan Buckley balanced his baby boy on his lap as he ate pesto ravioli out of an artisanal wooden bowl. Zorn’s kitchen was closed that night, so the 42-year-old film festival organizer and social justice activist had brought his own food. His wife, Juania Sueños, a poet and the editor of a literary magazine, sported cat-eye makeup and aqua-streaked hair. She watched as her teammate Sonja Villalobos, a civil servant with a Cannibal Corpse T-shirt and rose tattoos on her right arm, launched her ball down the lane. With a modest but satisfying clunk, it leveled all nine pins, the fuchsia one in the middle toppling like a streak of blood amid its white surroundings. “You got it?!” Sueños squealed. Villalobos whooped. At the blackboard beside the lanes, she picked up a piece of chalk and scrawled a nine in the row next to her name, then turned away. “Ringer!” someone called. “Ring it!” Villalobos whirled around and drew a circle around the nine. “See, we still don’t even know how to keep score,” chuckled her husband, Mark.
Buckley and Sueños had started the team, La Pin Dejada, the previous year. “Juania and I were driving by on the way to Seguin, and we were like, ‘Man, what is that truck magnet?’ ” Buckley said. “So I Googled ‘Zorn’ and figured out it was a bowling club. Back in the day, it had a broken internet webpage comprised of a Pepto-Bismol pink backdrop and one of those counters that tallies how many visitors have been there.” Buckley called the number on the page and got in touch with president Kevin Harborth, whose grandfather had erected Zorn’s building in the forties. Harborth invited him to form a team, and although Buckley and Sueños had never done much bowling, they decided to give it a try.
“We started out and felt really embarrassed at the beginning, because we were so bad. . . . But everybody was just so kind,” Sueños said. “This nice gentleman over there,” she said, indicating the man in suspenders, “he stayed late and kind of showed us basic tactics.”
Ninepin is known for its camaraderie, for being a sport in which bowlers applaud their opponents just as loudly as they do their teammates. It wasn’t always that way. In the old days at Freiheit Bowling Club, bowlers would yell and rub rocks on the corrugated tin walls to distract their opponents. Such hazing, known as “hoo-rahhing,” was common at regional tournaments. “Anything was tolerable except touching the bowler,” Freiheit’s Howard Ludwig told a reporter in 1987. He would know: he once went up to bowl and couldn’t find his ball. An opponent had thrown it out the window, where it had landed in a cactus patch.
The clubs voted to ban hoo-rahhing in the mid-forties, but other shenanigans continued. Before Bexar Bowling Society got indoor plumbing, a woman who wanted to continue bowling after hours threw her pinsetter’s shoes in the outhouse to keep him from leaving. At Germania in the eighties, one bowler got so annoyed with another’s incessant cigar smoking that he sprayed the man with a fire extinguisher. Another remembers a time in the 2000s when a frustrated bowler chucked his ball through Germania’s glass front door (“Couldn’t hit the pins, but he hit that door.”). And in a story that could have come straight out of The Big Lebowski, one evening several years ago at a club in Comal County, some members locked the doors for the night, stripped off their clothes, and slid down the lanes, trying to knock down as many pins as possible.
The most exciting thing to happen to Buckley and Sueños at Zorn was winning a game once—“on accident,” Buckley said. “We’re consistent. . . . I think we’re known as the team that’s the worst.” But they weren’t really there for the bowling. As the cheerful cumbia beats of “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” (a favorite of one of the Bubbas) played on the jukebox, an opponent chatting with Sonja Villalobos asked her who the artist was. “This is Selena!” she said. “Do you know her?” “Yeah, I’ve seen her,” the woman said, appreciation dawning. “I’ve seen her statue in Corpus Christi.” Villalobos beamed. “Part of me likes to interject our culture where it might not have been before,” she said. “We come in, and, I mean, I’m all tatted up, and then sometimes we speak Spanish; sometimes we don’t. Our music isn’t always country. But they’ve been very welcoming. . . . It’s very nice to be here and feel like a part of a community that I wouldn’t necessarily think that I would like to be a part of.”
Buckley kissed the baby’s head. “With the anxiety that arises from being in uncomfortable spaces, or around people that don’t share your political views,” he said, “it’s been wonderfully refreshing to have a weekly appointment to be in a space where a lot of those fears fade away.”
“It kind of feels like a sacred space,” he added, “frozen in time.”
What is now a frozen subculture was once a vibrant network of ninepin clubs crossing Texas from El Paso to Galveston. In Comal County, a hub of German settlement, a 1924 newspaper article reported that thirty clubs had attended a recent ninepin tournament. A 1975 book chronicling the history of German Texans announced that, in the same county, “as late as 1948 there was at least one bowling lane for every ten square miles of area.”
That may have been the end of ninepin bowling’s heyday in Texas. Though a few of today’s remaining eighteen alleys were established in the forties (one, which was spun out of an older club, was founded in the sixties), ninepin lost momentum after World War II. The change was barely perceptible for a while: although the war brought about increased German assimilation into American culture (clubs that were still recording minutes in German switched to English in the 1940s), the alleys were remote enough that nothing really changed: the local families didn’t have much to do besides bowl. Entire generations passed their lives in ninepin clubs, with mothers bringing in babies days after birth and some members bowling until the day of death (several decades ago, a Freiheit member called Tick Tock—he would reportedly swing his ball back and forth twenty to thirty times before throwing it—ran out of time one night on lane two).
On a larger scale, though, ninepin simply never reached critical mass. Perhaps because it required teams—there’s no solo bowling in ninepin—the sport stayed mainly in ethnic enclaves while the more-accessible tenpin spread into broader American culture. So when bowling-equipment giants Brunswick and AMF began installing revolutionary automatic pinsetters in the 1950s, they didn’t bother to make any for ninepin. The resulting nationwide bowling boom left ninepin even further behind. Some clubs thought about importing automatic pinsetters from Germany, but, as one club leader told a reporter in 2003, “[Someone] emailed the price. It was $25,000 per lane. It’s going to be a long time before these lanes are automated.”
These days, the San Antonio area is home to the nation’s last remaining cluster of ninepin alleys. Most of them were founded in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and all are based in what members call the tri-county region. There are four in Bexar County (Bexar, Highland, Martinez, and Turner), six in Guadalupe County (Barbarossa, Cibolo, Germania, Laubach, Marion, and Zorn), and eight in Comal County (Blanco, Bracken, Bulverde, Fischer, Freiheit, Mission Valley, Solms, and Spring Branch). Blanco Bowling Club, although technically in Blanco County, is lumped in with neighboring Comal for the biannual tri-county tournament, which pits clubs against each other to crown a regional champion.
The clubs are designed as social organizations, not for-profit businesses. At many, a beer will set you back about $2; an annual membership, about $10. Most host a yearly supper-and-tournament fundraiser, attended by members of the other ninepin houses, that serves as a major source of income. A Facebook page managed by the tri-county ninepin bowling association aggregates information about the clubs’ various events and leagues to encourage cross-club participation. The alleys have stayed close-knit as a matter of survival. For decades, as long as their towns and rural communities remained small, they didn’t have much to worry about. But nothing stays small forever.
Forty miles from Zorn, on San Antonio’s East Side, an unassuming brick-and-clapboard structure sat amid an expanse of asphalt, auto shops, and cafes with bars on the windows. Inside, Lauri Peters stood in a ten-lane bowling alley that looked like a legion hall and smelled faintly of carpet and linoleum. It was opening day for one of Highland Social Club’s fall ninepin leagues, and a fan whirred over the secretary-treasurer’s short silver hair as she gazed at the dozen club members gathered around her. The team captains had huddled to decide whether underage kids should be allowed to substitute for absent bowlers.
“We have to come up with what is the appropriate age limit,” Peters said, peering at the group of mostly lined faces. “My thought was ten years old.”
League president Johnny Brehm, sporting a ball cap and a thin white mustache, piped up. “Our sub rules also state: after two times, the third time you gotta be a member. Okay—members of the club have to be eighteen years old. It’s in the bylaws.”
“Adam said they would be a junior member—” Peters began, invoking club president Adam Braune.
“There’s no bylaws—”
“I know. But he said as a club—”
“We have to have bylaws—”
“And when do we follow all those?” Peters shot back, polite but firm. “I’m just asking. Have we always followed them, now that the club’s fighting to be open?”
Other captains began to chime in. One voiced support for the junior member solution. Another asked if there were any children who actually wanted to sub. “Bubba has a granddaughter that wants to,” Peters said. “She’s ten.” Bubba Uecker, a tall captain with brawny arms and a deep tan, pointed out that his granddaughter wouldn’t likely be much of a threat on the lanes, generating laughter. After more questions and answers, Peters took a vote. Every captain but one raised a hand in favor of lowering the age limit to ten, although a few looked as if their arms were being jerked against their will by marionette strings. As league president, Brehm abstained, according to the bylaws.
Uecker walked back to his table and took off his ostrich-leather cowboy boots. He and Brehm had been friends since they were both pinsetters at Highland. But Uecker was worried about the club, which, although it had recently started its second monthly ninepin league, was struggling financially. “They need new members,” he said, lacing up his retro black and white bowling shoes. “It’s like, ‘C’mon, guys, make some exceptions.’ ”
Highland is the only club within San Antonio’s Loop 410. As the city grew outward, property taxes went up, and as the character of the neighborhood around Highland changed, fewer local residents expressed an interest in ninepin. A sizable chunk of today’s members, many of whom come from two interrelated families that have dominated Highland for generations, commute in from the suburbs. North of Highland, though, at some of the eight clubs in Comal County, the situation is even more dire. Comal, which includes the historically German city of New Braunfels, sits in the path of development between Austin and San Antonio on the Interstate 35 corridor. Clubs that were once out in the boonies are now right down the street from massive H-E-Bs, shiny new gas stations, and subdivisions upon subdivisions. “It’s killing us,” says Bulverde Bowling Club president Rich Schroeder of the high local property taxes. “We fight it every year, and they don’t care.” The clubs are reluctant to raise their cheap fees and beer prices because they’re community-oriented organizations—and even if they did, it probably wouldn’t be enough to offset the tax hikes. “When the housing market went through the roof, everything priced up; everything just doubled,” Spring Branch Bowling Club’s Tom Hampton told me, chewing snuff and spitting it into a dirty Gatorade bottle. “If the ninepin houses close, it will be because of property taxes.”
New Braunfels, around which several of the clubs are clustered, is one of the fastest-growing cities in America. But in a region where new houses are popping up like toadstools after rain, some clubs’ memberships have stagnated or declined. “In ’84 we had just as many bowlers as we do now,” says Harold Richter of Bracken Bowling Club, in Comal County. “The people move in, and I don’t know where their social center is—might be in their phone.”
At Highland, as Uecker’s wife, Wanda, rolled a cooler of homemade Jell-O shots across the maroon carpet, Uecker inhaled a handful of Whataburger fries and watched as ten-year-old Kylie Stuman approached the lane. His granddaughter’s first ball veered off course, hitting only the far left pin of a full rack. As Kylie got ready to try again, her six-year-old cousin looked up from the toys he was playing with on the floor. The six-pound ball toppled the remaining eight pins. “Kylie!” the boy yelled. He leaped to his feet and mimed throwing a bowling ball across the carpet, his face aglow.
Thirty years ago, junior ninepin leagues acted as pipelines for kids like Kylie and her cousin. Now only a handful of the clubs still have them, and many members believe the bridge to the next generation is crumbling. “As time progresses, there’s so much other things that all these kiddos are wanting to do,” says Solms Bowling Club president Nathan Dolle. “They’re in [Future Farmers of America], they’re cheerleaders, they’re in dance, powerlifting, track, soccer—and that’s just our kids.”
Adults, too, have more distractions than ever. Sociologist Robert Putnam called out America’s decline in tenpin league membership in his 2000 book Bowling Alone, and participation in community organizations overall has declined. “It’s not like it used to be,” says Richter of membership at his home club. “But nobody is. Any organization’s having trouble with membership, from what I can tell, whether it’s a church or an African violet club.”
Ninepin’s evolutionary tree is littered with dead branches. Over the decades, some financially challenged clubs moved in with others, keeping the names separate in tournaments, but the host clubs gradually consumed their guests until only dim memories of the mergers remained. Other clubs gave in to the tidal wave of tenpin, buying automatic pinsetters and getting rid of their red pins. But as far as anyone knew, no ninepin club in the region had shut down in recent memory.
On a crisp Wednesday afternoon last autumn, 61-year-old Tracy Papke parked at the top of a hill so remote that only the area’s wandering cows seemed to know of its existence. Around 2000, Papke and her husband left Austin for the farmlands surrounding Lockhart. Shortly thereafter, they discovered Rogers Ranch Bowling Club, a four-lane ninepin house that had started as a German shooting club in the 1890s. For much of its existence, including the ten years Papke was club president, Rogers Ranch had been a whirl of motion and sound. Now vines choked the building’s exterior and a slight breeze whistled through holes in the decaying clapboard.
Inside, the place smelled like rot. Dirt had seeped through cracks in the ceiling, cobwebs had overtaken corners, and a piece of roof over the lanes had fallen in. A sign behind the bar listed the prices for bowling. No leagues had bowled at the club since 2012, but Rogers Ranch still held weekly pool nights, and in one corner of the room, fluorescent lights cast a harsh glow on the green felt of a pool table, around which five men and a woman were chatting and sipping beers. Tinny, melodramatic dialogue issued from a black and white western playing on TV—a soundtrack for ghosts.
Papke greeted the pool players and looked around the club, taking in the lone woman, a petite 26-year-old brunette whose father had recently bought the building. “Wow, the end of an era,” Papke declaimed to no one in particular. “I actually think I’m gonna cry,” she said, her voice rising.
She turned into the hallway and appraised two cobwebbed poker tables leaning against the wall. “Wow, they are dus-ty.” After directing one of the pool players to haul them out for her, she hugged a white-bearded man standing nearby. “We definitely had some good, kick-ass times here, Larry, didn’t we?”
Larry Schaefer smiled, a hand on his aluminum walker. The Schaefers had been a dynasty at Rogers Ranch, setting pins and bowling and helping run the club for generations.
“The very first night that we walked in the doors, this place was packed,” Papke reminisced. “And everybody was so warm and welcoming. Every Friday night after that, we were here.” Behind the pool table, a blue tarp hid the lanes from view, as if it would be too painful to see the grimy, warped strips of wood and the rotting ceiling above them.
As the members of Rogers Ranch aged and died, their kids and grandkids developed other interests. In the tri-county region, many bowlers frequent multiple clubs, but Rogers Ranch, in Caldwell County, was a little too far-flung to benefit from that phenomenon. Leaders created a Facebook page and sent mailers to everyone in the area, but nothing worked. “Everybody stopped,” Papke said. “They could go to the regular bowling alleys.” Her voice wavered. “They just didn’t realize how much fun . . .”
“. . . We had here,” Schaefer finished. League bowling at Rogers Ranch ended in 2012. Some members continued to bowl there informally for several years, and poker nights were a draw for a while, but now only the pool nights remained. Papke didn’t usually come, but, fearing imminent change in the wake of the building sale, she’d shown up today to claim the poker tables.
The brunette, Ciann Mossell, had discovered Rogers Ranch when she and her husband moved to the property next door, and she’d quickly become a fixture at the pool nights. When Schaefer told her taxes were becoming impossible to pay, she convinced her father to purchase the building to save the club. Although Mossell wasn’t yet sure what to do with it, she’d toyed with the idea of refurbishing a lane or two so members could bowl again. “We want to keep it around, even if it’s just for us,” she said. “It’s got too much history to let it go.”
Papke, meanwhile, was ready to say goodbye. After reminiscing with Schaefer about Charlie, a ghost she believed haunted the club, she headed to the door. “I love you guys so much,” she told the group. “Bye-bye, Rogers Ranch,” she added, smacking the doorframe as she disappeared.
A few seconds later, she popped back in. “Charlie, behave!” she yelled. Then she was gone for good.
One vision for ninepin’s survival exists at Turner Club, located in Kirby, just outside of San Antonio. Turner is both the oldest of the remaining ninepin establishments and the one that has made the most concessions to modern tastes. Founded in 1853 as a German gymnastics society, it added bowling lanes and built downtown San Antonio’s ornate Turner Hall (today the Bonham Exchange building) in the early 1890s. The ballroom hosted dances and concerts for a who’s who of San Antonio society. But by the time the Great Depression hit, the club’s glory days were behind it. Manager Otto Klaus saved the organization by selling Turner Hall and spinning off the bowling arm, establishing it in 1936 as Turner Club. To augment the new location’s eight ninepin lanes, the club added eight separate tenpin lanes with semiautomatic pinsetters. Tenpin helped Turner thrive, and according to Klaus’s 1967 obituary, the club grew into “one of the biggest [bowling] centers in San Antonio.” Klaus, a World War I vet, steered the club for decades, sometimes presiding behind the front desk and yelling at kids who dared to break the no-running rule. “We all lived in terror of Otto,” recalls Joanie Stewart, who’s been involved with Turner since her parents first brought her there in 1948, the year she was born.
If Klaus saw Turner now, he might not recognize it. Stewart, whose father was such a dedicated member that he left the hospital for a few hours during her birth to attend his league night, is one of the only Turner bowlers left from the old family dynasties. Names like Eisenhauer, Reinarz, and Ullrich no longer dominate Turner’s membership rolls—they’ve been replaced by Muñoz, Rodriguez, Sarmiento. From the internet jukebox, you’re as likely to hear country crooner Jon Pardi’s “Heartache Medication” as Ruben Ramos’s “El Gato Negro.” At this ninepin club, the quirky German sport has been passed on to a cohort of bowlers without longstanding ties to it.
On a sizzling summer evening inside Turner’s cavernous, concrete-floored building, I watched as Armando “Mando” Saldivar blew smoke from a Marlboro Special Select, the smell mingling with the scent of popcorn from a bucket on his team’s table. From the neck up, the diminutive 73-year-old could have passed for a mad scientist, with wire-rimmed glasses and an unruly cloud of shoulder-length gray hair. From the waist down, he wore baggy black dress slacks and leather Stacy Adams shoes, holdovers from his days as a teenage pachuco on San Antonio’s West Side. Saldivar, who built the club’s wooden tables from Turner’s old lanes and constructed a case for the tarnished silver trophies dating back to 1899, has been a member for decades. His youngest sister, Yolanda, is currently serving a life sentence in prison for the 1995 murder of tejano star Selena. It’s not something Saldivar advertises, but when the subject comes up, he chafes at how the crime stained his family name. “They said we’re a bunch of hoodlums; they said that we were a bunch of low-life individuals,” he told me. “Let me tell you what kind of lowlifes we are. My youngest brother used to be a custodian for the school district. My third brother, he served twenty-one years in the military. And then my brother that died, he was in Vietnam and he worked thirty years for the VA hospital. I was in Vietnam, I retired from civil service, and I’m a hundred percent disabled veteran. Those are the hoodlums that the people talk about.”
Saldivar approached the lanes, picked up his electric blue ball, and sent it spinning with his right hand. All nine pins crumpled gently before it—a nine-ringer, or, as they say in Bexar County, a splash. On his next throw, Saldivar picked up a gray-and-red ball with his left hand and sent it spinning just as seamlessly. Another splash. He turned to his friend Delia Segura, whose team was bowling against Saldivar’s, and waved both hands at her, grinning like a boy who’d just pulled a prank. The score on the overhead projector confirmed that even if Segura’s teammates rolled nothing but twelves for the rest of the match, they wouldn’t catch Saldivar’s squad. “Mando screwed us up,” Segura sighed.
In the early days, ninepin bowlers looked nothing like Saldivar or Segura. German American board members voted on prospective members by dropping either a white or black marble into a box. Sometimes one dark marble was enough to blackball a would-be member—no explanation required. Women were allowed to bowl at the clubs by the 1940s, but progress was slower for nonwhite bowlers. In 1968, four years after the Civil Rights Act outlawed segregation in businesses (private clubs were exempt), Blanco Bowling Club drew up a new charter limiting membership “to men and women of the white race.” Several clubs started to diversify in the seventies, and Blanco began accepting membership applications “regardless of race or creed” in 1978. (Richard Flores, now in his early sixties, says he was the first Hispanic to join Bexar: “There was a few of the older ones that said something, but I would just fire right back. I wasn’t going away.”)
Today joining the clubs is easier than ever. Changing the rules didn’t immediately change attitudes, though, and in the isolated world of ninepin, even some German Americans faced prejudice. Gary Grunewald, president of Bexar Bowling Society, moved to the area east of San Antonio in the eighties and joined the club with his then-wife shortly thereafter. “You know the old saying ‘the redheaded stepchild’?” he says. “We were that way. ‘You didn’t grow up out here, so you don’t count.’ Very clannish.” That attitude has since faded, he adds, and Bexar welcomes everyone. The last traces of systemic discrimination in ninepin survive mostly in occasional tongue-in-cheek insults. At some clubs, you’ll still hear the anti-Polish slur “Polack” thrown about. “It’s all in good fun,” says Germania’s Michael Kozowyk. “I’ll say, ‘Oh, you silly Germans,’ and they’ll say, ‘Oh, you’re a Polack.’ ”
Several lanes down from where Saldivar was demolishing his opponents, 76-year-old Richard Quiroga—known as “Q” to everyone at Turner—nursed a Michelob Ultra and stared at the split his teammate had just created. “Damn it, Tom, we don’t need that,” he muttered. Tall, with high cheekbones, a gold chain, and a black pageboy cap, Quiroga was a retired cop who’d spent eleven years as a SWAT marksman—he preferred that term over “sniper.” Quiroga first visited the club in 2003. “I walked in, and they’re bowling ninepin,” he said. “And I said, ‘What’re you talking about, ninepin?’ So they explained it. And I got hooked.”
He tried to sign up for Turner’s only ninepin league, but it was full. “I said, ‘So how do you get into the league?’ And they said, ‘When somebody dies.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding me.’ ‘No.’
“I said, ‘You know what, the heck with it. I’m just going to start another league,’ ” Quiroga explained. “And like this”—he snapped his fingers—“we had eight teams.”
With that problem solved, Quiroga began to notice others. The club, located in the crumbling basement of a stone building on San Antonio’s famous River Walk, was falling apart. The president sometimes slept at Turner to fix maintenance issues. “I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to move your club,’ ” Quiroga recalled. “It might take me a little while, but I’m gonna move it. I’m gonna help you get there.’ ” He joined the board and became president in 2004. While casting about for a location closer to other clubs, he invited the mayor of Kirby, one of San Antonio’s eastern suburbs, to visit Turner. The mayor fell in love as quickly as Quiroga had and offered to sell the club a plot of land. With loans, money from the sale of the old property, building plans from Quiroga’s architect nephew-in-law, and volunteer work from members like Saldivar, the new Turner—now with sixteen tenpin lanes—opened in 2013 in Kirby.
When Turner moved to Kirby, Quiroga negotiated a deal with the city to waive local property taxes. (The organization was already a nonprofit social club, a designation many ninepin alleys have, exempting it from state and federal taxes.) The simple metal building was nothing like Turner’s old digs, or the Turner Hall of the club’s golden age, but Quiroga had set the stage for modest growth. Today Turner has three ninepin leagues and runs tenpin leagues and open bowling seven days a week. A few years ago, when ninepin participation dipped below the maximum of eight teams per league, Quiroga introduced a handicap—a common element of tenpin in which extra points are added to a player’s score based on their average—to two of the ninepin leagues to even the playing field. “If you ask any old-timer on it, ‘There’s no handicap in ninepin,’ ” Quiroga said. “I know there isn’t. But we have eight teams.”
Turner’s embrace of tenpin is largely unique among the clubs. Though many once offered both types of bowling, today only one other ninepin house, Highland, hosts tenpin leagues, and those leagues use the same lanes as the ninepin ones, necessitating human pinsetters and precluding the possibility of offering open bowling to the public. Turner’s evolution, though, is just the latest in a long line of changes ninepin clubs have made to attract bowlers. Teams were once three men and three women, but as female bowlers became harder to find, many clubs adjusted the gender rules or nixed them entirely. The top bowlers at each club once picked teams, but members started to prefer bowling with their friends, and now everyone can bring their own teammates. (“We just abolished all the rules and said, ‘Bring in whoever you want. Fill the lanes,’ ” says Jeff Haecker, who was president at Germania for eleven years. “And it worked.”)
Today Turner is a community fixture in Kirby, hosting bake sales and other events and letting students from East Central ISD practice and run tournaments on the tenpin lanes for a pittance. Several of the ninepin clubs have rentable ballrooms that contribute extra income (Blanco even has a cafe), and Turner’s is routinely booked for private parties, cornhole tournaments, and line dancing classes. Most importantly, the tenpin leagues serve as a pipeline for new blood—the vast majority of Turner’s ninepin bowlers started out on the tenpin side and were then seduced by the challenge and camaraderie of the old German sport.
“We’ve kept it alive—giving it some vitamins,” Quiroga said. “A lot of the old clubs, they’ve been stuck on their old ways. Like this club was. I just forced myself into it, and said, ‘If we’re gonna grow, we gotta do this. Period.’ ”
It’s hard to say what the Texas ninepin community will look like in a hundred years. In September, Kathleen Hoffmann, the elderly bowler I’d watched at Solms, retired to enter hospice care. Her family celebrated with a white sheet cake and a dozen red roses. Two months later, a post on the Solms Facebook page announced that Hoffmann had passed away. A few posts below that, the club had shared photos of a six-and-a-half-pound baby girl with a pink bow on her head. “One of our members and previous pinsetters . . . had her baby a month ago,” the post read. “Another future member!!”
Some of the ninepin clubs are struggling, while some have as many members as they could want. In the second half of the twentieth century, a graph of ninepin’s trajectory might have looked like a downward slope. But for the past several decades, cycles of prosperity and decline have put the clubs in the tri-county region through periodic ups and downs. The two big questions today are whether the alleys can attract enough new members and whether, in the end, property taxes will rise so high that some clubs will die no matter how hard they try to adapt.
As I pondered the evolution of ninepin, I remembered a conversation I’d had with a man named Larry Brehm at Martinez Social Club. Brehm—a cousin of Highland’s Johnny Brehm—was bald and bespectacled, with a checkbook sticking out of his breast pocket. A third-generation ninepin bowler, Brehm was at the club with his wife, their two sons, four of their grandchildren, his sister and her husband, and two of their grandchildren. Aside from a once-monthly church league, Martinez was hosting only two nights of bowling per week, and although the club had eight lanes, this season there were only six teams per night. In the 1980s, members told me, pins fell Monday through Friday.
As the grandkids played tag in the adjacent ballroom and his team’s third game drew to a close, I asked Brehm what he predicted for the future of Texas’s ninepin clubs. “They’ll just hang on,” he said. “Over time, one or two will die off.” His gaze moved past me to watch the kids stream out of the ballroom, giggling as they ran back into the bowling alley. His eleven-year-old granddaughter, Lucy, was active in both tenpin and ninepin, and she sometimes subbed on Brehm’s team at Martinez. Brehm’s wife, Debbie, nodded toward her. “There’s the next generation,” she said.
As the younger kids hit the benches to watch their parents and grandparents bowl, Lucy ran past them and took a seat at the old projector between lanes three and four. Someone had turned off the jukebox, and the only sounds in the club were the clunks of balls, the clatters of pins, and the quiet murmur of conversation. To the left of Lucy’s projector, lanes one and two were empty. To the right, lanes five through eight were full. Between both worlds, the girl picked up the black erasable marker and looked straight ahead, focused on the game.
Where to Bowl Ninepin in Texas
Looking to try ninepin? Because it’s a team sport and relies on human pinsetters, most ninepin clubs don’t allow walk-in bowlers: you’ll have to join a team or become a substitute. The exception is Fischer Bowling Club, in Comal County, the only alley with weekly open ninepin bowling. Those who sign up ahead of time can show up on Saturday afternoon to be sorted into teams (bowling begins around 12:30 p.m. and lasts several hours). Slots in the four-lane club fill up fast, so call when the bowling alley is open (Monday–Friday from roughly 6:30–10:30 p.m. or Saturday during the aforementioned hours) to get on the list, ideally one to two weeks in advance.
To join or visit other ninepin clubs, check their websites or social media pages or call on a weekday evening (Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday are safe bets) to get their hours, which can change by season. Although you usually have to be a member to bowl, the clubs welcome visitors who just want to sip a cheap beer and watch the action. Many also allow folks to rent their lanes for private ninepin parties.
Bexar Bowling Society
15681 Bexar Bowling, Marion
Highland Social Club
2929 S. WW White Road, San Antonio
Martinez Social Club
7791 FM 1346, San Antonio
5555 Duffek Drive, Kirby
Blanco Bowling Club
310 Fourth, Blanco
Bracken Bowling Club
18397 Bracken Drive, Bracken
Bulverde Bowling Club
1747 E. Ammann Road, Bulverde
Fischer Bowling Club
701 Fischer Store Road, Fischer
Freiheit Bowling Club
2145 FM 1101, New Braunfels
Mission Valley Bowling Club
2311 Texas Highway 46, New Braunfels
Solms Bowling Club
175 N. Solms Road, New Braunfels
Spring Branch Bowling Club
12830 U.S. 281, Spring Branch
Barbarossa Bowling Club
4007 FM 758, New Braunfels
Cibolo Bowling Club
519 N. Main, Cibolo
Germania Bowling Club
1826 Zuehl Road, Marion
1986 Laubach Road, Seguin
Marion Bowling Club
111 E. Krueger, Marion
Zorn Bowling Club
9374 Texas Highway 123, Seguin