Beneath tall shade trees in Hagerstown’s Pangborn Park is a fenced-in area that looks a bit like a large tennis court without the net. It’s actually home to Hagerstown’s Lawn Bowling League.
On a pleasant late spring evening recently, nearly 20 adults, all over 50, gathered to continue the park’s 30-year tradition of lawn bowling. The “lawn,” however, is missing; in its place is what the league’s president called a set of tracks, or rinks, made with a special kind of sand. These serve as the outdoor bowling alleys.
Part shuffleboard, part curling, with a bit of duckpin bowling thrown in, modern lawn bowling dates to 19th-century Scotland and is still popular there. But the sport has always had a following in the U.S., and the Hagerstown league is one of many across the country.
Ed Lushbaugh, the Hagerstown league organizer who will be 80 later this year, rushed around while the bowling tracks were set up, clipboard in hand, marking down team members and making sure the equipment was out and ready to go. The equipment is stored in a shed at the back of the fenced-in court.
“It used to be on grass, but the city’s park service built this nice set of tracks for us,” Lushbaugh said. Lines, not alleys, serve as the lane boundaries, and there are some similarities to traditional indoor bowling. The ball is actually a weighted bowl, and it is spherical, not round. It is tossed underhand to roll on the ground, like indoor bowling.
But the differences are many, starting with the pins. “People think of pins, but [in lawn bowling] you throw your ball [bowl] toward a jack ball,” which is a smaller ball that players aim for, Lushbaugh said.
Players from opposing teams bowl in the tracks, also known as rinks in lawn bowling lingo. The Hagerstown group plays in teams, and the number on each team depends on how many players show. On this particular evening, teams consisted of four players each, on two tracks. Some nights bring out so many players that all four tracks are in use.
Unless it rains, most of these adults will be here every Wednesday night through late August. They start at 7 p.m., and lights surround the court in case darkness arrives. The games are open to anyone, and players can drop in at any time throughout the summer.
“There’s no charge,” Lushbaugh said. “We do a 50-50 raffle, and at the end of the year, we have a picnic.” Lushbaugh, a Hagerstown resident who is also an avid indoor bowler, has come out to play lawn bowling for about 10 years and has been managing the group for at least half that long.
His friend Charlie Moss, the group’s leader at the time, introduced him to the sport. Moss has since died, but Lushbaugh took over and carries on the tradition.
Lushbaugh counts out the bowls. There are black and brown bowls, which are tossed so as to curve toward the jack. Someone tosses out the jack, a small white ball, before each match. Then, players from each team step up to a mat to toss their bowls toward the jack. The goal is to get the bowl as close as possible to the jack without hitting it.
Some lawn bowling competitions take place on smooth, green lawns, often called bowling greens. Others are on artificial turf.
Players tend to be on the older side, although anyone from teens on up is welcome, and teens do sometimes show up to play.
Pangborn Park’s lawn bowling league was particularly popular in the 1990s, said Gene Richardson, of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania. Back then, there were games on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings. All four tracks would be in use and substitutes were named. The league even had sponsors, and scores were posted in the newspaper.
Richardson said lawn bowling is great for people of any age who want to get outside, be with other people and be active without doing anything too strenuous. Many of the lawn bowlers, including Lushbaugh, take part in indoor bowling in the winter. Lawn bowling gets them outdoors in the summer while allowing players to keep their bowling form.
Men and women can play together on the same team. Strength isn’t nearly as important as finesse. A player must have just the right touch to toss the 4-pound oval, weighted bowl toward the little white jack. “It’s amazing we can’t get more retired people over here,” Richardson said. “It’s not strenuous. You just bend over and roll the ball. We had one woman who was almost blind.”
Bowls remain in the track until players are finished, unless the bowl strikes the jack, or rolls out of bounds. Usually if a bowl hits the jack, it’s declared dead and is removed.
Annabelle Kayser, 88, of Clear Spring, has participated in lawn bowling for 20 years. “It keeps you young,” she said. She also bowls with several other of the lawn bowlers at an indoor bowling alley all winter.
“We have a lot of fun,” she added. “It’s being together. We don’t care if we win or not. Us three here worked at the school lunch [cafeteria]. We’re all retired, and we keep dragging some more in.”
Shirley DeVore, 70, came out that evening to try lawn bowling for the first time. “I lost my husband in the fall,” she said. “I want to try and get out and do things.”
Dean Hoover, 82, deftly bounced his black bowl off the mat before it scooted toward the jack. He’s been playing for nearly 20 years and likes the challenge of the sport.
Teams were fluid, but Lushbaugh said players mix and match “until it sorts itself out.”
The bowls are similar to duckpin bowling balls, but they’re not exactly round. Little circles on one end indicate the weight bias, which causes the bowls to roll in a curving fashion. The astute bowler holds the bowl so it lands with just the right amount of weight, then curves its way toward the jack.
A bowler may try to curve his or her bowl just enough so it will strike an opponent’s bowl, knocking it farther away from the jack. When the bowls are all tossed, players rush out to inspect the bowls and their distances from the jack.
“That’s our measuring tool,” Lushbaugh said, pointing to a painted red can with a string attached. The team with the bowl closest to the jack gets a point for each bowl closer to the jack than the opponent’s bowls, until one of the teams reaches 21. Games usually take about two hours.
On this particular evening, one team was doing well, its bowl close to the little white jack. Then a collective groan arose, as the opposing team’s bowl rolled quite close to the jack. “They’re going to have to measure that,” Lushbaugh said.
Experienced players learn how to maneuver the bowl, to make it slow and curve just right, to knock an opponent’s ball away from the jack or to get a hair closer. While it’s easy to toss the bowl with an underhanded release, getting just that right curve takes a lot more practice. Like billiards or any sport that requires a light touch, players learn how to aim the bowls just right and control the spin.
“It takes a while to learn,” Lushbaugh said.
But, like any sport, it’s all about the fun.