By Brian Kluepfel
Special to the Daily Planet
While most Berkeley residents march to the beat of modern athletics – the pulse of a basketball in summer, the smack of shoulder pads on an autumn afternoon and the crack of a baseball bat in the spring – a corner of Acton Street maintains one of the world’s oldest sporting traditions, brought to America by English colonists in the 1600s and revived by 19th century Scottish immigrants.
On a gentle patch of grass, ladies and gentleman of leisure participate in lawn bowling. The Berkeley Lawn Bowling Club was founded here in 1929.
Lawn bowling, also known as lawn bowls, dates to at least 1299 in England, and has its variants in Italy's bocce and French Provencal's petanque. Historians feel the sport originated with a game Roman soldiers played, tossing large stones at a smaller stone during their leisure time.
In lawn bowling, points are scored by the player whose bowl is closest to the “jack,” a small, white ball which is rolled first.
To bolster membership and promote the game, the Berkeley’s club recently hosted an open house.
Club members, dressed in competition whites, demonstrated the intricacies of rolling a bowl – not a ball, because it’s not round – down a meticulously manicured green. The rules and etiquette of a game that was codified in 19th-century Scotland were laid out for guests, along with plates of vegetable dips and cookies.
Although it once boasted more than 100 members, the club now numbers 55. One reason for lower membership club spokesperson Ted Crum gave is the high cost of joining.
It’s an expensive proposition to maintain a bowling green, members say. The imported Australian grass-cutting machine costs $5,500. Further expenses include re-seeding the special Astoria.
Bent grass each year, a biannual aerating of the green which means pulling out more than a million plugs of grass and back-filling with eight tons of sand and a specialized sprinkler system.
The economics of bowling have always been an issue: King Henry VIII of England, himself a bowler, banned the sport among the lower classes in 1511. He also taxed private bowling greens 100 pounds, ensuring that only the well-to-do would play, and the rest of the kingdom would continue to produce bows and arrows.
Another reason membership at the Berkeley club is dwindling, members say, is because the younger generation hasn’t taken up the game in any significant way. The most junior bowler in the Berkeley club is eight years old, but the majority of its members are well into their retirement years.
Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson attended the open house and said some outreach programs would be a step in the right direction. “If you get high school and junior high kids down here, they’ll get hooked like they do on any other game. It’s fun,” said Carson.
Carson, who grew up in the neighborhood and often passed the green on his way to play in Strawberry Creek, had never been to the club before. “As a kid in south Berkeley, this place was always mysterious. Now I know what’s going on here,” he said. He enjoyed his first lesson and game, although he refused to divulge his score.
One thing Carson and the new bowlers picked up is a bit of the subculture’s jargon. If you “get good grass” at the West Berkeley Lawn Bowling Club, it only means one thing – you read the lawn and rolled your bowl well. And if you’re too “thin” or too “wide,” no one is commenting on your physique, only your most recent bowl. And when one speaks of “bias,” they are talking about the way a bowl is irregularly shaped, so that it curves back toward the center as it traverses the rink.
One bias that seems to have been corrected in recent times is women’s participation. In America, lawn bowling has not always been a female sport. The American Women’s Lawn Bowls Association was not founded until 1969, and only two years ago merged with the men’s organization to form the United States Lawn Bowls Association. The USLBA comprises more than 130 clubs, including ones in Richmond, Oakland, San Francisco and Palo Alto.
Although only a couple of younger generation folks showed up for the open house, the event did prove one old adage true: Only mad dogs and Englishman brave the midday sun. On one of Berkeley’s most scorching summer days, many players were from the British Isles.
Frank Sugden is a semi-retired domestic from Essex, England, who now resides in Piedmont. He never took up the game back home, but now plays regularly. Why? “It’s just like any game,” he says. “You get a sense of satisfaction – especially when you win.”
He notes that many of the clubs in England have a waiting list to join – a problem that certainly the Berkeley Lawn Bowling Club wishes it had.