Duckpin queen Toots steers children straight, by Ann LoLordo
Eyes fixed on the duckpins, the small ball cupped in his hand, the young bowler began his approach. An outstretched are stopped him.
Toots Barger, her name emblazoned on the back of her turquoise bowling shirt, straightened the young man's hips, slid her foot along his, motioning a small step, and then moved to the side.
The boy began his approach again and sent the ball whizzing into the small white pins. Strike!
"What did she tell you?" someone asked John Spackek. The 9-year-old answered, "Take a short step."
The advice paid off--not that it wouldn't. Toots Barger has been hurling the 3-pound 10-ounce balls at those 12-inch-high pins for 40 years now. In fact, she was the No. 1 woman in her sport 13 times between 1947 and 1968. She has broken world records and was the second woman--and the first female bowler--named to the Maryland Athletic Hall of Fame.
Mary Elizabeth Barger, a Baltimore native, was nicknamed Toots by her aunt: "It's actually Tootsie. She [her aunt] used to call me that. Then, when I started bowling, I shortened it. It was easier than correcting everybody."
Although a series of operations in the last 10 years pulled her off the touring circuit and deadened her competitive drive, the Bayside Beach grandmother still hurls with the best of them. Her 119 duckpin average is just 9 pins short of what it was in her prime.
Sitting at a table at Riviera Lanes last week, she pulled up her white-pleated skirt to unveil a 10-inch scar on her left knee.
"It's the sliding knee, the most important one," Mrs. Barger said. "I really lost the drive to win when I had my knee operated on [in 1974]. Then, when I came back, I had to change my style of bowling. Even though my average was 128, I lost that drive."
Mrs. Barger, who would only say she's "over 59," clocks at least 100 miles a week in her red Nova, shuttling between Riviera Lanes and two other lanes to bowl or teach.
Her sandy-colored hair stylishly coifed, mod-shaped pink glasses on the bridge of her nose, pearl-drop earrings dangling from her ears, Mrs. Barger exudes energy and enthusiasm. She jabbers away about her "first love," bowling, but only after she counts off a list of activities she busies herself with when she is not on the lanes.
"This is what I do now," she said, passing around two photographs of bridal bouquets adorned with lace, netting, and ribbons.
"They're silk flowers and I made every rose, too. It's a hobby, " she explained.
Mrs. Barger helps plan outings for the 100-member Poplar Ridge Senior Citizens Club, teaches crafts at the Stoney Creek homemakers club and holds several posts in the state and Baltimore area duckpin bowling associations. And, of course, there's her teaching.
"I've been teaching for years, since I started bowling practically," Mrs. Barger said. "I always say I may not bowl good, but I can teach good."
Her expertise and polish had certainly rubbed off on some of the youngsters at Riviera Lanes. After a few whispers and nods from "Miss Toots" or a slow-motion follow-through drill, their gutter balls seemed to jump back on course, heading straight for a strike or spare. With each progressive step, Mrs. Barger would congratulate her young protégés.
"That's it, that's it. Nice shot, nice shot. See how accurate you are when you do that," Mrs. Barger said, referring to her suggestion that the boy take a short step.
Throughout her years on the bowling circuit, Mrs. Barger has watched the game change to the point where she predicts that if she were competing today, her average probably would hit 150.
"The girls coming up today are fabulous. Their averages are so much higher because they've changed the game," Mrs. Barger said. "They give you plastic pins and they fly more. We used to have wooden pins. The gutters are only half an inch deep; they were 2 inches deep when I bowled."
Mrs. Barger explained that lightweight pins mean more strikes "because you've got more pins flying." But she admitted that the name of the game is accuracy and the women competing today are accurate.
Looking out over the lanes, Mrs. Barger paused for a moment, her brow knit and then her eyes lit up.
"Guess what I did last week? I went roller skating. I held the wall for an hour and then I went around the rink three times by myself. I did real good. I was tickled pink," she gushed. "I got to get a pair of skates, but I have to find a place where I can get them wholesale."
Her age may be a ticklish subject ("I'm not going to tell you. Jack Benny's 39 and I'm 59," she joked), but she's fiercely proud to be a senior citizen.
"You'd be surprised how many senior citizens don't do anything, but they could," she said. "I'm proud to be a senior citizen. I enjoy what I do. Just because you're a senior citizen, you don't have to sit in a corner and dry up."
Mrs. Barger glanced at the wall clock--1:30 p.m. Time to make her way over to the 40 children crowding the lanes--the Wednesday afternoon "champs," as they are called.
Threading her way through the T-shirt and jean-clad bodies, she stopped now and then to offer advice.
"You got to move the ball on the first step and keep your little finger in towards your right side," she told one 13-year-old boy.
"Take your time, take your time," she cautioned another youngster, whose bowling ball sped off into the left gutter.
From the sidelines, several bowling alley employees watched.
"It's like Brooks Robinson, John Unitas and Toots Barger, you got to know when to hang 'em up," said Glenna Grimes, commenting on Mrs. Barger's exodus from the competitive arena.
Tony DeVincnet, general manager of Riviera Lanes, shook his head and smiled as Mrs. Barger guided a young girl's follow-through.
"The lady is a fine woman. You won't find 'em any better than Toots Barger."