There are many colorful stories about when women began bowling in the United States. Seniors reminisce about the turn of the century, when their mothers or grandmothers sneaked in with (or without) their husbands to try out the bowling game. Often they did so at the risk of their reputations.
Tales are told about women bowlers being screened off from view behind partitions or drapes or being allowed to bowl only when men were not using the alleys. Those were the days of high button shoes, skirts to the ankles, cumbersome apparel and tenpin accommodations that were hardly appealing.
Old photos document scenes of women bowling as early as the 1880s. The first recorded formalized bowling for women began in 1907 in St. Louis, when Dennis J. Sweeney, a bowling proprietor and sports writer, organized a women's league.
Inklings of national interest also were being shown. That same year (1907) many women accompanied their husbands to the American Bowling Congress Tournament in St. Louis, as they had been doing for several years. In St. Louis the women laid plans to hold their own tournament, the following year, on ABC Tournament lanes in Cincinnati after the annual men's event had concluded. A second women's tournament in 1909 followed the ABC event in Pittsburgh.
Records show little activity until 1915, when Ellen Kelly, an avid bowler, formed the St. Louis Women's Bowling Association. Buoyed by her success, she wrote to proprietors across the country asking for names of women who might be interested in a national organization of their own. She followed with letters to those women, urging the organization of local associations and offering advice on rules and establishing an organization.
By the Fall of 1916 in St. Louis, Sweeney was there to help Mrs. Kelly stage the first "national tournament." There were eight teams entered and champions were decided in team, doubles, singles and all events. The prize fund was $225.
Following the tournament those 40 women from 11 cities met at Sweeney's Washington Recreation Parlor and created the national organization that became after several name changes - the Women's International Bowling Congress. Fifty years later a charter member described the initial tournament as "frankly plain, there were eight alleys and four rows of benches for visitors a small counter square in back of the benches was used to sell soda pop, popcorn, peanuts, etc." She also recalled that the "meeting was more of a social gathering, and we gave little thought that it would develop into such a big organization."
The 40 pioneers elected their first national officers and adopted a constitution and bylaws that included the following purposes: To provide, adopt and enforce uniform rules and regulations governing the play of American tenpins; to provide and enforce uniform qualifications for tournaments and their participants; to hold a national tournament, and to encourage good feeling and create interest in the bowling game.
Those original precepts became the foundation of WIBC, which has developed into the largest sports organization in the world for women. The 40 pioneers set the pattern for today's 1.2 million WIBC members, who bowl in more than 60,000 sanctioned leagues in approximately 2,700 local associations in every state and several foreign countries.
That humble national tournament -- with its eight-team entry -- was the forerunner of what is now the largest women's sports event in the world. In tact, the 1997 WIBC Championship tournament held in Reno, Nev. attracted 14,872 five-woman teams, the largest entry for any team tournament in history. There were 88,279 individuals, a womens world record.
That first tentative gathering on the benches in Washington Recreation Parlor has evolved into a model of bowling democracy, the WIBC annual meeting. More than 3,000 delegates representing local and state associations attended the WIBC annual meeting to adopt rules and select national leaders. Similar annual meetings at local, state and provincial levels assure the self-government concept. Nationally, WIBC was governed by a board of directors elected by the delegates. Administrative policies and procedures were implemented by a staff at WIBC headquarters in suburban Milwaukee.
Along with growth and development came a multiplicity of services. Leagues received a wealth of rule books, record keeping materials and prepackaged kits to keep them functioning smoothly. Local, state and provincial associations benefited from a variety of materials to help them conduct their affairs more efficiently, ranging from handbooks, information sheets and forms to educational seminars, workshops and counseling from staff members and field representatives. A bonding and insurance program provided by WIBC covered association and league funds. A tournament sanctioning program was another important service.
A description of WIBC's awards for members would fill a chapter in itself. They recognized achievements within the realm of every bowler, from the beginner to the world champion.
From its humble beginnings, WIBC stood for tradition, friendship, fun, competition, leadership and success. It has meant this and more to the millions of women who proudly called WIBC my organization.