Jack TenneyExtra Point

by Jack Tenney, Publisher

June 2001

The last pin setter

If I didn’t tell this story, I’m not sure who would.

When I was 13 my best friend, Manuel (pronounced Man-yule not Man-well), and I used to skip school occasionally. We’d head down town to the bowling alley upstairs over the stores at the northwest corner of Broadway and Grand in Enid, Oklahoma.

There, for seven cents a string, we’d set pins for early morning bowlers — women, if I’m remembering right, which is twice unusual. First off, weekday morning bowling wasn’t that popular, hence no regular pin setters were employed. Second, this bowling alley didn’t have a very good reputation (after all, they did employ truants to set pins), and you wouldn’t expect to find women hanging around such a seedy place.

Anyway, Manuel and I would set pins for a few strings. It wasn’t difficult work, albeit pretty demanding physically. We sometimes each handled two alleys at a time. Having good ears was the number one requirement for getting through a few strings with no bruises.

You’d start off perched on a separating rail above the pin pits at the rear of the alleys. Sitting on the rail, you could hear the balls coming, but you couldn’t see them. As soon as the ball hit the pins, all hell would break loose. Then, you’d jump down pulling the lever that lowered the rack. If any pins remained standing, you hit another lever to engage the grabber in the rack, and then raising the rack holding the upright pin(s) you went on all fours to clear the alley and gutter of dropped pins. Then, after grabbing the ball and giving it a shove down the return channel you lowered the pin rack and released the lever that held the remaining pins.

It was optional if the player was still going for a spare to throw the felled pins into the rack or just jump back up on the rail and wait for the next ball. After the second ball came through, you jumped down, cleared everything, put pins in all the slots of the setter, returned the ball, and worked the levers to lower and set the pins.

Of course, when setting two lanes, listening comes to be so important. You could be crawling around working on one lane when you heard the rumble of the ball come down the other lane. You’d want to finish what you’re doing pretty quick and jump back up on the rail so as not to get bopped by a pin or ball. Pin setting had a mental side to it as well. You could get in deep trouble if you lost track of whether the ball that just about knocked your sneaker off as you scrambled back up on the rail was a first ball or a second ball. It didn’t matter if no pins were standing but if you ever cleared an alley of a spare opportunity, the ruckus, roar, screaming, insulting hoots and hollers that followed reminded you not to do it twice in the same session, I guarantee you.

So, after setting a few strings each Manuel and I would take a break and go pick up our earnings. If between us we did six strings, the pay was 42 cents. We would each get an Orange Crush and peanuts to pour in our bottles. Then we’d shoot pool for 20 minutes (a penny a minute) and have two cents left for the Chicklet machine. The ladies would visit and smoke while Manuel and I played eight-ball.

Manuel was a little shorter than me, so he used a wooden soft drink case to stand on while he worked his way around the table. Kicking the case from shot to shot while he chalked the cue, he was a stylish pool player. My game was not nearly as studied, but I managed to pot a few and keep our games pretty close.


One of the last great pin setters