Wednesday Night at the Recreation Lanes

It doesn't look like much from the front as you pass on your way north to the bridge, but then it never did. What it did was house eight of the highest-scoring bowling alleys in the state of Wisconsin.

Owned at one time by a card-playing foursome of Bob Putzer, JoJo and Porky Penzenstadler, and Clarence "Gabby" Wirtz, this place, with built-in gallery seats and limited parking, drew a large, eager gathering Wednesday nights when the Recreation Classic League met.

The most closely watched on those nights, when standing room was at a premium, was Bireleys, a team that owned the state record for a three game series, a record that would last enough years to swell the pride of the Oshkosh bowling community. This team, with four of the first ten future Hall of Famers, included Matt Muza, Arnie Zuehlke, Bob Putzer, Vic Boeder, and Rudy Nigl.

The lanes, admittedly, were easy; grooved as the saying went. The coating was shellac — a thicker, more durable dressing than those used today. The line to the pocket was steady and sure, and even those whose release was in question seemed to easily hook the ball into the pocket. But it wasn't just the lane conditions that generated scores well above the norm. It was also in the pins. They were, the argument went, lighter and dryer, rounder on the bottom. Tipsy was the word often used. But it would be irresponsible, certainly uncaring, not to give due to this place whose lanes looked warped to the naked eye. This was a time before urethane and resin and other technologies that would revolutionize the game.

Hard rubber bowling balls with the middle two fingers buried to the second knuckle was the choice of most. Connie Schwoegler's finger-tip grip and Pete Kowalski's EZ Lift were on the market but were not yet widely used.

Most of the city's best keglers were here on those nights when the inside of this small, elongated box-like structure was clouded over with the floating vapor of burning cigarettes and cigars. Hub Hielsberg, Eddie Luther, even the-up-and-coming Hezzy Munsch might run a string of seven, eight in a row. And any number of bowlers, a group including Shorty LaFond, Augie Fiebig, Doc Russell, Cully Genal, Paul Priebe, Eddie Otto, Buster Thill, and the Penzenstadler brothers might hit that magical 700 series.

But most eyes were on this team with an orange soft drink emblazoned on their blue shirts and a state record next to their names.

Mattie Muza, with his unmistakable gait and the always present cigar clenched securely between his teeth, was the bowler Bireleys wanted on top. His steadiness — tenaciousness some would call it — and his short down-and-in hook proved to be the perfect formula for a lead-off man on this team stacked with high average bowlers.

Arnie Zuehlke, the top bowler in the city and one of the best in the state, had a shuffling four-step delivery and a big round-house hook that, when started a board or two outside the second arrow, drove the pins to the sideboards with a velocity matched only by Dick Zellmer's unorthodox style and sharp-breaking hook.

Bob Putzer with his running start and high release was the middle man on this team weighted down with talent. He was one of the first in the city to roll a perfect game during a time, very much unlike today, when 300s were rare. Traveling almost as fast as the speed of light, his ball splattered the pins more than he pushed them back or scattered them from side to side.

Vic Boeder, with his left arm flung out as a counterbalance to his low-to-the ground approach, was effective in clearing the alleys of pins. Always around the pocket while throwing a semi-roller — a "spinner" many called it — he usually found himself near the top of the average sheet due to his accuracy and his competitiveness. This competitiveness, and a durability few seem to have, can, at least in part, be measured by his recent 50th trip to the American Bowling Congress's annual tournament.

But the anchorman was the crown jewel of this team that had no equals in this city, a city that would eventually make its mark on the national bowling scene. Although past his prime, Rudy Nigl was beauty in motion as he glided down the approach, the smoothest and easiest delivery this side of Connie Schwoeger and Ned Day. Watching Rudy with his lit cigar snuggled between his first two fingers on his left hand stroking that ball into the pocket with a motion so fluid, so sweet, so inviting to copy, which of course many of us tried to do.

When the show was over and the high scores announced, I took that long walk home to that place on the other side of Oregon Street thinking of the day I would wear the blue shirt with the orange soft drink emblazoned on the back.