First, there’s the terminology: What you’re rolling is not a ball, but a “bowl.” Though it’s dark and cylindrical, the bowl isn’t perfectly round, but has a fatter side called a “bias” that will make it curve to one side at the end of its journey.
The meticulously groomed playing field is a “green,” which is divided into 14-foot-wide “rinks,” like the lanes of a bowling alley, where individual games take place, but that’s where its similarity to 10-pin bowling ends.
Like golf, lawn bowling is a quiet sport that requires finesse and a soft touch to gently roll a bowl onto the green. The object of the game is to get your bowl as close to “the jack,” a hard white or yellow ball, as possible.
This is just some of the vocabulary you’ll learn if you accept the Berkeley Lawn Bowling Club’s standing offer of a free introductory lesson on its green at the corner of Bancroft Way and Acton Street.
An ancient game, second cousin to the Italian bocce and French petanque, lawn bowling has been played at the Poet’s Corner club since 1929, a year after its 1928 founding, and is now enjoying a pandemic-fueled renaissance, when those weary of staying at home sought an outdoor activity that combines socializing with social distancing. Over the past three-and-a-half years, the club’s membership swelled from around 58 to 95 members, its largest in recent history.
In addition to being relatively safe to play during the pandemic, the sport boasts several other charms.
“It doesn’t require too much exertion,” said BLBC president Ethan Bortman, who lives in Moraga and drives or bikes 13 miles to Berkeley so he can play at the club four times a week. “It’s not like playing soccer or basketball. It is not really aerobic. It is a social game. Anyone can do it.”
A case in point: The club’s youngest member, Aika Hamilton, is 9. The club’s oldest member, Ted Crum, played on his 100th birthday celebration at the club last August. Crum, who’s since retired from the game, has been a member of the club since the 1960s and served in many capacities, including as president and treasurer. When he worked as an accountant, he found lawn bowling a great way to unwind.
“I liked the nice green grass. And we had a very nice clubhouse with a full kitchen,” he said. “I would go down there usually on Saturdays or Sundays and bowl. It was a very relaxing thing for me.”
What’s changed the most in 60 years? “More women are playing,” Crum observed.
Still, men outnumber women by about 2-to-1. Age-wise, most members fall within the middle to senior category. About half its membership is from Berkeley; others drive from as far away as Santa Rosa and Sacramento. During the pandemic, several newcomers from the neighborhood finally had time to satisfy their curiosity. (Disclosure: Berkeleyside Managing Editor Zac Farber’s partner has been a member since January.)
“We have had so many new members in the last two months or so, I don’t recognize them, especially with hats and masks on,” Bortman said.
Perhaps because of its historical connection to British aristocracy, lawn bowling, like golf, is often associated with the wealthy. Yet those who play in Berkeley hail from all walks of life: retirees, grad students, writers and quite a few golfers, along with aerial kite photographer Cris Benton and Jim Audus, a dispatcher for the Contra Costa Fire Department. Full membership for Berkeley residents is $200 a year.
In addition to the lingo, lawn bowling requires special attire and equipment. For informal games at the club, a T-shirt and jeans or shorts will do. Wearing whites for competitions went out of fashion in the U.S. within the past 10 years, but competitors must wear collared club shirts.
Members can use the club’s bowls for free or buy their own set for around $450. Each set is unique with its own color and pattern — figures of animals are common — so players can determine whose is whose on the green. There’s no rule requiring hats, but virtually every player wears one because the green provides no cover.
An “unwritten code” of etiquette, which, despite its name, is written into the decades-old club handbook in a chapter called “Lawn Bowling Etiquette,” encourages a congenial atmosphere. The chapter has been included in the handbook for so many years that club members demurred from even trying to date it.
As in golf, players are discouraged from moving or talking when a bowler is preparing to roll. They’re also encouraged to keep conversation to a minimum and to shake hands at the end of a match. Applauding a shot is encouraged “whoever plays it,” and the opposite is frowned upon. “Do not show any outward sign of satisfaction at his misfortune,” the handbook states.
Such behavior was exhibited during an informal game that took place one Wednesday morning earlier this month. When James Corr performed a move called a “toucher,” when the bowl hits the jack, often ending up closest to it, applause came from both his and his opponent’s team. Meanwhile the “skip,” or head of the other team, Salvador Garcia-Lemus, applauded every move made by his teammates, along with good shots made by Corr’s players.
“It’s good when people are good sports,” Bortman observed. “It’s a friendly competition. What’s the harm in being complimentary to your opponents?”
Lawn bowling’s roots in ancient times
Berkeley’s fast-growing pastime has its roots in antiquity. The exact origins of lawn bowling are unknown, but it’s estimated to be at least 7,000 years old.
The Romans likely spread the similar game of bocce to the British Isles. By the 13th century, most of Europe played a version of bowls.
In Britain, lawn bowling became popular under Edward II (1284-1387), who only allowed nobles and landowners to play, a law that was not taken seriously. However, the ban did not apply to Scotland, where bowls flourished. The development of the flat green game was established there, along with rules and a uniform code of laws. Edinburgh is now home to the headquarters of World Bowls, the sport’s international federation.
Bowls came to the Americas in the 1600s. George Washington played the game on a Mount Vernon green, but after the revolution, when British traditions became taboo, it was plowed over, along with many public greens in the new nation, though place names like Bowling Green in Manhattan and Bowling Green, Ohio, have remained. In North America, Canadians continued the sport, which thrived in other commonwealth countries, until Americans revived lawn bowling in 1879 in New Jersey.
The first West Coast club was founded in 1899 when the first bowling green was built in Golden Gate Park. Berkeley is part of Bowls USA’s Pacific Inter-Mountain Division, which includes Northern California teams as well as those in Utah and Hawaii.
The club occupies 1.3 acres on Acton Street, adjacent to the Santa Fe Railroad right-of-way. During its mid-century heyday, when membership soared to almost 200 members in the 1970s, the club included two working greens and a clubhouse. It began with one green, however, after Dr. J.W. Henderson, a lawn bowler who lived on Acton Street, eyed an empty lot across the street that was owned by fellow Rotary Club member H.J. Haney.
Henderson persuaded Haney to donate the lot to the city “with an informal understanding that the land was to be used as a bowling green,” according to the BLBC handbook, with the city giving the Haneys $10 to make the deal legally binding. It took a year to turn the empty lot into a green, with the work being performed by the club’s charter members. The Rotary Club gave the city $1,000 to help cover the cost.
In the 1950s, when membership increased, the club began renting a city lot to the south it had previously used as a nursery. The city accepted the club’s proposal to turn the southern lot into a second green, which cost the city $10,000 and the club $8,000. The second green was dedicated in 1962.
In 1963, the club became a nonprofit. A year later its clubhouse was completed at a cost of $30,000, paid for by club members and friends. The city advanced half the cost, which the club reimbursed over a 10-year period.
The public park that still might be
In the 1970s and ’80s, some residents balked at the city’s support of the club and called the group a private club that was elitist and exclusionary, arguing instead for a public park that would be open to all.
In 1972, the City Council voted to convert the northern green into a mini-park, a victory for the progressive activists who’d formed a Neighborhood Committee for a Public Park. The lawn bowlers took their case to the Superior Court of Alameda County and won, and won again in 1974 after the city appealed, in a ruling that cemented the club’s hold over the greens until 1984. David Mundstock, the late progressive historian, wrote that the club’s win was “a triumph for the status quo” and “a lesson in contract law.”
As a consolation to the activists, the city built a mini-park in between the two greens, at 2208 Acton St., and named it for Charlie Dorr, “the feisty, outspoken retired teacher who personified the neighborhood’s populist struggle against the lawn bowlers,” Mundstock wrote.
In 1983, as the club’s lease approached renewal, Eileen Kopelson wrote a letter to the editor of The Berkeley Gazette complaining that only 77 of the club’s 168 members were Berkeley residents. “If the present trend continues, by 2003, when the proposed lease would expire, Berkeley taxpayers would be spending $50,000 per year on a private Club composed entirely of non-residents,” she wrote.
A flurry of letters and op-eds in support of the club followed, often written by club members. In a June 22 commentary, member C. Edward Pederson argued that attracting members from elsewhere was not necessarily a bad thing, since Berkeley residents also used services in other nearby jurisdictions. He also pushed back against ideas about the club being exclusive. He concluded that the club was “an outstanding example of a group of senior citizens carrying on the finest physical recreation program for older people in the city.”
“If lawn bowling is so great, why shouldn’t it be for everybody?” Daniel Horodysky asked the City Council the night of the vote. Horodysky was co-chairman of the Coalition for Public Parks, which wanted both bowling greens turned into a multi-use public park. He argued that, while non-members were at times invited to use the greens, only club members had keys to the facility.
Ultimately, the council approved a 10-year lease for the club. The new terms made the maintenance of the greens “largely the responsibility of the lawn bowling club.” Today, the club pays the city $1,200 a year for rent, and then receives a $3,000 stipend mid-year toward maintaining the southern green, which can cost up to $16,000 per year. It’s a unique arrangement among the 39 nonprofits that lease buildings in city parks, according to the parks department.
Bortman maintains that the club has never been exclusionary. “In the old days, they used to make bowlers demonstrate prowess before they could become members,” he said, a tradition that continued until about 10-15 years ago. Otherwise, he said, the club has always been open to everyone who wishes to bowl.
In the end, time has brought the opposing sides of those 1970s lawsuits onto the same page.
The original, northern green went fallow in 2010 because of the expense of upkeep, given the club’s dwindling membership at the time. Since the club no longer uses the northern green, it proposed several years ago to return the parcel to the city.
The club is “supportive of the Parks & Rec Department for whatever they want to do with the north green,” Bortman said.
Though the north green recently appeared on a 2019 list of city-owned parcels that could be turned into affordable housing, that is not likely to come to fruition, said City Councilmember Terry Taplin, whose district includes the club property. Measure L, passed in 1986, requires city-owned green space to remain open space, so changing the lot’s use would have to go to the ballot.
Instead, Taplin said, the city is reviving plans to turn the north green into a new public park.
But it could take some time. A 2017 environmental report found that the soil at the northern green had been contaminated with elevated levels of pesticides and metals, the latter due to its proximity to the railroad right-of-way.
During the pandemic, Congregation Beth Israel asked to use the club’s north green for its services and the club agreed, stipulating that they clean up the lot, which had become overgrown. The city informed the congregation of the study, said Scott Ferris, the city’s parks director, and determined that the congregation wasn’t at risk because their activities were not going to disturb the soil.
The city plans to apply for state grants that will help pay for the green’s clean-up, which is expected to cost more than $150,000, according to a 2021 memo Taplin wrote the City Council. Ferris said the next step would be to do a mitigation plan based on the potential uses of the north green and test the south green, which could be contaminated, too.
Though the city has eyed the north green for years, both Taplin and Ferris said the city has no interest in ejecting the club from the southern green it now plays on.
“Berkeley Lawn Bowling is a valuable recreation enjoyed by our senior community and I have zero intent to see them displaced,” Taplin said.
Life inside a ‘very active’ club
Packed with memorabilia dating to its earliest days, the Berkeley Lawn Bowling clubhouse feels like a link between the club’s past and future.
A testament to mid-century cool, the building has a slanted roof and, inside, a wood ceiling and arrangement of period sofas and chairs. Otherwise, the decor’s a mishmash of objects that give it that clubby feel: silver cup trophies from the 1920s and ’30s under lock and key, obligatory photos of current and past members at play or saying cheese for a group shot and a tournament board containing inscribed brass nameplates of those who have won club competitions. The club also participates in regional and national tournaments.
“There is hardly a month that goes by that there isn’t at least one tournament,” said Bortman. “The club is very active.”
But even without the use of its northern green, the club still has plenty of room for more players, he said.
Members are given full access to the facilities when the club is open, from 10 a.m. to dark Tuesday-Sunday. The club offers three free lessons on Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon (and by appointment) to those who want to try out the sport before making a commitment.
Caribou, North Berkeley Wealth Management and other local companies have rented the green for team-building games. And for the last decade, the club has provided free weekly lessons to young people in Berkeley Youth Alternatives, sometimes hosting 20 students at a time.
The club’s biggest rival is Palo Alto. Inspired by the Cal-Stanford football rivalry, both lawn bowling teams compete for the “Meat Ax Challenge,” which Berkeley has won for the last three years.
In terms of individual players, the club’s most prominent bowler in recent years was Jonathan Burnoski, who in 2011, at age 18, was the youngest-ever U.S. national champion. “It illustrates what we have always said — that far from being a pastime for “old folks,” lawn bowling is truly a game for all ages,” the club’s then-president, Geoff Chandler, said at the time.
Another top player, Corr, 74, is a Scot by birth who discovered, after moving to Berkeley and joining the club 15 years ago, that a great uncle had preceded him as a member. On July 16, Corr won the PIMD Singles Tournament, now a gender neutral category that included several women. Corr won the PIMD division men’s single’s competition in 2011 and 2016 and made it to the semi-finals in the second flight of the U.S. Open a decade ago. Corr has also penned club news for Berkeleyside.
Though Corr joked about preferring cash prizes over trophies, he said that “you are never going to make a living in lawn bowling unless you live in Australia,” where the game’s especially popular. “You do it for the fun.”
Annie Brillhart, 72, was “pushed into competing” by the team’s centenarian, who told her, “the more you compete, the faster you become a better bowler.” She’s made it to the nationals three times.
“I love competing,” said Brillhart, who had been competitive in tennis, skiing, cycling, sailing, volleyball and track and field before joining the club, a mere five blocks from her home. Like other refugees from sports they can no longer play, bowls make use of her hand-eye coordination without being so hard on the body.
Another top player, Hugo Deaux, 64, the club treasurer, joined in 2015. A former U.S. Army clerk, he won the club’s novice player award in the singles category in 2015, pairs four times in a row from 2017-20 and triples in 2021 and 2022. This year, he won the PIMD pairs championship with Audus, 58, who’s considered an up-and-comer.
Deaux, who sports a large-brimmed canvas hat while playing, said the game requires both physical and mental skills and compares it to billiards, which he happens to be good at, too.
“You think, ‘How can I make this shot and where will this ball move if I hit it this way?’” he said. “I’m a fairly good strategist.”
Deaux likes to tease others when they leave the green for wordly responsibilities. The Wednesday of Berkeleyside’s visit, Deaux couldn’t do his job as “drawmaster,” the one who sets up the games, because he was being interviewed. In the spirit of congenial banter, Cindy Moss reminded him of his favorite expression: “What’s more important than bowling?”
“Of course some things are more important than bowling,” Deaux said later. “But not many.”
The Berkeley Lawn Bowling Club will host a club pairs tournament on July 30, beginning at 9:30 a.m. The tournament is free and open to the public.