When Charlie Buhrts took on his role as secretary of the Parson’s Recreation League, President Johnson presided over the Vietnam War, people were hearing the riff of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” for the first time, and Dick Weber was the PBA Player of the Year.
Forty-five years later, that Stones riff is as familiar to us as our own names and Vietnam is something school kids read about in history class, but one thing remains the same: This month, Charlie Buhrts begins his 45th season as secretary of the Parson’s league in Columbus, Ohio.
Named for the bowling center in which it originated in 1943, the Parson’s Recreation League is now the largest men’s bowling league in the United States with more than 340 members. That membership is as varied as it is vast, and tells the story of a league that spans nearly 70 years of American history.
“Some guys in the league were juniors that I coached; they’ve grown up and are now in the league themselves,” says Buhrts, who began bowling the league the same year he started as secretary — 1965. “We have their kids in the league, we have grandkids. One guy in the league is 85 years old. There’s a lot of father-son teams and grandfathers bowling the league.”
The people that gather at Wayne Webb’s Columbus Bowl for the Parson’s league each Sunday morning are the grandchildren of those who’ve come and gone through the league over the years. They are the sons who’ve followed their fathers into the league. They are local and state hall of famers with 240 averages and they are once-a-week handicap bowlers who show up for the friends and the fun. They are lawyers and police officers, six-figure earners and people getting by from week to week.
But those distinctions dissolve by the time they shoe up on Sunday, when they each become just one of the guys who puts in his 13 bucks a week and bowls.
“We have a lot of guys that don’t have a lot of money,” Buhrts explains, “but they like to get out and bowl one time a week, and that’s how it is.”
Yes, that’s how it is in the Parson’s Recreation League, where the lowest average team stands as much of a chance of winning as those hall of famers they compete against. Where you make $600 just for bowling the league and no one, regardless of where they finish, is making much more money than the next guy.
“No one is getting rich off this league,” Buhrts says. “We try to keep it to where even teams that don’t win get money back. Every team is guaranteed $600 even if they don’t win a point. Then they get $6 for every point they win on top of that. The least amount of money a team can make is about $1,000. The team that wins will make about $1,500, plus $500 for winning the league.”
And if the team that wins the Parson’s league looks a lot like the team that has no chance in a league near you, maybe that’s just the thing that keeps its bowlers coming back year after year.
“About three years ago, the lowest average team in the league won it,” Buhrts says. “That’s not very common.”
Few things about the Parson’s Recreation League are very common. Since moving from its previous home to its present venue in 1987, the league exploded from seven teams to 48 in just eight years and now boasts a waiting list long enough to be a league on its own. It hosts what may be the broadest range of averages you’ll find in any league in the country. And it features a unique handicapping system that produces as even a playing field as possible.
“We’ve got averages from 110 to 240. We’ve got all kinds of people in there,” Buhrts says. “We base our handicap off of 220. If you average 181 or better, you get 80% of 220. If you average 180 or below, you get 90% of 220. That really evens it out. My team gets a total of 20 pins handicap, but lower-average teams get almost 400 pins handicap.”
But if you think the flat prize fund and equalizing handicap system soften the bowlers' competitive edge, think again.
“We have some of the best bowlers in Ohio in this league,” says longtime league member Dave Harold. “If you want to be where the competition is at, it’s right here.”
But beyond the money or the competition, beyond the standings sheets and league meetings, it is the extended family bowlers find in the Parson’s Recreation League that keeps them coming back every Sunday. And maybe that, more than anything else, is the reason that the league is older than nearly any of its bowlers — 67 years and counting.
“I’m not the greatest bowler in the world,” says Harold, “but we have a lot of friendship here, a lot of camaraderie. Everybody knows everybody; everyone is treated like family.”