The Sponge Factor

by Dave Williams

A couple of interesting emails came my way on Tuesday. One was the upcoming schedule for the PBA season, which I’m sure will be reported upon by the staff of the Professional Bowlers Association and others. The second email was a bit more provocative — “USBC Releases 2022 Ball Hardness Report.” That’s the one that got my attention.

The pros followed up on their Ultra Angle day of testing with a two hour “meet and greet” session from 4PM – 6PM at AMF Main Lanes.

The USBC, or United States Bowling Congress, have released their final study regarding the research that was focused primarily upon the Purple Hammer, and other urethane bowling balls, that began last March. As far as mammoth organizations are concerned, that’s a pretty fast turnaround.

The key findings, according to the USBC report, are as follows:

  • Urethane bowling balls get naturally softer with use. USBC data shows friction and shear forces along with lane oil exposure are contributing causes.
  • Lower ball hardness at manufacture clearly impacts performance. Testing two versions of the same model urethane ball with different hardness out of the box shows very different results, with the softer ball providing “more hook and stronger pin carry.”
  • Chemically altering bowling balls make them softer, and significantly impacts performance. The softer altered balls “hook more and provide stronger pin carry.”

The words in quotes are my own, providing a more detailed definition of the word “stronger” from the release, which goes on to say that this report follows up on previous USBC research that demonstrates urethane shell bowling balls drop in hardness after use. Reactive shell bowling balls have less significant changes, showing little to no drop in hardness after use. There was no mention of plastic or rubber bowling balls in the report.

Along with the Ball Hardness Report there were a total of three videos clarifying the findings through the use of film. The first of these videos featured an old friend from my days at AMF, Danny Speranza. Both Danny and I are confirmed “bowling geeks.” Danny’s focus has always been in manufacturing, while mine is concentrated in marketing. When the new ownership occurred at AMF in the mid-1980’s, Danny found an even more meaningful position for his forte at ABC (now USBC) in Greendale, Wisconsin; while I decided after a couple of years to also move on to a very innovative chain of bowling centers called American Recreation Centers (ARC) that was based in California.

When I called Danny earlier this week to touch base and renew our acquaintance, I discovered that Danny was not with USBC all those years. He spent 10 years with USBC, before joining Columbia Industries in 1996, where he remained in a research and development position for almost 20 years. “I enjoyed my time at Columbia,” said Speranza. “Those were happy years in San Antonio.” With all of the consolidation in the bowling industry, he found himself back at USBC in Arlington, Texas, for the past 7 years as the Senior Director of Certification and Specification. His plans are to retire next year and join some old friends that are now living in the Boynton Beach area of Florida.

Part of the cast at the Ultra Angle event in 1985: (l to r) Dick Ritger, Jimmy Schroeder, Brian Voss, Gary Skidmore, Pete Weber, Joe Berardi, Tom Baker, Dick Weber and AMF Main Lanes GM Dick Braun.

While we were reminiscing, Danny brought up our ball testing collaboration at AMF Main Lanes in Columbus, Ohio, when AMF brought together all of the very best bowlers from their talented pro staff (current and retired) to test a very unique product — the Ultra Angle. Both Danny and I were not official members of the AMF Staff of Champions, but we were asked to participate in the testing. “I still have some framed photos from that day,” said Speranza.

In the first of three videos presented by USBC, Danny recounts that hardness of a bowling ball came about because back in the early 70’s the pros were soaking polyester balls with different solvents to make them softer. “That’s when USBC decided to set a hardness factor for bowling balls,” said Speranza. “The PBA had set a specification of 75D (durometer reading). The USBC picked 72D.”

Speranza continues, “The ball manufacturers were shooting for 77 to 78 durometer readings, to be sure that their products would make the TV show on ABC Sports. At some point in time the PBA decided they no longer needed to test all the bowling balls because they were being manufactured at a minimum 77D hardness.” But that’s when the manufacturers decided the new “don’t go below” number should be 72D, according to Speranza.

I first met Danny at AMF’s manufacturing plant in Westerville, Ohio, where he was Involved in the testing of bowling balls with a machine called BowlScore. The device, which later was donated to USBC by AMF, is still in use. I remember marveling at the machine, which at the time had an undocumented record of 84 consecutive strikes in a row. “If you get the proper angle of entry, revolutions and speed, it’s capable of striking for long periods of time,” stated Speranza.

“The BowlScore device was invented by Ed Lary out of the AMF White Plains corporate office in New York,” said Speranza. Upon further investigation on the internet, we find that Lary holds many patents for bowling devices, including the innovative AMF Bowling Ball Return Mechanism. He must have also collaborated with Paul Geuvin, a chemist at AMF’s White Plains office that utilized me for the testing of many urethane bowling ball roll-outs, because their names appear on another patent for elastomeric bowling ball material.

What’s next in the urethane bowling ball controversy? It’s certainly not over, even with the completion of the USBC report. Bowlers, like baseball players, will always be looking for a product or chemical to enhance their performance. Whether it’s a corked bat or an exotic weight block, the premiere players in each sport will eventually rise to the top. Complaining about a particular “advantage” through innovation solves nothing.

Having said that, I still miss the good old “lower scoring” days…


Photo and Illustration provided by Dave Williams