I don’t really know what I was expecting, going to a bowling alley that’s two names removed from what it was called when my grandparents used to take me there, and thinking that maybe there would be something special about the fact that the old namesake, finally, many years late, had been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The former Gil Hodges Lanes is tucked away in a hard-to-reach part of Brooklyn, Mill Basin, where a little spit of land pokes out between a couple of inlets from Jamaica Bay. It’s one of those parts of the city that doesn’t feel quite like New York, car-dependent with curving, suburban-style streets, and almost entirely residential. The bowling alley — now half the size it used to be with the other half of the building housing a gym — anchors a modest shopping plaza on Strickland Ave., across the street from the neighborhood green space, Lindower Park.
I remember Gil Hodges Lanes not only from bowling there with my grandparents, who lived a couple of neighborhoods to the west, but because it was a landmark, the big building across one of those inlets from Flatbush Avenue, with GIL HODGES LANES in all caps. If you type “Gil Hodges Lanes” into Google Maps, it still comes up, but the man at the front desk confirms that nobody calls it that, just Funfest, which it’s been for a while now.
It’s half the size now, but still the same in a lot of ways, like the unchanged snack bar with black plastic letters affixed to a white fabric board to make the menu. Behind the counter, a man named Albie has been there long enough to remember it as Gil Hodges Lanes, but he’s very busy making lunch and doesn’t have time to reminisce.
For midday on Tuesday, it is, in fact, pretty lively, as a large group of seniors bowl on several lanes, along with a mom and a couple of kids, and some staggered singles — including me, grabbing a green, 14-pound ball, and checking to see if the orange 10-pounders that I bowled as a kid might still say GIL HODGES LANES on them. They say FUNFEST, of course, because that’s the name of the place and alley balls don’t last for decades without being replaced. Meanwhile, nobody wants to talk about the place’s former namesake being a newly-minted Hall of Famer, and really, why would they? They came out to bowl at Funfest.
“What it meant to me?” says Dominick Ucciardino after finishing his game. “That the bowling alley is still here. I mean, there’s only three houses left [in Brooklyn]. It’s a shame, bowling is dying. Maple Lanes, Leemark, Jay Lanes, you know? I just wish it would come back. But I have good memories here, when it was two sides of the bowling alley, and now that’s a gym. My fond memories are just having fun with my family.”
Avoiding the fate of Maple Lanes and the others is part of why Gil Hodges Lanes no longer exists as such. As the New York Post reported in 2012, then-owner Lou Seda changed the name to Strike 10 Lanes, saying, “The boutique lanes are for folks who want to spend a lot of money, wine and dine some clients, or perhaps show off by ordering a steak while they sit on a fancy leather couch. And then maybe they’ll bowl.”
That’s some iffy logic, as nobody is going out to Mill Basin, three miles from the last stop on the 2 train, to wine and dine clients. The place is unmistakably a community bowling alley, and with all due respect to Albie, you wouldn’t ask him for a steak.
The business model changing is only part of the story of the name change because the alley did not start out as Gil Hodges Lanes. In long-ago Brooklyn, it was not ridiculous that there was another alley a five-minute drive away on Ralph Avenue, and that was Gil Hodges Lanes, where, yes, the balls said GIL HODGES LANES.
According to Mike Rudy, the co-owner of Funfest, when Hodges’ actual bowling alley closed — it’s now the site of an electronics store — the owners of what was then Mill Basin Bowl agreed to pay Hodges’ family to use the name.
“I don’t know if he ever bowled here,” Rudy says. “He’d have had to have bowled here when it was Mill Basin Bowl, if he did. … They had to pay a fee every year to keep the name, and when [the previous owner] sold to the guy who wanted to call it Strike 10, that guy didn’t want to pay to keep Gil Hodges’ name.”
So, what was Gil Hodges Lanes in my memory wasn’t Gil Hodges Lanes originally, and was only Gil Hodges Lanes to carry on the name of a different Gil Hodges Lanes, which was owned by Gil Hodges, but now can barely even be classified as a distant memory to anyone.
That’s why it’s a big deal that Hodges is going into the Hall of Fame next summer, 50 years after he died. As time marches on, memories fade, and we’re approaching the point where few people alive have actual memories of Hodges as manager of the Mets, let alone as a Brooklyn Dodgers legend. It’s more than it being nice to induct Hodges while his widow Joan and old teammate Carl Erskine are alive to see it, it’s the plaque and the honor ensuring that the memory of a man who wasn’t quite a Hall of Fame player and wasn’t quite a Hall of Fame manager, but was definitely a Hall of Fame baseball man, continues long beyond the memory of a bowling alley that doesn’t have his name on it anymore.