Hirshon Captures Local Sports History Using Oral History

24 Jan 2017 8:50 PM | Dane Claussen (Administrator)

By Teri Finneman

Oral History Committee Chairwoman

We continue our series examining members’ oral history projects with this feature from Nicholas Hirshon, an assistant professor in the Communication Department at William Paterson University. A former reporter for the New York Daily News, Hirshon has written two books of sports history, Images of America: Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum (2010), about the former arena of the NHL’s New York Islanders, and Images of America: Forest Hills (2013), about the neighborhood that long hosted the U.S. Open. His email is hirshonn@wpunj.edu.

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There are many historic markers in New York City, but not in the neighborhood where I’m from. I grew up in the middle-class suburb of Forest Hills, Queens, which is a long haul on the bus and the subway to the tourist-teeming landmarks of Manhattan. Forest Hills has history, but it cannot compete with the likes of the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. Too often, its past is forgotten altogether.

This irks me as a historian. I have devoted much of my research to shedding light on the rich past of my hometown, where few scholars tread. And I could not do it without oral history.

At the annual AJHA conference in October, I presented a research-in-progress on a sports television program with a Forest Hills connection. I grew interested in the topic several years ago when I was working as a newspaper reporter and covered the closing of a bowling alley near my boyhood home. I learned that the alley had hosted a short-lived NBC game show named Phillies Jackpot Bowling in 1959 and 1960. The program had a pioneering format in which professional bowlers competed for tens of thousands of dollars by attempting to bowl six consecutive strikes in nine tries. Phillies Jackpot Bowling was instrumental in raising interest in bowling across the United States and precipitating an era when top bowlers earned more than many baseball and football stars, a dynamic that is unthinkable in the modern sports landscape.

After I transitioned from practicing journalism to teaching and researching it, I wanted to examine the history of Phillies Jackpot Bowling. The problem was the lack of sources. No clips from the show seem to have made their way online, and only one episode has survived, available only for on-site viewing at an archive in California, thousands of miles away. None of the people involved in the show left an archive. Reports in newspapers and magazines offer an incomplete picture of events.

Oral history proved fruitful to fill in the gap on previous projects. But Phillies Jackpot Bowling went off the air more than half a century ago. I figured everyone involved in the show had died long ago. Not true. To my surprise, I was able to track down and interview four bowlers who appeared on the show. Their vivid memories of the program provided much-needed color and made possible my tribute to my hometown’s history.

Today the bowling alley is no more. The alley was renovated into a furniture store when I was still a reporter, and I wrote articles advocating for a historical marker nearby. The owner agreed and put up two plaques, one on the façade and another inside with a display of bowling memorabilia.

Now it’s up to me – and oral history – to put the plaque in context.

Do you have an oral history project you would like featured in the newsletter? Email Teri Finneman at finnemte@gmail.com.


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