In a dimly lit corner of Buffalo Billiards, a bar in Old City, the Philly Skeeball League meets, where skeeball aficionados clad in matching orange T-shirts spend every Thursday night rolling away, a beer in one hand, ball in the other.
In the league, teams of four or more players compete in a 12-round, head-to-head match, where they employ a vast amount of strategies.
“I hold two balls in my hand at all times,” said Fred Hovermann, a longtime member of the league.
“You have to be at the perfect drunk level,” Hovermann’s teammate, Obie O’Brien, said. “You can’t play sober, you can’t play passed-out drunk, it’s got to be just right. Just like Goldilocks.”
According to skeeball.com, the history of the game itself is planted in Philadelphia, where it was invented in 1909 by Princeton University graduate John Dickinson Etses. The game quickly became popular and Skee-Ball Alleys started being produced in 1914, with the first ever national skeeball tournament being held in Atlantic City in 1932.
Philly Skeeball League founder and organizer Nicole Hesson, a native of Northeast Philadelphia, returned to her hometown to earn her graduate degree in education administration at Temple in 2011. She was given the job of bringing the skeeball league from a group in Washington D.C. to Philadelphia. That summer, the Philly Skeeball League was born.
Today, the league is comprised of more than 50 skeeballers on six different teams, with pun-filled names like “SkeeZeeTop.” Hesson said that part of the appeal of the league is its non-competitive nature.
“It’s just fun,” Hesson said. “Some are competitive, but most aren’t. Come and have a good time and meet some cool people.”
Hesson mentioned that the league is not without its highlight reel of exciting games.
“I’ve seen people shoot 100s with their eyes closed, or behind the back,” she said.
“There have been finals where it comes down to the last roll and people have won by 10,” O’Brien added.
O’Brien, an engineer who works at The Navy Yard, has been playing skeeball since he was a kid.
“Growing up near Atlantic City, my aunt used to train me in skeeball,” O’Brien said. “She was very excited when she heard that I joined the league.”
Hesson said the league has done more than just bring lovers of skeeball together, but true love as well.
“We actually had … a couple that used to play skeeball, they had a baby,” she said. “The Philly league is good at making love connections. You’re in this really fun thing, you’re in a bar, you’re in your mid-20s and you’re drinking. Something’s going to happen.”
Hesson said she first started playing skeeball competitively in the United Social Sports Skeeball league in Washington D.C., having found it through a Groupon ad.
“I met a lot of cool people while playing [skeeball] in D.C.,” Hesson said.
But a love of skeeball isn’t what initially led her to the league.
“I kind of wanted to meet guys,” Hesson said with a laugh. “But I didn’t meet any guys because all of the people on my team were girls.”
Christian Matozzo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org