For decades, bowling has been thought of as a blue-collar sport. But lost on the American public, as well as historians and other scholars of labor history, is the critical role that recreations like bowling played in building industrial unions. As early as 1937, the United Automobile Workers (UAW) had established bowling leagues as a means of bringing workers together through one of the most popular pastimes in the nation. At the same time, bowling, much like baseball, was subject to Jim Crow practices including the exclusion of nonwhite participants—even throughout UAW leagues. The union was silent on the issue of civil rights in recreation through the late 1930s and early 1940s, but by the postwar period, the UAW played a leading role in calling for “fair play” in sport. This article uses bowling as case study to examine how the UAW used bowling to build and sustain the union, promote harmonious intergroup relations among its members, and address issues such as civil rights within the general realm of American life throughout the mid-twentieth century.

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