How a Toronto entrepreneur invented—then didn't get wealthy from—Canada's favourite lane sport.
We look at concepts and products that, for better and worse, were developed in Toronto.
Bow tie–clad Tommy Ryan was many things during his colourful life: aspiring baseball pitcher, billiard-hall proprietor, hotelier, racehorse owner, antique dealer, beauty-contest judge, defender of Sunday sports, and practical joker. He was one of those people who went through life with a smile, a man unperturbed by the loss of the money he might have earned had he patented the invention that would prove to be his most enduring legacy.
Born in Guelph in 1872, Thomas Francis Ryan moved to Toronto at age 18 to work as an invoice clerk. He claimed that he had turned down an offer to pitch major league baseball for the National League’s Baltimore Orioles, because of the sport’s low salaries during the 1890s. While operating a Yonge Street billiard hall in the early years of the 20th century, Ryan noticed the growing popularity of 10-pin bowling in the United States. In 1905 he launched the Toronto Bowling Club, on the fourth floor of the Boisseau Building at the southeast corner of Yonge and Temperance Streets, above Ryrie-Birks Jewellers. Eleven lanes of 10-pin bowling were available to members of the private club, along with perks like a cafeteria, a piano, music from a live string orchestra, and surroundings decorated with lush tropical plants. The club proved popular with downtown business elites and lawyers, who rushed over for lunchtime games.
Ryan soon noticed grumbling among his clientele. Regulars hated lugging around 16-pound bowling balls, which left them sweaty and fatigued by the time they returned to their offices. The game moved too slowly for them to fit a full match in before their half-hour lunch breaks were over. Ryan tinkered away in the hopes of inventing a game that was speedier and less stressful, but still elegant enough to appeal to his upper-crust customers.
Ultimately, he reduced the pin count down to five, shaved the pins, and shrank the balls down to a compact three-and-a-half-pound size. While testing his new form of bowling, Ryan discovered the lighter pins flew everywhere after being struck, including out the window. To prevent potential pedestrian casualties, he placed rubber bands around the middle of each pin for stability.
Five-pin bowling was an immediate hit upon its introduction in 1909. Ryan didn`t find time in his busy life to patent the game, but he never moaned about missing out on the money he could have made. (His other interests ensured he always had a healthy bank account.) More satisfying to him was the enjoyment people derived from five-pin, which became the dominant form of bowling in Metro Toronto and stayed that way until the early 1990s. To this day, the sport is played throughout Canada.
After selling the Toronto Bowling Club in 1913, Ryan operated other bowling alleys, then ran a hotel on Church Street. When prohibition ruined his hospitality business, Ryan sold furniture on Yonge Street. He bought the Massey mansion at 515 Jarvis Street (now the Keg Mansion) and ran an antique and fine-art auction house known as the “House of Surprises.” He also lived in the home, referring to his quarters as “the royal suite” because of its use by the Duke and Duchess of York during a 1901 visit. Ryan served as a founding judge of the Miss Toronto beauty contest and chaired the committee that successfully fought regulations that outlawed Sunday sports in the city.
Ryan was an incorrigible practical joker. He treated police to rubber hot dogs during Miss Toronto contest lunches. High political officials were greeted with joy-buzzer enhanced handshakes. He stocked up weekly on gags from King Street novelty retailer Joel Lewis. “He’d buy dozens at a time and give them away to children and friends,” Lewis recalled after Ryan’s death in 1961. “He played tricks on people but he always gave them the trick afterwards. He gave gifts to everyone. He took a great delight in these things. But he wouldn’t buy anything that was actually malicious or could hurt or frighten anyone.”
For his contributions to the sporting world, Ryan was elected to Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1971.
Additional material from the April–May 2006 edition of the Beaver, the November 20, 1961 and April 8, 1991 editions of the Toronto Star, and the November 21, 1961 edition of the Telegram. Photo of Tommy Ryan circa 1960 courtesy of the Canadian 5-Pin Bowlers’ Association. Photo of five-pin bowling balls by Jamie Bradburn/Torontoist.