Bring an English gentleman into a conversation between a coupla DelCo kids debating the Iggles’ handling of DeSean Jackson or their favorite hoagies downtheshore, and watch the gentleman recoil and pray for the Queen. Drop a proper publican onto a Kenzo barroom dartboard and expect the same reaction. For just as Philadelphia claims its own brand of the English language, so too does our city wield a distinct take on the classic tavern game of darts.
The origins of darts, like baseball, is murky and filled with legend. Lore suggests that the game grew from the practice of throwing darts—handheld weapons used in combat and warfare—at a tree’s cross section to develop accuracy. Though it’s widely discredited, the old story claims that Civil War General Abner Doubleday invented baseball, a wives’ tale once so believed that its National Hall of Fame is in Cooperstown, the town where Doubleday went to high school and allegedly drew up the game and field. While these tales spin a good yarn, they’re really just fable.
However, both games have a story a little closer to the truth—one that while impossible to prove is generally accepted. Supposedly, the first recorded game of baseball occurred on Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1846; the popularity of the game there eventually led to coverage in the New York Times and a Currier & Ives print, lending credibility to the growing sport. And supposedly, the recognizable dartboard layout, with 20 at the top, 3 at the bottom and so forth, came about in 1896 from a carpenter named Brian Gamlin from Lancashire, England.
Regardless of whether the English carpenter invented this board, its popularity took off in the early 20th century. Regional variations competed with this style, but by the 1930s, the “London Board” had become the UK standard: a small inner ring worth triple points and an outer ring worth double. During the same period, Philadelphia developed its own dialect of darts.
In 1935, Charles Widmeier—known as “Widdy” since his youth—filed a patent application for the dartboard he’d been manufacturing since 1910. With the same numbering configuration as the London Board, Widdy’s board placed the double and triple rings adjacent one another on the outside edge of the board, for what’s become known as American Style Darts. In 1936, the US Patent and Trademark Office awarded him patent US 2060405, a mark you’ll find on the lower left corner of every Widdy dartboard.
The patent, along with height and distance instructions in the upper left of the board and a Widdy, Phila. 34, PA in the lower right, roll off a silkscreen one at a time, on each and every board from a shop just under the El’s Somerset Station. Joe, last name Not Important, manages the shop his father-in-law Widmeier moved to 2844 Kensington Avenue in 1970.
It very much feels like 1970, if not earlier, at Widdy Dart Mfg. The shop shares the block with a janitorial supply company, a used car dealership, and a XXX bookstore, all framed by the columns supporting the Market-Frankford Line. Widdy’s tiled vestibule reads “2844” beneath a storefront display with a dartboard yellowed by decades and an old “WHYY TV 12” sticker. Inside, scoreboard cabinets reading “have fun, relax, play darts” hang on wood paneled walls.
“So, everything is made by hand, the darts, the board, all of it?” I ask Joe. Not one for small talk, he replies, “yep.” That becomes apparent as I walk toward the back of the shop anyway.
In the next room, stacks of tightly coiled paper discs wait for their assembly. One by one, the white discs gain their unmistakable red and blue stripes through a hand placed silkscreen before they’re viced onto a machine that drills the bullseye and leaves a cork. Extremely thin (1/100″) metal wires are hand-tamped into the board until they’re even with the surface, dividing the numbered sections and their single-double-triple values. The dartboard’s English counterpart has an external grill (called “the spider”) that’s stapled to the surface of a body made from compacted sisal fiber (a durable tropical plant not unlike hemp).
Even the darts have variations. English darts have a long, straight, slender metal shaft with plastic “flights” in the back. Widdy darts, made upstairs at the shop, have a wooden torpedo-shaped body and front-loaded metal tips with laser-cut turkey feathers at the back.
Though the appearance and composition of the boards and darts vary slightly, their respective games differ drastically. Traditional English dart games—the kind played in bars around the world and in the Professional Darts Corporation by men called Jackpot and The Power—include Cricket, where the object is to beat your opponent in getting three of each number from 15 through 20 plus the bullseye, and 501. In this simple, fast-paced game, you start with 501 points and work your way down to zero; for example, if your three-dart turn consists of a triple-20 (60) and two single-19s (38), you subtract 98, leaving you with 403. You keep going until you end exactly on zero. A “nine dart finish” is a perfect game, darts’ equivalent of a 300 game in bowling.
On the Widdy dartboard, Baseball is the only game. Sure, you can play Cricket or 501, or a small handful of games like ‘Trip 13′ and ’20 to 3 to Cork’ found on a carbon copied handout (copyright 1980) at the Widdy shop, but the tavern owners and dart league players who keep Widdy in business buy the boards for Baseball. Appropriately enough, darts’ American variant is based on the American pastime.
In Baseball, you have nine innings, throwing three darts per turn at numbers 1 through 9 in order. You count your runs by the darts’ placement; a single, double, and triple in one inning, for example, would count for six runs. A perfect score, three triples each inning, is 81—and next to impossible. The best players average in the upper 40s; the highest single score in last year’s Pennsylvania State Dart Tournament was a 61.
The high game for Ray Fisher, a dart legend whose victory over a British champion once inspired a poem and who still throws in a league in Northeast Philadelphia at 83 years old, was a 64. “I started throwing at age 15, so I’ve been playing a while,” Fisher says with a laugh. “The American game was really prevalent in the 30s, 40s, 50s. Every bar in Northeast Philly, Frankford, and Kensington had a board. And Widdy was the one.”
Joe Haganey, director of the state tournament, the longest running one of its kind in the country—this year’s in Barnesville (near Hazleton) was the 46th annual event—tends to agree. “There are others making [American style] boards,” he says—Apex Darts in Norristown and Pro Dart in Allentown, for example—“[but] the Widdy dartboard will always be the main American dart board in my opinion. It’s what I grew up with.”
Fisher, a champion in tournaments as far back as the 1960s and as far out as Los Angeles and Dallas as a sponsored player, has thrown in English leagues for a while, playing 501 and Cricket. But he recalls using Widdy darts in early tournaments and his American style origins fondly. “There was a time when Philadelphia was the center of darts in the US,” he says. “When you were a Philly thrower, you were the best in the country.”
Back at the Widdy shop, as manager Joe and I walk back from the production room, I note another difference between his American style and its better known British ancestor: the bullseye. In the British games, the bullseye’s outer ring is worth 25 and the center cork 50, and the bullseye is one of your objectives. With Baseball’s course strictly 1 to 9 (with the occasional extra inning), the bullseye is just sort of there. “What’s the bullseye for on Widdy boards?” I ask him.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t throw darts. It’s just a living, you know?”
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You can find an American style dartboard on the likes of eBay, but there’s nothing like the factory direct experience—of stepping off of Kensington Avenue and into Widdy Dart Mfg. to buy it from the man who made it. It costs $85 for a board, and it includes a complementary box of a dozen Widdy’s handmade wooden darts (a $25 value).