New pitch for an old game

August 22, 1976

Horseshoe pitchers often grumble about what they call "our barnyard image." The world-class pitchers, many of whom have been perfecting their craft for 30 years or more, say it's demeaning to have the sport's results sandwiched between grain prices and hog futures on the Farm Report. "Most of us don't even know what barrows and gilts are," said one competitor at the World Horseshoe Tournament in Bristol, Pa., which ended a fortnight ago. The 10-day event attracted the 500 best pitchers in the National Horseshoe Pitching Association, and in between pitches the contestants were busy trying to move their sport out of rural obscurity and into prominence by going national. Toward this end, the horseshoers talked with O'Hara Management Enterprises, the folks who, ever so memorably, brought you pro track and volleyball, and on Michael O'Hara's recommendation the horseshoers retained the services of Joey Goldstein, the relentlessly ingenious New York public-relations consultant who helped bring you Evel Knievel's Snake River Canyon jump and the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs tennis thing. The idea is to stage a professional horseshoe tour. After all, if bass fishing is on the tournament circuit, horseshoe pitching can't be far behind.

Bold thinking like this is new to horseshoe pitchers. The sport's leisurely pace—it can take up to eight hours to complete a series of games—and the advancing years of its best performers have been the subject of smart-aleck comments for years. To offset this, flacks at the Bristol tournament stressed youth, claiming that the median age for the men's finalists was "only 33," which is not exactly a youth movement, except maybe on the Washington Redskins. The PR efforts even hinted at machismo. A stat sheet noted that during the course of the 35-game tournament the average player pitched four tons of steel a distance of 27 miles.

For all this gimmickry, the Bristol tournament still had lots of down-home flavor. The world championship is really a kind of giant family reunion, and wives and kids are very much a part of the competition. Most serious horseshoe pitchers save all their vacation time for the summer, then spend it wandering from one tournament to another with family in tow. Carl Steinfeldt, a 58-year-old tool sharpener from Rochester, spent every vacation day of the first 25 years of his 37-year marriage traveling to tournaments with his wife Beatrice.

Steinfeldt took up the game as a teenager after being stricken with osteomyelitis. During a three-year period, he underwent 15 operations on his right leg, and at one point it looked as if he were going to lose it. He wore a steel brace on the leg until he was 16, and because horseshoe pitching was one of the few games he knew that did not require strong legs, he began tossing in earnest.

Steinfeldt is a great stocky man today, and he has grown so proud of his now strong legs that he often wears Bermuda shorts no matter what the weather. He entered his first state tournament in 1934, and has competed in world championships for the last 23 years. Twice he finished second in the world tournament, and he has never been out of contention on the final day. The old hands at Bristol said that Steinfeldt was a perennial bridesmaid and mistakenly wrote him off early in the week.

The dark horse in this year's tournament was supposed to be Bob West. Considered one of the top 10 pitchers in the world, West drove with his wife from Scappoose, Ore., though he could not be certain he would qualify once he got to Bristol. Qualifying is a long, brutal ordeal, and only the 48 best pitchers make it into the top flight of the round-robin competition. West, 54, was a Linotype operator for 18 years in Minot, N. Dak., but when technological advancements made his skills obsolete, he struck out for Oregon and found work in a cooperative plywood mill.

Like other horseshoe pitchers, West wants to see a pro circuit put together. He would probably quit his job to go barnstorming the country if there were any money in it. "If something happened so's I couldn't throw horseshoes anymore," he says, "hell, I don't know what I'd do. I wouldn't have anything to look forward to. What we do, it may not look exciting to the crowd, but when you're out there pitching your heart out, you could cut the tension with a knife."

The trouble the horseshoe people have had is translating that tension into something resembling excitement. Spectators, of which there were notably few in Bristol except for kin, are confronted with one afternoon and five evening sessions, each lasting more than five hours. Attention spans being what they are these days, it didn't take long for rampant boredom to set in. When Friday's session was rained out, two days' worth of games had to be completed Saturday. There is suspicion that the 10 hours' competition worked a greater hardship on the younger pitchers, not to mention the toll it took on the spectators, who saw more horseshoes thrown in one day than any human was ever intended to see.

The tournament very nearly never took place because of a misunderstanding with the local school board and several of the families in the neighborhood near the horseshoe courts. Fearing what they called "another Woodstock," the families and the Bristol township school board brought suit against the tournament. The legal action was eventually dropped, and later one resident admitted, "We've had no problem with noise or fights."

The final day of competition produced several upsets, including the collapse of defending champion Elmer Hohl of Wellesley, Ontario, and Mark Seibold of Huntington, Ind. Only 22, Seibold is a superb pitcher, but as one senior citizen remarked, "It takes at least 15 years of world competition to shake the butterflies. The kid's just too young."

Curt Day, the implacable three-time champion from Frankfort, Ind., appeared to be the sure winner until he met Steinfeldt early on the final day. Day is the talk of the world tournaments because of his unconventional style. Most pitchers throw their shoes over the 40-foot distance so they twist clockwise as they sail toward the stake. Just as the 2½-pound shoe begins to glide into its downward arc, the jaws open and clamp around the 14-inch pin. Day's shoe makes a three-quarter counterclockwise rotation, a flight pattern which still tends to confound his opponents 30 years after he took the game up.

But Steinfeldt beat Day 50-46, and then he beat Seibold 50-41. This left Steinfeldt and Day in a deadlock after 35 regulation games, and a three-game playoff was arranged. The playoff didn't begin until 10:30 Sunday night, and with a cool breeze blowing off the nearby Delaware River there was some concern that Steinfeldt's goose bumps might cost him the tournament.

Day came out pitching ringers, and dusted Steinfeldt 50-18. In the second game Day broke to an early lead again, 34-18, and it appeared that Steinfeldt, the perennial bridesmaid, was a bridesmaid once more. "I looked up at my wife in the stands, and she looked disgusted," Steinfeldt said. "So I just decided to forget about Day and concentrate on my own game." The tool sharpener sharpened up his tools, proceeded to throw 20 consecutive ringers and beat Day 53-46 to tie the match. The final game was never a contest. Steinfeldt threw 29 ringers in his first 30 shoes, and wrapped up his first championship 52-31.

When he had won, Steinfeldt turned and sighed, "Finally, after 42 years." It was not a statement calculated to make the image-molders happy, but it was certainly good for the soul.