I was a boy in the 1930s, growing up in Kalamazoo and its rural environs, in southern Michigan, which is another way of saying that I have known about pitching horseshoes, been doing so for better than 50 years. Furthermore, I would guess that between birth and high school graduation I didn't know anyone who hadn't pitched some shoes. In time, I left the midlands for coastal regions, where it's hard to be sure about what acquaintances, much less strangers, know or do. I hacked around in those parts for a long time, going years on end without having anything to do with, or thinking about, horseshoes. Then, five years ago, I returned to the interior and, in a manner of speaking, to the 1930s.
Now we live on a cattle ranch, 6,000 feet up on a mountain in southern Arizona. Along a 20-mile section of narrow, serpentine road, in which some of the pieces of gravel are the size of muskmelons, there are eight permanent residences. To the east, where the pavement ends and the road begins to climb the mountain, there are three federal houses occupied by U.S. Park Service employees—and their families—who take care of a very small national memorial. Then there is the State of Texas Mine, which was patented in the administration of William McKinley and has since been owned by the same family. Beyond, over a 7,000-foot pass, there is first our ranch and then three more. The parks people are in a compound, but everybody else is six or seven miles apart. On the west side of the ridge, mail comes three times a week, radio and TV reception is minimal or, as at our place, nonexistent. Everyone, but only for the past two years, has a telephone. From our place, it is a hard two-hour round trip to the nearest town.
All of this is another way of saying that I am again pitching horseshoes. It would be hard and dumb not to because everybody else in the area—parks people, miners and cowboys—is a pitcher. My court is between the yard fence and the corral, under a big white oak, which is so located and has so spread as to provide evidence that the good Lord knows and cares about this game.
The art of and reasons for pitching horseshoes in Cochise County, Ariz. are about the same as in Kalamazoo County in 1934, but it seems to be giving me more to think about now. No doubt this is due partly to age and nostalgia, but there are at least two other factors involved. The first can perhaps be explained this way. I have had the experience—and so, I am told, have many others—of driving along a familiar road, one that I have used frequently for years, and suddenly seeing something—a barn with a circular window, an old apple tree, its trunk growing horizontal to the ground, a hill that looks like the head of an owl—that has always been there, but which I cannot recall ever having truly seen before. You wonder, 'My God, why have I missed it?' This is how I have been thinking about horseshoes—that there are a lot of things about this game I have never really seen, though they are as plain as a nose on a face.
September 23, 1984
Secondly, having got back to pitching, I have become more curious and made some inquiries about the sport in general. It turns out that there are others pondering the same subject, not so much thinking, as I have been, about what a good old game this has been and is, but about what a good game they might make of it. I am not entirely in sympathy with some of the new ideas, but they're interesting. In any case, this report involves some appreciative notes on, and a bit of current information about, pitching shoes.
There are three honest-to-God, might-as-well, where's-it-at American games which, if not technically endemic, have flourished in our space and culture as they have no place else. They are, of course, rodeo, baseball and pitching horseshoes. The last is the most exotic in origin, dating from the invention of the horseshoe more than 2,000 years ago. It has been the most common, in the class sense and also in terms of distribution and accessibility. It is a game of dirt and iron, suited to our hot, humid, continental summers, rooted in vacant lots adjacent to field or factory, and played in side yards where grass will never grow anyway because of the maple roots, behind the store and station, alongside corral, groundhog sawmill and tree-shaded garage. It's the Sunday-afternoon, family-reunion, company-picnic game, for when you need relief from standing around doing nothing. It is structured to be a social game, allowing for talk and stories, for listening to the Tigers and Sox on the radio, for keeping an eye on the kids. A solitary game, for when you want to be alone and sink into yourself. Also a grimly competitive game, in which the concentration makes your jaw ache. You can pitch badly and not be humiliated, or very well and never be entirely satisfied. It can be fun for an hour, or a passion for life.
From time immemorial there has been a notable tendency to make our games more complicated, so that those who master them can lord it over the hoi polloi who have not, and more expensive, for the obvious commercial reasons. In these respects, horseshoe pitching is a kind of fern or cockroach among our sports, i.e., something so simple that it has survived for a very long time, more or less impervious to change by anything or anybody.
During the history of the game as we know it, there has been only one significant technological innovation. About 1920, sporting-goods manufacturers began making, and pitchers using, a standard-size—and stylized—shoe. The maximum regulation dimensions are two pounds, 10 ounces, a length of 7‚Öù inches and a width between the open forks of 3½ inches. With the source of found horseshoes disappearing, this development was accepted, except perhaps by a few nostalgic masochists, as a major and long overdue improvement. It equalized competition and also made the game a lot less painful; the shoes used by horses come in assorted shapes and with holes and metal burrs that can do to a thumb and finger about what a rasp does. Pitching a few sets with real horseshoes gives a better understanding of why our pioneer forebears are remembered as grim, horny-handed folk and suggests one reason for the prevalence of tetanus among them.
Most horseshoes have been and still are pitched at pieces of pipe driven into unimproved dirt. What lies between the stakes—grass, concrete, mud, asphalt, rock or broken glass—may be an esthetic consideration but is of no functional importance. It is true that there is a regulation court, 50 feet in length. On it, stakes are set 40 feet apart, each in the center of a 3 X 4-foot target area in which the shoes must land if they are to score. Alongside are two smoothed pitching areas, with a foul line three feet in front of the stake.
The experiences and observations of Walter Ray Williams Jr. are instructive in regard to this uniformity of horseshoe facilities. Williams, at 24, is a prodigy when it comes to throwing things at marks. When he was 18 he won—for the first of three times—the world horseshoe pitching championship, and for the past two years he has been a ranking, though not leading, money-winner on the professional bowling tour. He grew up in Northern California and Oregon, where horseshoe pitching was popular in his large family (six siblings), partly because it was so cheap. Early on, he showed precocious talent as a bowler, an activity he later financed with money he won pitching shoes. Williams says he thinks the two sports are comparable in difficulty, and compatible, since they take somewhat the same arm motion and control, but that horseshoes may be a purer test of skill because tournament pitching conditions are everywhere identical. According to Williams, the touring bowlers roll each week on lanes that differ slightly from those of the previous week. In contrast, "All horseshoe courts look different, but they play just the same. I can go to Huntsville, Alabama, or Springfield, Missouri [both big competitive centers of the sport] and I'll pitch just the same as I do at home in California."
A horseshoe can be pitched almost anywhere at any time, and by almost anybody. It doesn't take exceptional strength to throw a 2½-pound weight 40 feet. However, pitching horseshoes in any number is significant exercise, since during the course of an hour, players will pitch 400 pounds or so of steel a distance of about a mile. My own feeling is that an afternoon of horseshoes is more strenuous than one of golf. Among other things, if you haven't been pitching regularly, brushing your teeth may be a bit of a pain the next morning.
It isn't necessary to put in a lot of tedious preliminary study to master the rules, strategy and jargon of the game. It takes only a few minutes of observation to understand what is going on—three points for a ringer, one point for close (six inches), nothing for anything else. Throw a set of shoes from one end, walk over, bend down, pick them up and throw the other way.
Those in a position to judge generally agree that bowling, golf and horseshoes, three of our most popular accuracy games, are about equally difficult to master; that regularly throwing seven or eight ringers out of 10 tries approximates carrying a 200 bowling average or shooting par golf. However, I've always felt that a 70% ringer average is the most extraordinary feat. This observation isn't offered to dispute the common 70-200-par wisdom, but simply because while I've bowled 200 and played par, occasionally a stroke or two under, I'm lousy at horseshoes.
Thus, I obviously have no business trying to give useful tips on how to pitch. But I do have a good idea of what my problem is—a lifelong inability to throw a shoe so that it consistently makes a 1¼ turn before it reaches the stake. It isn't much comfort that a lot of other people can't learn the trick; indeed, nobody did until 75 years ago.
Invariably, when people pick up a shoe for the first time, they grasp it by the butt, point the open, forked end toward the stake, and throw in hope that it will stay in this position until it reaches the target. For about 2,000 years this seemed like the best, in fact the only, way to do it, but like the two-handed set shot, this technique proved inadequate. The difficulty is that one must have almost superhuman accuracy and control to throw, regularly, a dead-flat shoe so that the opening between the forks remains exactly centered on the stake for 40 feet. Furthermore, if a shoe happens to reach the stake in this position, it very likely will rebound off it when the solid butt end strikes the stake.
Players accepted such frustrations as an unavoidable part of the game until the early part of this century. Dr. FM. Robinson of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., for one, began pitching shoes—back in 1909 in St. Petersburg, Fla.—that made a 1¼ turn before reaching the stake. Rather than hitting the mark dead on, a turning shoe will rake past it and if one of the forks catches the stake, the shoe will spin around it and will usually stay on rather than ricochet off.
There was some initial resistance to the new technique on the general grounds that throwing too many ringers was un-American and would weaken the moral fiber of the Republic, but shortly all serious players were learning the 1¼ pitch. The addition of hooks, or caulks, to the standard shoe was also a help, and ringer averages (previously nobody could throw a ringer even half the time) improved dramatically. In 1940 Ted Allen, who still markets a popular shoe named for himself, became the first man to throw over 80% ringers (82.4) while winning a world championship.
The main event in horseshoes, the world championship has from the beginning been a competition mainly between pitchers from the U.S., although during the 1960s and 70s, Elmer Hohl of Wellesley, Ontario made quite a name for himself. Hohl is a six-time world champion and he also holds the record for best ringer average, 88.5 in 1968, in world-championship play.
I hung around with a lot of horseshoe players in my formative years, but none was a quality role model, at least not pitchingwise. We obviously lacked talent, but, on the other hand, we didn't work very hard on our games. We usually played at the edge of a parking lot next to a public golf course owned by my grandfather. We pitched shoes indifferently in between collecting greens fees, caddying, mowing, sprinkling, drinking pop and hitting golf balls. In consequence, I had no experience with horseshoes as high sport—did not realize it could be such—until nearly 40 years later.
Then, one summer's day in 1975, I was driving through central Indiana and happened to read in a newspaper that a horseshoe tournament was going on at the Curt Day courts in Frankfort, and that the local man for whom the courts were named, the defending world champion, was going to be present. I made a detour to Frankfort because it seemed like a golden opportunity to see if there was anything special about a bona fide good pitcher. It was, and there is.
When we met, Day was a medium-sized, graying, bespectacled man in his 50s, politely and well-but seldom spoken. What he is, I found out, is a shrewd, slyly funny, speculative man with a marvelous given and acquired athletic skill. Day, along with Williams, Hohl, Allen, Fernando Isais and Harold Reno, is usually mentioned as one of the best pitchers of the century. But perhaps Day's most notable characteristic is an impressively stubborn determination not to call attention to himself. Of course, keeping one's light under a bushel is a local art form—"Hoosier" has come to refer to any resident of Indiana, but Day excels at the ain't nobody here but us plain folks who never been nowhere, never done nothing shucks. By the time we met, Day had in fact won three world championships and the Indiana State title 17 times.
This latter accomplishment is nothing to be sneezed at since Indiana, along with Ohio and California, has an inordinate number of class pitchers, and winning there is roughly equivalent to being the best stickball player in New York or the leading crab-cracker of Maryland. In one stretch, 1959 to 1972, Day won 14 straight Indiana titles and had a 147-5 match record. In 1969 he threw 547 ringers in 616 tries for an 88.8 average, still the highest score in a major competition.
In Frankfort in '75 Day threw a few shoes—50 of them, 44 of which were ringers. Most everyone was watching the exhibition, but the reaction was Hoosier cool—"Yep, Curt's pitchin' a pretty good shoe today." (The day a sea serpent comes up the Wabash, one of the fellows at the gas station will say, "Heard maybe we had a monster today." There will be a pause and then, "Couldn't have been over 30 feet, but probably big enough to ruin bass fishing." Everybody will nod glumly, and the subject will be dropped.)
Truly astonished and not restricted by local taboos, I said I thought what Day had done was one of the most extraordinary athletic feats I'd ever witnessed. What I wanted to know was how a man could throw so many ringers.
Day said he wouldn't deny that he had felt pretty good, but that the 44 out of 50 didn't mean much; he was just fiddling around, there was no pressure on him. As to his sporting history, he said it was about the same as everybody else's; he'd started pitching on the farm because there wasn't much else to do. "It was something just seemed to come easy for me. I was a pretty good aimer. [Longtime acquaintances say that Day was an absolute shark at throwing a softball, basketball or rock.] I got to winning a little around here and entered a few tournaments; did just good enough in the beginning to make me start practicing some."
"Well, for a few years there, maybe three or four hours a day, but nothing like that now. They have some courts at work [a General Motors plant, where Day was a radio drill operator before retiring in 1981], and I generally pitch there on noon break, a little while after supper at home, still a good bit on weekends at tournaments or exhibitions."
Beyond his titles and records, Day is known among his peers, or near peers, for two things: He is the only top-flight pitcher whose shoe makes a three-quarter rather than the conventional 1¼ turn before reaching the stake, and he puts an unconventional counterclockwise twist on it. This delivery requires a somewhat stiffer wrist and leaves a bit less room for error when it sideswipes the stake.
Technical abilities aside, what people invariably still say about Day is that he was one of the grimmest competitors this sport, or perhaps any other, has ever seen, that in big matches his concentration was almost scary.
Immunity from choking is, of course, a very desirable trait for any athlete but is especially critical in horseshoes, which, after a certain level of skill has been reached, is as much a head as an arm game, or more. As in golf, the stress is mostly of an inner sort and cannot be relieved by quick, extemporaneous reaction to how a shoe or ball bounces. All of this is intensified in horseshoes because of the competitive format, which gives players a chance to affect directly the score of an opponent. If, for example, the first pitcher gets two ringers, worth six points, the second thrower can cancel half or all of this score by throwing one or two ringers. Therefore, high-level matches are often long, tense affairs that aren't so much won as lost by whoever cracks first under the pressure.
Donnie Roberts, the chief administrator of the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association of America, was an outstanding performer, winning the Ohio state championship in 1972. He says that one of his proudest accomplishments was taking a match from Day once. "The thing about Curt was that competition seemed to lift up his game. The last few years, he had a lot of trouble with a bad leg. Pitching was painful for him, and he tended to tire in a long match, but even then, nobody had an easy time with him. There was absolutely no quit to Curt. He never had much to say, but you had a feeling that he was a bulldog fastened onto your leg."
Sooner or later, devotees of most games are seized by the desire to convince the world of the physical, moral and social wonderfulness of their pastime; go to great lengths to make it more popular, prestigious and professional; build larger administrative staffs and facilities; convert mimeographed newsletters into nice four-color magazines; get more frequent and favorable publicity. Get on TV. Many of these true believers seem to be seeking metaphysical rewards. This is a harmless, if curious, phenomenon, probably therapeutic and perhaps even constructive inasmuch as it tends to sop up passions and energies of the sort which, if unsublimated, have sometimes made mischief in the real world.
Rather surprisingly, considering the antiquity of the game, it is only recently that horseshoes has gotten heavily into proselytizing and promotion. The creator of, driving force behind and therefore a font of information about many of the new developments and plans is the aforementioned Roberts, who currently is something of a Pete Rozelle to this sport. Previously Roberts was, in addition to being a good competitive pitcher, a public school superintendent in Pike County in his native southern Ohio. He took the job as the chief administrator of the NHPA in 1976. The organization had been around since 1921 but had always been rather poky. Though the horseshoe people claim there were 25 million folks pitching shoes occasionally, in 1970 only 4,000 of them belonged to the association, which then served principally as a rule-making body and to arrange the annual world championship tournament for a handful of top competitors.
The world championship was traditionally held each summer in some small town where enough courts could be found for the event. Because of the round-robin match format, it lasted for almost two weeks, and participants usually scheduled their vacations to coincide with the tournament, taking their families and making it a social as well as sporting occasion. However, in the past only the top 150 or so pitchers attended, because the qualifying rounds eliminated all but 36 contestants and there was not much incentive for marginal competitors to make arrangements to spend two weeks in a small town where, after the first day, they would have little to do but spectate.
Under Roberts's regime, the rules were altered, and now almost everybody who wants to gets to take part at some level of competition. In Huntsville, Ala. this year, below the championship class there were eight others, based on average, going down to Class I for pitchers who throw 5% to 10% ringers. There are sex and age flights, men's 70-and-over and girls' 17-and-under. (To speed up play and accommodate all these pitchers, the official game was reduced from 50 to 40 points.)
Because they created the possibility of somebody going home and saying he was the world Class E horseshoe pitching champion, these changes stirred up a lot of new interest in the tournament. Foreseeing this increased participation, Roberts decided that from a commercial standpoint, what he had in the championship was a lucrative, medium-sized convention which communities should be eager to have and put themselves out a bit to get. In 1980 he convinced Huntsville of this. As an inducement, the city built 24 new, lighted for nighttime play, nicely landscaped courts in a municipal park where there was room for 2,500 spectators: The facility was the site of the world championship in 1980, '82 and '84.
The Huntsville success attracted the attention of large municipal competitors, and Roberts has been negotiating with Springfield, Mo. In return for being awarded the world tournament for the next five years, Springfield will build a $2.5 million complex that will include 32 indoor, air-conditioned and lighted courts; seats for 5,000 spectators; space for a permanent headquarters for the association (now located in Roberts's Circleville, Ohio home) and a Horseshoe Hall of Fame.
Since Roberts took office, the association has gained 9,000 new members, and he feels this is just the beginning. He has focused recruiting efforts on helping local groups start official, NHPA-affiliated clubs. If, as is hoped, you get people pitching regularly in leagues, keeping their averages, going to area tournaments, they will enjoy themselves, become boosters of the sport, want to read about it in the papers and see it on TV. Also, they will expand the market for the horseshoe T shirts, caps, belt buckles, carrying cases, scoring pads and self-help books that are now sold through NHPA headquarters, a retail business aimed more at promotion than profit.
Strictly speaking, competitive horseshoe pitching has always been a professional sport, since at big tournaments, winners and leaders get cash prizes; Jim Knisley collected $2,500 for winning the recent world championship. But Roberts wants to establish larger purses for more tournaments. Making tournaments more lucrative should obviously interest younger, serious competitors like Walter Ray Williams Jr., who now spends most of his time on the bowling tour. Williams says he likes horseshoes more than he does bowling and would pitch oftener if it were more worth his while.
Roberts thinks that bigger purses will not only benefit outstanding performers like Williams and thus perhaps create some horseshoe stars, but also will attract greater attention from the general public and from TV producers. Roberts is hoping for regular tube time and is encouraged by the success in Britain of televised snooker, a game that he feels is no more intrinsically photogenic than horseshoes. In any case he's confident that competitors at the world tournament next year will be pitching for a total purse of at least $40,000. In comparison with other sporting purses, this is still modest, but enough to improve significantly the financial and athletic image of horseshoes and get it out of the biding class.
Still, paradoxically, I think the same elements in horseshoe pitching that have long made it so popular will work against the chance that it will become a big sports biz or even a sudden fad or Pitching for Dollars TV show. A key characteristic in most of our games—all of the preeminently promotable ones—is the opportunity they give people to pretend to be heroes or pretend they are watching heroes. Horseshoes, on the other hand, is, as noted, very homely, being suitable for almost everyone everywhere. Pitchers acting, thinking, dressing like, being exhibited and advertised as heroes...that is patently ridiculous. The game started out as one for the men behind the men on horseback, and that is what it remains. Its roots are in the barnyard, not on the battlefield. The rhythms are of work, not war. The appeal is to the craftsman, not the combatant in us. The satisfaction of it comes not from coping with crisis and confrontation but from patiently doing a single thing skillfully and frequently. All of which makes it a poor candidate for, so to speak, prime time.
There is a related matter. Horseshoe pitching put down its roots in this country in a period when only a handful of gentry had the time, means and enough ennui to play at gladiatorial games. For ordinary people everyday life was exhausting and exciting, often excessively so. When they could recreate, they wanted to relax, come down rather than go up, and horseshoes was ideal for the purpose. Now we have a lot more people, including nearly all the taste-makers, who have the gentry's leisure and resources, and their theory about athletics has come to be the ordinary one—that lack of stimulation is a kind of disease, common and dangerous, which, if it cannot be prevented, must be treated like obesity, vitamin deficiency or neurosis. Engaging regularly in some vigorous sport, as either a participant or observer, is thought to be an excellent specific for this affliction.
It's difficult, if not impossible, to push horseshoes as such a remedy. In a time when we use sports as amphetamines, it has the therapeutic effect of a glass of warm milk. Even so, there are the 30 million horseshoe pitchers among us, and their existence probably indicates that, though it sounds too wimpy and unfashionable to admit it now, there is still a large demand for warm-milk games, ones that soothe rather than stimulate. Horseshoes is a very good thing to do when you have no need or desire to pretend to be heroic. There is even something about pitching that amounts to cocking a snook at heroic pretense.
For a while after we first met, Curt Day was still able to play with his gimpy hip, and he competed in the 1976 world championship. After the regulation 35 games of round-robin play, Day had a 33—2 record and was tied for the lead with Carl Steinfeldt of Rochester, N.Y., who for 20 years had been a top pitcher but had never won the world tournament. Some who watched the three-game playoff, which started at 10:30 p.m., still think it was one of the best competitive matches ever pitched. Day won the first game easily. The second was about as close as horseshoes can be, with Steinfeldt winning 53-46. Then, after midnight, Steinfeldt took the rubber match by 21 points. I was told that by the second game, Day was limping and his bad leg was obviously giving him a lot of pain, but years later, when I asked him directly, he said only, "Carl just flat outpitched me. He threw 20 straight ringers in that last game and he certainly deserved to win."
Last summer, in Indiana again, I stopped by to see Day in Frankfort, where he was living alone. We talked about the sport in general, and then got to my perennial problem, trying to throw the 1¼ turn. Day said if I wanted, we could go out and pitch a few shoes in the court he still keeps in his side yard. I said I'd like to, if he felt up to it. He had already had two hip operations, and later would have a third, and he hadn't touched a shoe in several months, but he said fine. Outside he watched me pitch, erratically as usual, went tsk-tsk a few times and gave me several good pointers, from which I have never benefited. Then for demonstration purposes he pitched 12 shoes, nine of which were ringers. I said I'd been suckered again. Day laughed and said he still had the arm motion, probably would keep it until the day he died.
I asked him if he ever thought of competing again, maybe at a lesser level. He said he didn't think his leg would hold up for even a weekend tournament. "I don't suppose it makes much sense, but I used to play pretty strong, and I don't think I'd like to go out pitching weak."
I could appreciate that, even though I personally had never known what it was like to sometimes do something better than anybody else in the world. I said even remembering something like that must be a pretty good feeling.
Day admitted that pitching shoes had been one of the principal pleasures of his life. "It was a good way for me to get away."
"You mean the tournaments?"
"Well, they were interesting, and I'd be a liar if I didn't say I liked winning more than losing, but I was thinking about just going out, down at the plant or after supper, pitching for an hour or so. It seemed to take your mind away from wherever you were, who you were, let you get away."
There is a kind of innocent, deadpan response that is, in fact, a Hoosier snicker. Day said, "I wouldn't know about something like that, but horseshoes has been a good pastime for me."