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Grassroots Sports

Looking Back with Mathews, originally printed July 18, 1977

 

Pleasant sounds are satisfying to the soul. The gong of the old town clock, or late afternoon music of chimes ringing out from the church belfry, or the old locomotive chugging up a long grade into town, are all sounds that touch special little nerve-endings in most of us. Or it might be the sound of a lonely bobwhite calling to its mate across the hill, or an echo of a simple yodel bouncing back and forth across a steep green valley. Strange how sounds can awaken long-dormant memories and bring such peace to the mind.

Recently my ears were treated to a sound that I had almost forgotten existed, and that was the pleasing ring of horseshoes striking a steel pole in an American game that has never reached the stature it deserves as a sport. Memories of the U-shaped missiles finding their way through a field of dust and powdery dirt, in search of the pole that was the goal, drew me from my comfortable chair, and out of the house. I was hoping that I would find my four colorful shoes that I had long ago neglected. Surely enough, there on the cold cellar wall, rusted and thatched in a maze of cobwebs, hung my regulation pitching shoes.

In a little while, with a bit of dusting, the orange A’s and the green B’s were shining and ready for action. Soon I found myself attempting to find the range between the two poles, and after a few tries I found that I could still throw the heavy pieces the required forty feet. It didn’t take long though to learn that in the years since I last tried the sport the shoes have become heavier, and the distance to the ground seems farther. The little workout told me that I had better start spending more time pitching horseshoes, and less time eating.

All this brings me to the question—what has happened to the good old neighborhood pastime of pitching horseshoes? It used to be that on every street, and every farm the after-dinner clang of horseshoes crashing into the poles went into the night. People of all ages played, and sometimes the competition became so keen that referees were required to decide the close ones.

Just as in most sports the good old barnyard or cowpasture game always proved most satisfying. Back on the farm if we were lucky we had big wide shoes that were hand-me-downs from the horses’ hoofs. They were usually different weights, and the good pitcher had to adjust his pitch to suit the weight of the various shoes. Those not quite so affluent had to settle for narrow little mule shoes. The cleats on mule shoes are so close together that there is barely room for them to slide around the pole, but I’ve seen people get mighty good at throwing them. It was always easy to spot a horseshoe pitcher who learned on mule shoes, because every time he threw a ringer he would bray.

After all is said, the barnyard game is the best, because it’s a game that everyone can play. Shoes don’t have to be within six inches of the pole; a ringer counts five points and a leaner three. If the nearest shoe is within a country mile of the pole it counts as a point. The winning team remains standing, and takes on all comers. A pair of players has been known to stand all day long, getting better with each game.

I never was what I would rank as a “good pitcher” but there was a time when I thought I was. I was having a fairly easy time with some of the mediocre players in the area when I heard about a fellow by the name of Howard Cregger. I couldn’t rest until I got the opportunity to pitch against Howard. It was sort of like the second Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fight. He almost got me before I got my shoes picked up. I don’t remember if I got even a point.

I put horseshoes, whether the sophisticated type, or the good old country type, to be right up there with the most exciting of sporting events. In basketball the players are getting taller than the basket, and in baseball the ball is getting more lively. Boxing matches are turning to hugfests; but in my game if a person is strong enough to lift a horseshoe he becomes a competitor. If he is ambitious enough to drive two poles in to the ground forty feet apart, he has his own coliseum; and with a little practice he can soon know the thrill of seeing his shoes encircle the poles, or his ears can know the beautiful thumping sound of a perfect ringer landing in the clay. That’s what I call fun.

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