In the southeastern U.S. last week millions of people watched or talked about the first spring baseball exhibitions, but elsewhere in Dixie some 600 of their fellow citizens were preoccupied with a far more unusual sporting spectacle. They were eager witnesses to the' 'World Series of Long Heel Competition," the top event of its kind in cockfighting.
The World Series took place in a converted green barn on a private estate outside a southern town. Delicacy and the law forbid closer identification of the locale. Ordinarily, the local fathers are very tolerant, as they are in many rural areas where death in the barnyard is a common occurrence. Recently, however, a nearby pit was raided for running on the Sabbath, and the promoter of the World Series, a courtly cocker known as Eddie Fulldrop, feared naming the town would prompt a raid on him.
Cockfighting is legal in only three states—Florida, Kansas and New Mexico—but it goes on in almost all. Devotees number more than 100,000, and they range from the poorest Alabama farmhand to the Wall Street broker who belongs to the superexclusive, supersecret Claymore Club, restricted to only nine members. Nowhere are cocks as good as they are in this country. Each year professional breeders export 12,000 birds to the West Indies, Latin America and the Philippines, and business is brisk enough to support four monthly magazines, Grit and Steel, The Gamecock, The Feathered Warrior and Game Fowl News. Advertisements, reports of fights and memoirs of gallant days gone past cram the pages. Cockers are a sentimental lot who put much by tradition. The cover of the December issue of Game Fowl News bore a photograph of a cr�che with the admonition, "Keep Christ in Christmas."
Cockers are also proudly patriotic. "The most peaceful nations on earth are devoted to cockfighting," Mr. Fulldrop wrote a few weeks before the Series, "and those that aren't are the worst warmongers. Russia wouldn't know a fighting cock from a Leghorn, and there is no cockfighting in Germany, and those have been the worst troublemakers on earth. In England at one time cockfighting pushed horse racing back to second place. Since 1849 cockfighting there has been killed almost entirely. And what happened to England? It's been going downhill ever since! Mexico and all of Latin America are cockers, and with few exceptions have been quite peaceable. France and Belgium were devoted to the game in a small way and have never been bad nations. India too is something of a cockfighting nation. Italy is another nation that doesn't fight cocks, although they did back in Roman days and have been slipping ever since. Spain is another cockfighting nation and rather peaceable except for the revolutionaries who pop up."
Raising cocks for an event like the Series requires money and land. A cocker can invest thousands crossing strains and end up with "dunghills," the term cockers use to describe quitters or ordinary poultry. At an early age a cock's comb and wattles are "dubbed" (cut), so an opposing bird can't grasp them with his beak. Until a bird is a year old he is known as a stag, and he may be fought even then. (The Claymore Club's annual tournament in the late spring, which is by invitation only, is for stags.)
The cockfighting season runs from late November to early June. The birds molt in the summer and fall. When not fighting, a cock is put on a "walk," which generally means a farm with free range, with some hens. There is only one cock to a walk since two would fight until one was killed. Some owners who fought in the Series had cocks scattered on farms running for hundreds of miles over two or three states.
Last month the owners gathered their cocks for training. They reduced the birds to fighting weight and toughened them with conditioning exercises. They had the cocks spar with traditional small muffs on their spurs (from this came the idea for boxing gloves). In the Series the cocks wear "gaffs," steel spurs rounded on the edges and pointed at the ends. In the East gaffs are an inch and a quarter long. In the South they go up to two and three-quarter inches. Hence the "long heel" appellation.
The Series drew 17 owners, who paid a fee of $500 apiece. Each was to fight 12 cocks, weighing between four pounds eight ounces and six pounds two. Every bird fought had to weigh within two ounces of his opponent, and the fights stretched over a three-day period, starting with the lightweight cocks and ending with the heavyweights. Most of the cocks had fought before; a fine cock is good for three, maybe four fights.
At 11 o'clock Thursday morning the grounds around the barn were aswarm with people. Several hundred cars with license plates from 30 states were parked on the grass and down a dirt road. Some fans had come from as far away as Guatemala, Mexico, Canada and Hawaii.
To get in, one passed through the door of a shed built onto the barn. Immediately inside was Mr. Full-drop's daughter, an attractive girl, selling tickets for $5 each. Mrs. Full-drop, a jolly grandmotherly woman, was near by, greeting old friends with a smile. On the right was a refreshment stand where local ladies served sandwiches, soft drinks, milk and layer cake. In the center were a dozen tables for diners, and on the left a drag pit where cocks that took too much time in the main arena would finish their matches.