My last illusion was brutally ripped away on an afternoon in the spring of 1970.
The sun was shining warmly, but not excessively so. To one side of our home court the daffodils were in riotous bloom and in the surrounding tulip trees robins and thrushes and even a pair of cardinals were busy at their nesting. It was, in short, perfect croquet weather.
Our match that day was against our toughest rival, the Mamaroneck Marauders. It was midway through the season. The Marauders and the Titans were both undefeated, and tension was running high. But it was not so high that a pro like Dudley Biesenstock would do what he did by accident.
Dudley had a free shot on the Marauders' star rookie, Gerald Cranston. He should have sent Cranston's ball below and slightly beyond the No. 7 wicket. And as far as the crowd, the referees and the other players could tell, that is precisely what he meant to do. From where I was standing, though, I could see him twist his mallet just before it connected. There was a resonant thock, and 15.75 ounces of solid maple went speeding across the turf, terminating its flight at the base of Cranston's shin.
I can still hear the sound of shattering bone. I can hear young Cranston's pitiful howls. And worse, I can hear the delighted whoops of the large and bloodthirsty crowd. It was more than a shin that was shattered on that afternoon; it was my faith in professional croquet. Incidents had undermined it previously, but I dearly love the game and I had tried to believe that it wasn't so corrupt as it appeared—or if it were, that the owners and the coaches would seize on the corruption, like a dandelion on the court, and yank it out by the roots. I see now I was deluding myself. As with the sandwiches passed around at half-time, one keeps on hoping there'll be something new inside, but every time one bites, it's the same old cucumber.
There are many degrading aspects to the sport, and discrimination is among the most conspicuous. It is rife throughout the league, unchecked—if not encouraged—by the coaches.
I remember back in my rookie year there was a lad named Watson. He was a rookie, too, a hard-working, cheerful sort with a fine, clean stroke. Watson came from a perfectly decent family in Scarsdale, N.Y. But—and a big but it was—he had gone to a public high school. Bosie James, our defensive second mallet, used to ride him unmercifully. Bosie is a graduate of Groton, as am I. He seemed to take a liking to me and, I regret to say, I often joined him in poking fun at those whose education had been paid for by the state.
There is, of course, no excuse for my behavior. I was blinded by the glamour of professional croquet. There is nothing I wouldn't have done to get in with the older players, almost all of whom were preppies. Once I had my contract, I truly tried to be kind to any high school boys who came along. But most of them had their spirits broken by the likes of Bosie James. I saw' not only Watson's but many another promising career cut short by unthinking prejudice and unrelenting abuse.
For the Titans as a whole, I might add, abuse of a different kind was our daily lot. Our head coach, Morton Wilcox, had a vile, sadistic tongue and his assistants were no more gently spoken. Croquet, as I came to realize, has played a disgraceful part in coarsening the national sensibility. To quote from Morton verbatim would serve only to make the callus thicker. Suffice it to say that he did not scruple to question either our parentage or the virtue of our mothers. Nor was that his limit. I recall once, in a practice match, I muffed an easy approach shot. Completely losing control of himself, Morton began to scream. He was incoherent at first. But all too soon I understood that his low, derisive remarks were aimed at my masculinity, and I wept with humiliation.
This brings me to the subject of sex in general. More, perhaps, than any other outdoor sport, croquet makes use of equipment that lends itself to sexual innuendo. The balls and the mallets, the wickets and the gaily colored end-posts, all are a rich and constant source of locker room hilarity. The viewing of our game films was a serious event. To lighten the atmosphere, however, one of the coaches could always be counted on to compare a player's missing a wicket with his probable romantic deficiencies. As in the locker room, thus in life. Many of my teammates, it seemed to me, involved as they were with the only-too-familiar types of young ladies who all but throw themselves upon even the least celebrated heroes of the pitch, were incapable of real love.