A frog that is not jumping in Calaveras County this weekend is unworthy of the species. Mark Twain's durable legend, sire to 35 other annual frog jumps across the country, lives on each May in the onetime gold-rush community of Angels Camp, Calif. (pop. 1,147), where the event swells the local habitation to more than 60,000—including a couple of thousand frogs.
With the startling exception of last year, these occasions have been sunny times of fellowship and sport. For reasons nobody fully understands, the 1971 jump was a mess. There was the usual good-natured horseplay, some drinking and moments of competitive passion when the competition started. But then the celebration turned nasty. Before it was over 141 persons had been hospitalized, one youth had died and more than 60 people had been arrested.
Calaveras County and Angels Camp trust this will never happen again. The community takes pride in its 40 previous frog jumps (not counting the one Mark Twain wrote about, which was held in 1863). during which the most serious mishap was a squashed competitor or two. These past events have attracted amphibians from 13 nations and 34 states. Governors and movie stars have entered. Names of winners have been flashed by wire services to capitals throughout the world. This hardly seems like an American institution to sully with disorderly conduct.
What accounts for the international enthusiasm is something other than the prize money, which in the case of the winner amounts to only $300. Not even the nominal entry fee of $2 per frog would encourage more than a handful of mercenaries to this remote site. It must then be the knowledge that this is the Big Apple, the Indy 500, the Super Bow! of herpetology.
A frog may be entered at Angels Camp from anywhere in the United States, but quarantine regulations now make foreign starters somewhat impractical. Jump authorities send off the following instructions to would-be entrants: "The frog should be packed in a watertight container with air holes in the lid and a little wet moss or grass plus an inch of water in the bottom. He will not need food during the trip, and we will take care of him after he arrives. But the arrival should be timed so that it is not more than a few days before the jump." If that is too much trouble, a person traveling to Angels Camp may enter and manage one of the "pool" frogs provided at $2 each by the local Boosters Club.
If all this makes frog jumping sound like a proletarian pursuit, it should be pointed out that the masters of the sport go to considerable lengths to breed winners. Entire strings of jumping frogs are kept by these amateur herpetologists, who try everything from beer injections to Pavlovian stimuli.
The actual competition is simple enough. A Frog is placed in the center of a large circle, then encouraged—but not prodded—to leap. He gets three jumps, and his distance from the starting point alter the third leap is what counts. Frogs have been known to execute equilateral triangles, ending up at the same spot the) began, for a net jump of zero. The present record is a prodigious 19'3?", set in 1966 by a female owned by the Hall-Proctor Stables, the nearest thing Angels Camp has to a Calumet I arm. Bill Proctor, an airlines pilot, and his brother-in-law Leonard Mall, a real-estate salesman, both of Stockton. Calif., are regarded as the most assiduous and effective scouts in frogdom. Their entries have won four of the last six contests.
According to Mark Twain, frog jumping got started in Calaveras County when the gold miners grew tired of their normal pursuits—poker and brawling—and rounded up a few frogs on which to wager. In Twain's legend, a sharpie came through town, challenged the champion frog and, when the owner was not looking, weighted it with buckshot.
The community organized its first official jumping contest in 1928, an event that drew a crowd of almost 5,000, but only 51 frogs The winners mark that year was a mere 3'6". Since then the local Boosters Club and other municipal promoters have hyped the event into the spectacle it is today. Promotional gimmicks abound. The Boosters once invited a cousin of Twain's to come west from Hannibal, Mo. to throw out the first frog (1929), and in the same year the) formed a vigilance committee lo see that Al Capone stayed away. In 1930 a frog named Budweiser won the contest, prompting August A. Busch Jr. to telegraph an offer to purchase the champ. When the owner asked $250, a long silence ensued at the St. Louis end of the wire.
Gary Cooper, filming High Soon nearby, tried to get in on the action, but he was disqualified when he showed up with a toad. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus sent an entry one year that measured 29 inches from nose to toes; it didn't even place. In 1966 Ronald Reagan entered a frog that covered all of 2'10" in its allotted leaps.