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PITCHIN' SHOES
Bil Gilbert
September 24, 1984
There are new concrete courts for tournament play in Huntsville, Ala., and soon there'll be an air-conditioned, indoor facility in Springfield, Mo., but by and large the game of horseshoes remains what it was. The stakes are out there behind the barn or alongside the depot—you remember.
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September 24, 1984

Pitchin' Shoes

There are new concrete courts for tournament play in Huntsville, Ala., and soon there'll be an air-conditioned, indoor facility in Springfield, Mo., but by and large the game of horseshoes remains what it was. The stakes are out there behind the barn or alongside the depot—you remember.

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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.

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