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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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When we met, Day was a medium-sized, graying, bespectacled man in his 50s, politely and well-but seldom spoken. What he is, I found out, is a shrewd, slyly funny, speculative man with a marvelous given and acquired athletic skill. Day, along with Williams, Hohl, Allen, Fernando Isais and Harold Reno, is usually mentioned as one of the best pitchers of the century. But perhaps Day's most notable characteristic is an impressively stubborn determination not to call attention to himself. Of course, keeping one's light under a bushel is a local art form—"Hoosier" has come to refer to any resident of Indiana, but Day excels at the ain't nobody here but us plain folks who never been nowhere, never done nothing shucks. By the time we met, Day had in fact won three world championships and the Indiana State title 17 times.

This latter accomplishment is nothing to be sneezed at since Indiana, along with Ohio and California, has an inordinate number of class pitchers, and winning there is roughly equivalent to being the best stickball player in New York or the leading crab-cracker of Maryland. In one stretch, 1959 to 1972, Day won 14 straight Indiana titles and had a 147-5 match record. In 1969 he threw 547 ringers in 616 tries for an 88.8 average, still the highest score in a major competition.

In Frankfort in '75 Day threw a few shoes—50 of them, 44 of which were ringers. Most everyone was watching the exhibition, but the reaction was Hoosier cool—"Yep, Curt's pitchin' a pretty good shoe today." (The day a sea serpent comes up the Wabash, one of the fellows at the gas station will say, "Heard maybe we had a monster today." There will be a pause and then, "Couldn't have been over 30 feet, but probably big enough to ruin bass fishing." Everybody will nod glumly, and the subject will be dropped.)

Truly astonished and not restricted by local taboos, I said I thought what Day had done was one of the most extraordinary athletic feats I'd ever witnessed. What I wanted to know was how a man could throw so many ringers.

Day said he wouldn't deny that he had felt pretty good, but that the 44 out of 50 didn't mean much; he was just fiddling around, there was no pressure on him. As to his sporting history, he said it was about the same as everybody else's; he'd started pitching on the farm because there wasn't much else to do. "It was something just seemed to come easy for me. I was a pretty good aimer. [Longtime acquaintances say that Day was an absolute shark at throwing a softball, basketball or rock.] I got to winning a little around here and entered a few tournaments; did just good enough in the beginning to make me start practicing some."

How much?

"Well, for a few years there, maybe three or four hours a day, but nothing like that now. They have some courts at work [a General Motors plant, where Day was a radio drill operator before retiring in 1981], and I generally pitch there on noon break, a little while after supper at home, still a good bit on weekends at tournaments or exhibitions."

Beyond his titles and records, Day is known among his peers, or near peers, for two things: He is the only top-flight pitcher whose shoe makes a three-quarter rather than the conventional 1¼ turn before reaching the stake, and he puts an unconventional counterclockwise twist on it. This delivery requires a somewhat stiffer wrist and leaves a bit less room for error when it sideswipes the stake.

Technical abilities aside, what people invariably still say about Day is that he was one of the grimmest competitors this sport, or perhaps any other, has ever seen, that in big matches his concentration was almost scary.

Immunity from choking is, of course, a very desirable trait for any athlete but is especially critical in horseshoes, which, after a certain level of skill has been reached, is as much a head as an arm game, or more. As in golf, the stress is mostly of an inner sort and cannot be relieved by quick, extemporaneous reaction to how a shoe or ball bounces. All of this is intensified in horseshoes because of the competitive format, which gives players a chance to affect directly the score of an opponent. If, for example, the first pitcher gets two ringers, worth six points, the second thrower can cancel half or all of this score by throwing one or two ringers. Therefore, high-level matches are often long, tense affairs that aren't so much won as lost by whoever cracks first under the pressure.

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