SI Vault
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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Donnie Roberts, the chief administrator of the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association of America, was an outstanding performer, winning the Ohio state championship in 1972. He says that one of his proudest accomplishments was taking a match from Day once. "The thing about Curt was that competition seemed to lift up his game. The last few years, he had a lot of trouble with a bad leg. Pitching was painful for him, and he tended to tire in a long match, but even then, nobody had an easy time with him. There was absolutely no quit to Curt. He never had much to say, but you had a feeling that he was a bulldog fastened onto your leg."

Sooner or later, devotees of most games are seized by the desire to convince the world of the physical, moral and social wonderfulness of their pastime; go to great lengths to make it more popular, prestigious and professional; build larger administrative staffs and facilities; convert mimeographed newsletters into nice four-color magazines; get more frequent and favorable publicity. Get on TV. Many of these true believers seem to be seeking metaphysical rewards. This is a harmless, if curious, phenomenon, probably therapeutic and perhaps even constructive inasmuch as it tends to sop up passions and energies of the sort which, if unsublimated, have sometimes made mischief in the real world.

Rather surprisingly, considering the antiquity of the game, it is only recently that horseshoes has gotten heavily into proselytizing and promotion. The creator of, driving force behind and therefore a font of information about many of the new developments and plans is the aforementioned Roberts, who currently is something of a Pete Rozelle to this sport. Previously Roberts was, in addition to being a good competitive pitcher, a public school superintendent in Pike County in his native southern Ohio. He took the job as the chief administrator of the NHPA in 1976. The organization had been around since 1921 but had always been rather poky. Though the horseshoe people claim there were 25 million folks pitching shoes occasionally, in 1970 only 4,000 of them belonged to the association, which then served principally as a rule-making body and to arrange the annual world championship tournament for a handful of top competitors.

The world championship was traditionally held each summer in some small town where enough courts could be found for the event. Because of the round-robin match format, it lasted for almost two weeks, and participants usually scheduled their vacations to coincide with the tournament, taking their families and making it a social as well as sporting occasion. However, in the past only the top 150 or so pitchers attended, because the qualifying rounds eliminated all but 36 contestants and there was not much incentive for marginal competitors to make arrangements to spend two weeks in a small town where, after the first day, they would have little to do but spectate.

Under Roberts's regime, the rules were altered, and now almost everybody who wants to gets to take part at some level of competition. In Huntsville, Ala. this year, below the championship class there were eight others, based on average, going down to Class I for pitchers who throw 5% to 10% ringers. There are sex and age flights, men's 70-and-over and girls' 17-and-under. (To speed up play and accommodate all these pitchers, the official game was reduced from 50 to 40 points.)

Because they created the possibility of somebody going home and saying he was the world Class E horseshoe pitching champion, these changes stirred up a lot of new interest in the tournament. Foreseeing this increased participation, Roberts decided that from a commercial standpoint, what he had in the championship was a lucrative, medium-sized convention which communities should be eager to have and put themselves out a bit to get. In 1980 he convinced Huntsville of this. As an inducement, the city built 24 new, lighted for nighttime play, nicely landscaped courts in a municipal park where there was room for 2,500 spectators: The facility was the site of the world championship in 1980, '82 and '84.

The Huntsville success attracted the attention of large municipal competitors, and Roberts has been negotiating with Springfield, Mo. In return for being awarded the world tournament for the next five years, Springfield will build a $2.5 million complex that will include 32 indoor, air-conditioned and lighted courts; seats for 5,000 spectators; space for a permanent headquarters for the association (now located in Roberts's Circleville, Ohio home) and a Horseshoe Hall of Fame.

Since Roberts took office, the association has gained 9,000 new members, and he feels this is just the beginning. He has focused recruiting efforts on helping local groups start official, NHPA-affiliated clubs. If, as is hoped, you get people pitching regularly in leagues, keeping their averages, going to area tournaments, they will enjoy themselves, become boosters of the sport, want to read about it in the papers and see it on TV. Also, they will expand the market for the horseshoe T shirts, caps, belt buckles, carrying cases, scoring pads and self-help books that are now sold through NHPA headquarters, a retail business aimed more at promotion than profit.

Strictly speaking, competitive horseshoe pitching has always been a professional sport, since at big tournaments, winners and leaders get cash prizes; Jim Knisley collected $2,500 for winning the recent world championship. But Roberts wants to establish larger purses for more tournaments. Making tournaments more lucrative should obviously interest younger, serious competitors like Walter Ray Williams Jr., who now spends most of his time on the bowling tour. Williams says he likes horseshoes more than he does bowling and would pitch oftener if it were more worth his while.

Roberts thinks that bigger purses will not only benefit outstanding performers like Williams and thus perhaps create some horseshoe stars, but also will attract greater attention from the general public and from TV producers. Roberts is hoping for regular tube time and is encouraged by the success in Britain of televised snooker, a game that he feels is no more intrinsically photogenic than horseshoes. In any case he's confident that competitors at the world tournament next year will be pitching for a total purse of at least $40,000. In comparison with other sporting purses, this is still modest, but enough to improve significantly the financial and athletic image of horseshoes and get it out of the biding class.

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