I was a boy in the 1930s, growing up in Kalamazoo and its rural environs, in southern Michigan, which is another way of saying that I have known about pitching horseshoes, been doing so for better than 50 years. Furthermore, I would guess that between birth and high school graduation I didn't know anyone who hadn't pitched some shoes. In time, I left the midlands for coastal regions, where it's hard to be sure about what acquaintances, much less strangers, know or do. I hacked around in those parts for a long time, going years on end without having anything to do with, or thinking about, horseshoes. Then, five years ago, I returned to the interior and, in a manner of speaking, to the 1930s.
Now we live on a cattle ranch, 6,000 feet up on a mountain in southern Arizona. Along a 20-mile section of narrow, serpentine road, in which some of the pieces of gravel are the size of muskmelons, there are eight permanent residences. To the east, where the pavement ends and the road begins to climb the mountain, there are three federal houses occupied by U.S. Park Service employees—and their families—who take care of a very small national memorial. Then there is the State of Texas Mine, which was patented in the administration of William McKinley and has since been owned by the same family. Beyond, over a 7,000-foot pass, there is first our ranch and then three more. The parks people are in a compound, but everybody else is six or seven miles apart. On the west side of the ridge, mail comes three times a week, radio and TV reception is minimal or, as at our place, nonexistent. Everyone, but only for the past two years, has a telephone. From our place, it is a hard two-hour round trip to the nearest town.
All of this is another way of saying that I am again pitching horseshoes. It would be hard and dumb not to because everybody else in the area—parks people, miners and cowboys—is a pitcher. My court is between the yard fence and the corral, under a big white oak, which is so located and has so spread as to provide evidence that the good Lord knows and cares about this game.
The art of and reasons for pitching horseshoes in Cochise County, Ariz. are about the same as in Kalamazoo County in 1934, but it seems to be giving me more to think about now. No doubt this is due partly to age and nostalgia, but there are at least two other factors involved. The first can perhaps be explained this way. I have had the experience—and so, I am told, have many others—of driving along a familiar road, one that I have used frequently for years, and suddenly seeing something—a barn with a circular window, an old apple tree, its trunk growing horizontal to the ground, a hill that looks like the head of an owl—that has always been there, but which I cannot recall ever having truly seen before. You wonder, 'My God, why have I missed it?' This is how I have been thinking about horseshoes—that there are a lot of things about this game I have never really seen, though they are as plain as a nose on a face.
Secondly, having got back to pitching, I have become more curious and made some inquiries about the sport in general. It turns out that there are others pondering the same subject, not so much thinking, as I have been, about what a good old game this has been and is, but about what a good game they might make of it. I am not entirely in sympathy with some of the new ideas, but they're interesting. In any case, this report involves some appreciative notes on, and a bit of current information about, pitching shoes.
There are three honest-to-God, might-as-well, where's-it-at American games which, if not technically endemic, have flourished in our space and culture as they have no place else. They are, of course, rodeo, baseball and pitching horseshoes. The last is the most exotic in origin, dating from the invention of the horseshoe more than 2,000 years ago. It has been the most common, in the class sense and also in terms of distribution and accessibility. It is a game of dirt and iron, suited to our hot, humid, continental summers, rooted in vacant lots adjacent to field or factory, and played in side yards where grass will never grow anyway because of the maple roots, behind the store and station, alongside corral, groundhog sawmill and tree-shaded garage. It's the Sunday-afternoon, family-reunion, company-picnic game, for when you need relief from standing around doing nothing. It is structured to be a social game, allowing for talk and stories, for listening to the Tigers and Sox on the radio, for keeping an eye on the kids. A solitary game, for when you want to be alone and sink into yourself. Also a grimly competitive game, in which the concentration makes your jaw ache. You can pitch badly and not be humiliated, or very well and never be entirely satisfied. It can be fun for an hour, or a passion for life.
From time immemorial there has been a notable tendency to make our games more complicated, so that those who master them can lord it over the hoi polloi who have not, and more expensive, for the obvious commercial reasons. In these respects, horseshoe pitching is a kind of fern or cockroach among our sports, i.e., something so simple that it has survived for a very long time, more or less impervious to change by anything or anybody.
During the history of the game as we know it, there has been only one significant technological innovation. About 1920, sporting-goods manufacturers began making, and pitchers using, a standard-size—and stylized—shoe. The maximum regulation dimensions are two pounds, 10 ounces, a length of 7⅝ inches and a width between the open forks of 3½ inches. With the source of found horseshoes disappearing, this development was accepted, except perhaps by a few nostalgic masochists, as a major and long overdue improvement. It equalized competition and also made the game a lot less painful; the shoes used by horses come in assorted shapes and with holes and metal burrs that can do to a thumb and finger about what a rasp does. Pitching a few sets with real horseshoes gives a better understanding of why our pioneer forebears are remembered as grim, horny-handed folk and suggests one reason for the prevalence of tetanus among them.
Most horseshoes have been and still are pitched at pieces of pipe driven into unimproved dirt. What lies between the stakes—grass, concrete, mud, asphalt, rock or broken glass—may be an esthetic consideration but is of no functional importance. It is true that there is a regulation court, 50 feet in length. On it, stakes are set 40 feet apart, each in the center of a 3 X 4-foot target area in which the shoes must land if they are to score. Alongside are two smoothed pitching areas, with a foul line three feet in front of the stake.
The experiences and observations of Walter Ray Williams Jr. are instructive in regard to this uniformity of horseshoe facilities. Williams, at 24, is a prodigy when it comes to throwing things at marks. When he was 18 he won—for the first of three times—the world horseshoe pitching championship, and for the past two years he has been a ranking, though not leading, money-winner on the professional bowling tour. He grew up in Northern California and Oregon, where horseshoe pitching was popular in his large family (six siblings), partly because it was so cheap. Early on, he showed precocious talent as a bowler, an activity he later financed with money he won pitching shoes. Williams says he thinks the two sports are comparable in difficulty, and compatible, since they take somewhat the same arm motion and control, but that horseshoes may be a purer test of skill because tournament pitching conditions are everywhere identical. According to Williams, the touring bowlers roll each week on lanes that differ slightly from those of the previous week. In contrast, "All horseshoe courts look different, but they play just the same. I can go to Huntsville, Alabama, or Springfield, Missouri [both big competitive centers of the sport] and I'll pitch just the same as I do at home in California."