Once a barnyard time-killer, horseshoe pitching has gone urban, donned a boiled shirt and become a national sport
H. H. ROXBOROUGH
TIME was when horseshoe pitching, or barnyard golf as the moderns call it, was literally a product of the barnyard; if not of the barnyard, at least of the yard next to the barnyard. Those were the days when the boys swung shoes after the milking was done or after the hay was in the livery stable loft. A convenient distance between the house and the barn was stepped off; the ends of a couple of hoe handles were whittled off for pegs; four of the old gray mare’s hoof protectors were pressed into service as missiles, and the game was on. One by one the players would curl sinewy fingers around heel caulks and then, after due and deliberate preparation, hurl their U-shaped projectiles at the objective. If the decision was close, a bit of twig was the unit of measure and such rudimentary rules as existed were largely a matter of the expediency of the moment. Shoes bouncing off the barn, for instance, were seldom counted.
Those were the days when the game was purely and undefiledly rural. But times have changed, and horseshoe pitching has gone urban and donned a boiled shirt. True, the clank of shoe upon shoe is still to be heard along the concession lines but the game at its best now is to be found only in some city garage or quoit alley where there are neither horses nor horseshoes— only barnyard golf, a battery of “courts,” matched missiles that no self-respecting horse would look at twice and, possibly, a national champion or two. Yes, the game has achieved national status. It has its regional meets, its national meets, and its national champions; its code of rules, its book of ritual and a sense of dignity. Last winter, for instance, when the national title was decided at Toronto, notables in full evening kit graced the event and two city dwellers ran away with the championship.
Shades of the barnyard pump!
All through last autumn, schoolboys and grandfathers, farm hands and office toilers, retired agriculturists and business executives were industriously perfecting their skill at this once lowly pastime. The best of these ambitious tossers gathered at rural fairs and competed After these preliminary bouts, the county and rural fair title holders assembled at the Toronto Coliseum during the Royal Winter Fair to compete for the highest national honor —the team championship of the Dominion of Canada.
The arrangements for these finals were elaborate enough to satisfy the most
ardent supporters of the game. Instead of surroundings familiar to the horseshoe pitchers of yesterday, the stage was set in a well-lighted ring containing a battery of six courts, securely fenced and surrounded by a stand seating over a thoussand spectators.
Thus, amid scenes that must have amazed the old-time throwers, the aspiring candidates for the Canadian title sniped at the little iron pegs. For five successive nights the air was full of flying shoes, and the clang of metal against metal reverberated throughout the arena. Then, on the final evening with an audience limited only by the accommodation, amid the plaudits of an excited throng, Alex Gardiner and William Lockyer of Sarnia, and Norman Brown and William Coulter, of the Riverdale Horseshoe Club, Toronto, began the contest that eventually decided, for the time, the horseshoe pitching championship of the Dominion of Canada.
During the early stages of the tourney the splendid marksmanship of former games was absent. Then, as the players settled to their task, the ringers became more numerous, and victory ebbed and flowed while shoe after shoe leaned against the stake or curled itself completely around for a perfect three points. End upon end, only a small margin separated the leaders from the trailers, but as the conclusion neared, the Toronto pitchers heaved with astounding accuracy. Finally, with victory just around the corner, “Normie” Brown tossed a perfect pair and as the judges’ cry of “Six to the Gold” was heard, the Horseshoe Pitching Championship of Canada pagsed to the Riverdale Club.
A Horde of Horseshoemen
rPHE enthusiasm of the men and women who witnessed the final contest was an evidence of the extent to which the game has developed. This evidence is even more impressive when it is learned, that the entries for the tournament included eighty teams in the open competition and twenty-four teams, who were already group winners, in the county and rural fair elimination bouts.
The numerical strength of these contenders would indicate that horseshoe pitching had acquired great popularity; equally significant was the fact that the championship was contested by representatives from thirty-seven different localities. And back of each team was a regiment of horseshoe pitchers, not quite good enough to appear at the big show, yet nevertheless devoted followers of the game.
Peterboro, for instance, entered only two tossers while a tournament at the Peterboro Industrial Exhibition attracted sixty-four players. Sarnia contributed only six competitors in the Dominion championship but the town boasts three clubs with a combined membership of over one hundred players and contemplates constructing sixteen courts during 1929.
There are other evidences that horseshoes are “on the up.” During the past year, many industries provided facilities to permit their employees to “throw them high and drop them low,” several county fairs conducted tournaments and advertised the games as special attractions, while few rural picnics were complete without the heaving of the village blacksmith’s raw material. Commercial travelers packed the horseshoes along with the samples and challenged the storekeepers to a contest, and campers carried the equipment to the summer rendezvous and, after playing most of the day, trained the motor-car headlights on the iron pegs and the flying shoes and continued far into the night.
Admittedly the greatest enthusiasm for this rejuvenated sport exists throughout Ontario but the popularity is by no means confined to this Conservative Commonwealth, for the Western provinces are adopting the pastime with characteristic vigor. Two years ago the Saskatchewan champions competed at the national finals and in the 1928 trials the Orchards, father and sonundefeated Manitoba champions, represented the western horseshoe heavers and invited the Easterners to enter the Winnipeg competition during the summer of 1929. Another indication of the pastime’s increasing popularity was manifested at the last meeting of the Amateur Athletic Union of Canada when the delegates officially recognized the sport. A prominent farm journal of Canada recently confirmed its nation-wide interest with this comment: “Thousands more are playing horsehoes to-day than ever before, and probably more real fun is being taken out of horseshoe pitching than any other game in Canada.”
Naturally, this expansion from a barnyard time-killer to a sport so nationally recognized and organized that mayors, premiers and lieutenant-governors have been delighted to demonstrate publicly their abilities in it, has not been gained without adequate reason.
One of the primary causes for the uplift movement has been the improvement in the tools of the game.
Since the old days of hoe-pegs and barnyard arenas, the common garden brand of horseshoe pitching has developed into the rarer hothouse variety, with the result that the equipment has been greatly improved. Instead of the old, unkempt, single pitch, a battery of courts, each with a width of ten feet and a length of fifty feet is now the customary area. The old hoe handles have passed away and are replaced by two steel stakes, each one inch in diameter and thirty inches in length. These stakes are embedded forty feet apart in boxes containing potter’s clay and extend ten inches above this clay surface. The shoes are not the type made famous by the man with “large and sinewy hands” but are drop-forged from tough steel, heat treated so that they will not chip or break, and conform to specified standards of weight and size. Neither are these shoes coated with a liberal supply of rust, for they are usually supplied in a set of four, two finished with aluminum paint and two with bronze.
Not only has the equipment been standardized but the National Association of Horseshoe Pitchers has adopted a strict code of ethics that induces a high degree of sportsmanship. No contestant, while his opponent is in pitching position, is permitted to make any remark, utter any sound or make any movement that might interfere with his opponent’s playing. Indeed, any member of the Horseshoe Pitchers Association who indulges in heckling or unfair rooting against any player in a tournament, is likely to be expelled from the grounds and from the association. Neither must any contestant walk to the opposite stake or be informed of the position, of the shoes prior to the completion of the inning, and any player who touches his own or his opponent’s shoes until after the point winner has been declared, suffers the penalty of having both his throws declared foul.
True, these rules do appear drastic but the players not only respect them but go even further and demonstrate a sporting spirit rarely equaled in any other game. It so happened that I was one of the judges at the Dominion Championships and it was a treat to observe the horseshoe pitchers desire to “shoot straight.” It was customary for the judge to stand at one end of the court and journey to the far pit only when a measurement was required. Unhesitatingly, the two players at the far end would agree upon the result and the score would evoke no dispute. And at the near pit, when the judge’s eye could not detect a difference and when the judge would prepare to measure, it was not unusual for one player to say: “Never mind measuring. I think the other shoe was nearer.” And all this courtesy was not demonstrated at a friendly, no-account game, but during the exacting strain of a national-title competition. It is thus evident that horseshoe pitchers are founding worthy traditions.
A Game For Everybody
NATURALLY, the improvement in equipment and the insistence upon ideal playing standards have greatly encouraged this rapid development, but other conditions have also contributed to the advance. The growth of towns and cities has made it increasingly difficult to secure sufficient playing areas and it is therefore often necessary to economize in space. Few outdoor games can be played on an area so small as that required for a horseshoe court. Within a space only slightly larger than the baselines of a hardball diamond, sixteen courts accommodating sixty-four players can be laid out.
Then, too, the cost of equipment is low, replacements are very few, expensive uniforms are not required, and the maintenance of the courts is not an expensive problem.
Apart from its economic advantages, horseshoe pitching possesses the unusual feature that almost everyone can play it. The game is none too strenuous for the older man nor is it too slow for aggressive youth. In fact, father-and-son teams are numerous and the success of boys has been phenomenal. In 1927, the star at the Canadian championships was young “Bill” Struthers, a sixteen-year-old Sarnia lad, wrhile the winners of the 1928 County and Rural Fair Championship were two London schoolboys, Kent and Howson, aged fifteen and seventeen years respectively.
One advantage of horseshoe pitching is that it can be played in all kinds of weather and at any hour of the day, for while it is played outdoors in barnyards, backyards, public parks, firehall and police station areas or on private courts, it is readily adaptable to barns, garages, curling rinks and fair buildings, and can be played in broad daylight or under the electric bulbs.
Barnyard golf is not, as it once was, a rainy day time-killer; it has become a real sport where skill conquers luck, and yet one where the perfect game seems ever out of range. An expert tournament player to ensure success must throw ringers at least fifty per cent of his attempts. C. C. Davis, a world’s champion, has tossed eighty-five ringers in one hundred shots and I have been informed that an Indian at Caledonia threw eighteen perfect shoes in twenty trials.
All these factors—skill requirements, equipment, uniform rules, low cost, small area, simplicity, picturesqueness and rapid change of leadership, have all shared in giving horseshoe pitching a nation-wide appeal.
On the Highroad to Popularity
X-TAS it already reached the acme of popularity? If the experience of the United States is an indication, it would seem that the summit of Canadian public esteem is still far removed. A few years ago when the city of Cleveland began a horseshoe drive, departmental stores staged matches in their sporting departments; real estate brokers featured games in their new subdivisions; contests were advertised on billboards and newspapers assigned special writers to cover the games. Even five years ago, Minneapolis had 160 courts in neighborhood parks and 300 on private grounds, with an enrolment of over 7,500 players. Even universities caught the fever, and Ohio State University boasted of 612 student players. Winter resort towns in Florida and California set aside special grounds for horseshoe pitching and in one centre there is a straight row of sixty courts. At a tournament held at Lake Worth, Florida, every state in the Union sent contestants. Each year a United States championship is conducted and the awards have included gold medals set with diamonds, gold watches, silver loving cups, nickel-plated and engraved shoes in leather cases and thousands of dollars in prize-money.
It would, therefore, appear that even though Barnyard Golf has progressed in Canada, there is still opportunity for its further expansion. And rightly so, for any game that combines physical exercise with steadiness of eye, coolness under fire, and a high standard of courtesy and honor, should be encouraged by sportloving Canadians.
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