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Down in the Pits

Clang Gang: Cliff Lippert takes aim at the San Jose Horseshoe Club.

Photo by Christopher Gardner

The semi-secret society of horseshoe pitchers becomes a growing concern

By Cecily Barnes

IN THE ROMAN Empire, royalty and wealthy citizens would play quoits, a game where metal rings were tossed at upright pegs. But quoit-rings were quite expensive, so the common folk decided that old horseshoes would do the trick. Today, no one has even heard of quoits, while the organized sport of horseshoes is probably the least publicized in the nation. But over the years, small societies of horseshoe pitchers have popped up all over the country, virtually unnoticed by the sporting community.

Today, the National Horseshoe Pitching Association boasts 40,000 members. Who would have known?

Participants say the main difference between horseshoe pitching and other sports is that horseshoes simply isn't a spectator sport.

"It's been likened to watching grass grow," says Bob Wight, secretary of the San Jose Horseshoe Pitching Club.

Sure enough, on this day, the horseshoe pits down by the Guadalupe River are quiet, except for racing winds and the clank of metal on metal. Huge oak trees sway and rustle, littering the ground with bits of dead leaves and twigs. Fluffy white particles from the creekside cottonwood trees scurry through the air under an overcast, muggy sky. Away from the dirt lot, nearby streets are littered with spilled trash cans, tattered clothing, beer cans, rusty bicycles and a roaming dog.

Two old-timers stand cutting and sanding a table-top inside what was--before the flood of 1995--a kitchen. It's one of three homemade shacks built by members to store equipment, sodas and whatever else they might bring to the courts.

Ray D. Lee, 67, a moistened cigarette pinched between his lips, cracks a few jokes before explaining how he got turned on to pitching horseshoes. "I went up to Spring Valley Golf Course, and I said, 'There has to be a cheaper way,' " he explains in a smoky voice, his eyes twinkling. "Because I want to play the Lotto--don't want to spend it all on golf."

Lee laughs hard, scrunching his eyes, his head tilted back slightly. It takes him a moment to recover, and he takes another drag. "There's no 'can't' in throwing horseshoes, it's all 'won't,' " he says.

Out on the courts, an older couple take turns pitching shoes. Lee Engers, 74, stands no more than 5-foot-3. She wears a blue T-shirt sporting a "San Jose Senior Games" logo. Her short white hair is tightly tucked beneath a baseball cap. Engers is one of about four women who belong to the San Jose Horseshoe Pitching Club. Total, there are approximately 30 members.

"It's a mind game," Engers says. "Your mind is your athlete. If your mind isn't there, you won't throw ringers."

Engers and her partner, Don Kies, proudly explain that horseshoes is the second most difficult sport, billiards being the first.

Horseshoes weigh 2 1/2 pounds. Participants rarely break a sweat or feel sore after a game, but they certainly develop good hand-eye coordination, a skill most people don't realize they need to effectively pitch a horseshoe.

Wight tells me I can't leave without a pitching a few shoes myself. I agree.

The horseshoe feels to be about the weight of a plate. Covered with bits of clay, the metal feels dry, like touching a chalkboard. Wight shows me where to stand--women pitch from 30 feet, men from 40. "Swing your arm like you're throwing a softball, and step forward like this," Kies demonstrates from the sideline.

I stare directly at the post, swing my right arm, step forward and let fly. It lands about two pits over, near the picnic tables. Wight says I did pretty good for a beginner. They coax me into trying again. My second pitch is about as successful as the first. On my way out, Wight says to come back anytime. I smile.

Horseshoes is a competitive sport. Players can work toward the world tournament and, along the way, win prizes such as a plaque and maybe $20.

"There's hardly any money," Wight says. "Even the world champion doesn't get a very large stipend. He gets about $4,000. It's more of a prestige thing than a monetary thing."

Most sports fans think of horseshoes as nothing more than a backyard barbecue sport. They're right. But the backyards and barbecues are getting bigger.

Membership to the Northern California Horseshoe Pitchers Association costs $28 a year. Members are entitled to participate in 157 tournaments in Northern California, as well others throughout the United States and Canada.

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From the May 1-7, 1997 issue of Metro

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