The champion horseshoe pitcher looks over the pro bowling circuit
When Walter Ray Williams Jr. recently won the 1980 Horseshoe Pitching Championship of the World in Huntsville, Ala., the Los Angeles Times celebrated his victory with three lines of type, although his name did appear in bold face.
Apparently the Times was just doing what comes naturally, since most major newspapers, television and radio stations around the country gave it the same kind of play.
But Williams, a lanky 20-year-old with the build of a basketball player, estimates that he threw 3,500 shoes in six days (85.7 percent of which were ringers) in beating all 31 finalists in the round-robin tournament. Five others , including a former world champ, tied for second place.
That 3,500 figure, he says, included practice as well as competition throws and earned him $2,500 in prize money. Since major league baseball players get $ 29.50 a day in meal allowances whenever they are traveling, the fact that walter ray has an application pending to join the professional Bowlers Association should surprise nobody.
"In my opinion the similarities between bowling and throwing horseshoes are very close, especially the arm swing," Williams explained. "After four years of practice, I think it's time that I found out what the pro bowlers tour is like."
Walter Ray, however, will he merely adding a sport to his schedule, not subtracting one, and should continue to be one of the world's top horseshoe pitchers.
Asked how he became a champion, Williams replied: "Well, my dad started me out in the backyard when I was nine and the rest was mostly practice. I used to throw between four and five hours a day and in about a year I was one of the best.
"In fact, when I was 11 I made so many ringers in one junior tournament for a kid my age that I got a chance to appear on Dick Cavett's television show. But generally the only recognition is from people who are already into the game themselves."
There is a National Horseshoe pitchers Association of America with headquarters in Aurora, Ill. It has membership of approximately 5,500 and its own monthly magazine.
Horseshoe pitching is not expensive; knows no age, size, or sex barriers; is played outdoors perhaps 99 percent of the time; and requires enough reaching and bending so that it is considered an excellent form of exercise.
All that's really needed to play is a flat piece of land at least 50 feet long and six feet wide; two metal stakes set 40 feet apart that stick 14 inches out of a clay pit; and a pair of horseshoes for each contestant.
Professional metal shoes retail for $20 a pair; weigh a maximum of two pounds , 10 ounces; have an opening of no more than 3 1/2 inches; and last someone like Williams a mere six months. A shoe's usefulness ends when it either acquires a rough spot that can rub a finger raw, warps, or breaks. The average person, of course, might use the same shoe for years.
Tournament scoring is set at 50 points per game. Most games last between 30 and 60 minutes. Competitors get three points for a ringer and one point for every shoe closer to the stake than their opponent's, that is, providing the shoe is within six inches of the stake.
When the player throwing second covers the first player's ringer with one of his own, they cancel each other out This explains why tournament games often take an hour to complete. A leaner is considered merely a close-in shot and is worth oen point.
"It's an advantage to throw first in horseshoes because sometimes, if your ringer is will grounded in the clay, what would normally be a good shot by your opponent will hit your shoe and bounce out of scoring range," Williams said. "I've found that slumps in horseshoe pitching are mostly mental and can usually be overcome by increasing your concentration."
Part of this interview was conducted on William's personal horseshoe court at the rear of his parents' home. In fact, we had what might laughingly be called a game. The first thing I did wrong was to hold the shoe at the back so that it flopped when it landed.
"Only a few women players throw like that any more," said Walter Ray, who uses the popular side grip that gives the shoe a one and a quarter turn en route to its destination.
I don't remember how many ringers Williams made in the short time we played, but there weren't many of his shes that didn't leave heel marks on both stakes.
At least I didn't hit his dog, who watched very carefully from a nearby patio!