It’s a tense moment as the teams head out to play.
It may be the Yankees and the Red Sox, but this game there is no stadium, no bat and no ball. Instead, there’s a sandpit, a metal stake and some heavy horseshoes. And the Yankees and Red Sox are just two of the 16 teams currently playing in the Deep River Horseshoe League.
The game of horseshoes has become synonymous with Deep River over the last 65 years. On Thursday evening in Deep River, the clank of metal against metal is heard far and wide as the league, the oldest in the state, holds a weekly tournament on the green of the Congregational Church. Pitchers, judges and spectators alike, gather for fun, laughter, goodhearted competition and a chance to catch up with friends and escape the woes of the virus for an evening.
In 2020, the league looks a bit different with a shortened season, a reduced roster of players and of course, masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“Under normal circumstances, we start our season in March,” said Frank Jolly, who has been president of the league for the past five years and is an A player for the White Sox. “This year we were not able to start until phase two of Connecticut’s reopening plan was approved for public gatherings in June.”
He added, “Usually we have 60 members competing, but this year we had to reduce that number to 48 to adhere to the reopening guidelines.”
Jolly, an Old Saybrook resident who has been an active member of the league for the past decade, said it’s the friendships and comradery that he enjoys the most. “We have a good time and we all look forward to playing against one another.”
Horseshoes, Jolly said, is not a hard sport to pick up. “Many other leagues have canceled this year.”
Horseshoe pitching, likened to the game of quoits, which involves the throwing of metal, rope, or rubber rings over a spike. The first open horseshoe pitching tournament was held in the summer of 1910, in Bronson, Kansas.
Today there is a National Horseshoe Pitchers Association of America, which has an estimated fifteen million members who enjoy the backyard sport. The association strives to promote and organize the sport and to standardize the rules, equipment, and playing procedures, making it easy for beginners, as well as, seasoned players to pitch together and enjoy the sport by pitting players with similar skill sets against each other based on a system of handicapping.
The Deep River League, which has players ranging in age from 20 to 90, including three women, adheres to the rules of the NHPA in regard to horseshoe weight, pit length and the point scoring blueprint for an official game. There are three members on each team; an A player, a B player and a C player, and all play against comparable opponents.
Each pitcher throws two horseshoes each from 40 feet, players 65 and over have the choice to throw from 40 feet or 35 feet.
Jolly said one of the league’s best players is 90 years old.
The league plays 12 frames. The total sum of points from each frame is added up at the end. Ringers, or horseshoes that completely surround the stake, get the most points — three points each.
The green has ten horseshoe pits, but this year, only eight pits are being used to accommodate social distancing. The pits are groomed and maintained by league members and every Thursday, a friendly group of players can be found competing for the best throws of the night, honing their skills, cheering each other on and concentrating pensively.
Play starts at 5 p.m. sharp and tournaments usually last until around 8 p.m.
Most Thursdays there is a food truck selling hot dogs, and the green is peppered with lawn chairs, coolers and supportive fans. An excited buzz fills the air as player after player hurl metal horseshoes, one after the other.
This year, the league will begin tournament play on August 20th. The playoffs will be held the following week and finally the championship games.
At press time, team Pirates, with players Kris Toohey of Westbrook, Gerald Hines of Higganum and Karen Perna of Chester was in first place.
“This is my second year playing and it’s a lot of fun,” said Perna, whose husband Andy Perna is on the Ranger’s team, currently in third place. “I think if more women played, they would enjoy it because its not a muscle game, it’s more about accuracy and thinking.”
The Pernas also play on a winter horseshoe league in Hartford with the Central Connecticut Horseshoe Club. They play on an indoor clay pit and that season begins in October and ends in April.
“Horseshoes is a great game. It’s a nice way to get out with other people who you have something in common with and have some fun,” said Karen. “We all need a little bit of that, especially right now.”
There are several other horseshoe leagues around the state in Higganum, Colchester, New London and East Harford, among other.
“We are a very open group and we invite everyone to come and watch us play,” said Jolly, “That’s how we recruit most of our new players. They come watch us first, see how much fun it is, and then they want to get in on the action.”
Only six members of the the Deep River League are local to the town, the rest travel from all over the state.
Players are assessed each year in February. A kind of a tryout is held and the skill level of new players is evaluated. Each player is then placed on an appropriate teams and play begins.