How Two Kentucky Farmers Became Kings Of Croquet
September 19, 2019 8:55 AM   Subscribe

Clay-court croquet arose in Kentucky and Tennessee during the Depression. It was cheap and open to anyone. And despite its bourgeois roots, croquet—in the South or elsewhere—is one of the few sports where age and sex don’t matter in tournament play. The basic rules are the same in all versions of the game: each player has to hit his or her balls through a series of wickets in order, and then finish by “staking out,” or hitting a post. Against skilled opponents, though, Archie was ruthless. He could pull off trick shots to make a pool shark weep. But his real talent was in the game’s complex strategy and Machiavellian mind games: blocking opponents’ balls, always thinking three or four shots ahead.
posted by Carillon (24 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
Fascinating. Thanks for the post.

I was particularly interested in the son, with his natural talent for the game, but just no real interest in it. Maybe it was just too easy so he found it boring? But that doesn't jibe with the level of nerves he apparently felt about the game.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:13 AM on September 19


Hot damn, what a great read, especially for a classist like me. This could actually be it's own movie, like almost like it was written to be one, underdog story of a talented farmer good at some rich people thing and he shows up and bowls over them before their privileged minds can even process and over time they have to begrudgingly acknowledge and respect his game.

“Jack Osborn cried when Archie won in New York,” Betty remembers. “He said, ‘Burchfield, you ruined our croquet. Now we can’t keep truckers, firefighters out, can’t keep none of them out.”

Jack Osborn eating shit, I love it.

"The bluebloods were probably relieved. Peck considered Mark to be one of the most naturally talented players to ever play the game. As Mark and his father had shown the world in 1982, together they could have been unstoppable. Instead, Mark worked as a firefighter for 25 years, and now works part-time for FedEx. Two of his four children have won national sports championships."

I think there's just something cool about being naturally talented at something, but having no interest in it and rejecting it. I think if I discovered I was just really fucking good at Tennis or something, I would pressure myself into pursuing it despite my negative-interest in sports. It appears perhaps this family's affinity for sports runs through both their genetics and their nurturing style.
posted by GoblinHoney at 9:40 AM on September 19 [1 favorite]


So I guess we finally know. Archie married Betty.
posted by Naberius at 9:53 AM on September 19 [4 favorites]


There's at least one tennis player out there who was pretty good at the game I know who has said their actual interest in the game is middling at best GoblinHoney, so you're not alone.
posted by Carillon at 10:22 AM on September 19 [1 favorite]


This was an interesting article, but as someone who grew up about an hour's drive from Stamping Ground, worked in tobacco as a kid, and even owned a small tobacco farm for several years, the following seems jarringly wrong to me:

In those days, before harvesting tobacco was widely automated, it was still a labor-intensive process that involved impaling stalks on wooden sticks driven into the ground.

That's still how Burley tobacco (the kind grown in Kentucky) is "harvested", although the term everyone uses here is "housed" (taken from the field and put in the barn) - I've literally never heard anyone talk of "harvesting" tobacco.

In my experience, some new invention will periodically be announced that is supposed to lead to huge labor-savings for tobacco farmers, but it never catches on. (With the exception of mechanical "topping", I suppose - that seems to be the common way of doing that part of it.)

Nobody has ever really successfully automated most of the the tobacco growing process. It's all extremely labor-intensive.
posted by JeffL at 10:27 AM on September 19 [2 favorites]


God this would make such a great movie.
posted by Sokka shot first at 10:57 AM on September 19 [1 favorite]


There was a croquet ground built in Memorial Park in Houston (there is also a polo ground and a golf course). I don't know who payed for it, but it was meticulously groomed grass, like a pool table, and when you would see people playing, they were all in white. It was a very different crowd from the mostly Latino soccer games or the women's softball games but it was cool to see people so serious about their sports that they had uniforms and announcers and proper referees.
posted by Bee'sWing at 11:55 AM on September 19 [1 favorite]


Loved this, thanks for posting! And I would totally watch that movie.
posted by Grither at 12:46 PM on September 19


I really enjoyed this article. Thank you :)
posted by starscream at 1:13 PM on September 19


There is almost nothing that I don't love about this story! I've been through Stamping Ground, though I don't recollect there being a plethora of croquet grounds there.

"I can win the national title easier than I can win the state," Archie says. "A Kentucky game is almost like war."

--A GOOD OL' BOY FROM KENTUCKY BEATS THE JET-SETTERS AT THEIR OWN GAME, Sports Illustrated (April 1983)
posted by magstheaxe at 1:17 PM on September 19 [1 favorite]


"I can win the national title easier than I can win the state," Archie says. "A Kentucky game is almost like war."

Curling has been a bit like this for Canadians -- the toughest competition they face was always at the national championships and then they'd go to the world championships and have trouble maintaining anything that looked like focus. They'd still win a lot, but not as much as they might have if they weren't getting sloshed most nights.

But now with the Olympics and the pro-tour, a lot of non-Canadian teams are taking things way more seriously and the Canadian teams have to show up to play at international events. They still win some and lose some, but they earn those losses the hard way now.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:57 PM on September 19 [4 favorites]


Thanks magtheaxe! Good find. I was hoping for a photo of the victors.
posted by narancia at 2:21 PM on September 19


Croquet is a great game. I played it at school - an enterprising and eccentric teacher realised it'd attract all the misfits who hated rugby and cricket and other manly activities - where I learned how vicious it is, how it repays a focus on hurting your opponents, and how it can be played perfectly well after four pints at lunchtime. It has the rule that rain is not allowed to stop play. It requires no exertion of any kind. It is the only competitive sport I have ever even slightly enjoyed.

It is also famously impossible to televise, which means it will remain gloriously obscure for ever.
posted by Devonian at 2:59 PM on September 19 [4 favorites]


Hey! I wrote that. AMA.
posted by gottabefunky at 3:18 PM on September 19 [13 favorites]


No way! I loved it! (Enough that I got most of the post ready halfway through before finishing). How'd you come across that story? It's really cool, and I thought you did a great job of bringing Archie to life.
posted by Carillon at 3:53 PM on September 19


In his autobiography, Harpo Speaks, Harpo Marx describes a period in the 1920's when he, Alexander Woollcott, and their circle of friends became obsessed with cutthroat croquet in a series of no-holds-barred matches and rematches in and around New York City. It's a cracking good read.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:16 PM on September 19 [1 favorite]


where I learned how vicious it is, how it repays a focus on hurting your opponents, and how it can be played perfectly well after four pints at lunchtime.

out here on the mountainous and forested west coast, we devised a version that gets played on pretty much any ground as long as it occasionally gets flat enough for the balls to stop rolling. We've found it goes very well with psychedelic drugs and weird music, the whole experience feeling like a profound yet elusive analog for how the world really works ...

It is the only competitive sport I have ever even slightly enjoyed.

definitely true for me, certainly in my adult years.

It is also famously impossible to televise, which means it will remain gloriously obscure for ever.

We do have some video somewhere.
posted by philip-random at 4:41 PM on September 19 [2 favorites]


Carillon: One day a friend of my co-author on my latest (sports-underdog-themed) book said: just look up Archie Burchfield. As I read more about his story, I kept thinking, come on, it couldn’t have happened that way, that’s pure...screenwritery. But when I finally met his family and asked them, they all said yep, it’s all true, all those crazy details and quotes are real.
posted by gottabefunky at 7:06 PM on September 19 [4 favorites]


on the mountainous and forested west coast My high-school friend with a yard set up for croquet was on a, hm, twenty-foot bluff? with a house rule that if your ball went into the sea you went down to fetch it out of the surf while everyone else played on. Very cautious games, with an offshore breeze, and most of the balls had lost most of their paint.
posted by clew at 9:08 PM on September 19 [1 favorite]


out here on the mountainous and forested west coast, we devised a version that gets played on pretty much any ground as long as it occasionally gets flat enough for the balls to stop rolling.

We always called this version Field Croquet as opposed to formal Croquet.
posted by fairmettle at 11:48 PM on September 19 [1 favorite]


My childhood home was built on the side of a valley, with the house and the lawn on cut-out terraces but the rest of the garden full of slopes and hedges and woods and bamboo thickets, etc. There was a leat halfway down the slope, and a cheeky stream at the bottom. It was a good sized lawn, certainly big enough for a standard croquet pitch, and we used it as such, but once your ball had been sent past the edge it turned into full-on jungle croquet.

I did not get access to proper psychedelics until long after my croquet-at-home days were over, but I have no difficulty seeing the combination as extremely diverting and, if circumstances conspire, one worthy of sampling. At the time, the most mind-altering substance available was farm-brewed scrumpy - powerful enough in its own way, but considerably debilitating once the cosmos started to revolve at speed. But one remembers the croquet game in Alice, and one feels instinctively that it may be the most intrinsically entheogenic sport out there.

And yes, of course you can video it. You can't turn it into sports television, it is so unevenly paced, the angles of play so variable so quickly, and you don't really get nicely parcelled sections of play. With snooker, you can get by with two or three cameras because the whole play area is so compact. Just won't work with croquet.
posted by Devonian at 5:19 AM on September 20


We always called this version Field Croquet as opposed to formal Croquet.

West Coast Rules
posted by philip-random at 7:39 AM on September 20 [1 favorite]


What a great story.

But yeah, this really needs to be a sports movie, it's got all the beats.

(I will inevitably end up in a big battle with my family over whether it's really a sports movie -- I keep insisting Queen of Katwe is a sports movie and they keep disagreeing. Pfeh.)
posted by suelac at 4:57 PM on September 20 [1 favorite]


This was so entertaining and well written. I enjoyed it so much.
posted by xammerboy at 10:13 PM on October 6


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