Many of the attendees at this year’s family fest were disappointed that the annual horseshoe tournament that for years has coincided with the date of the family fest/softball tournament, was canceled this year. The horseshoe pits had spent the previous several months in disuse and the clay had hardened to the point that they resembled concrete.
The horseshoe tournament committee met during the festival and picked September 14th as the date for the tournament. The city and the park district pitched in to make sure the pits were in championship shape and the lights shown brightly on the evening of Friday the 14th as the competitors arrived for their pre-tournament rituals.
This particular tournament took on a greater meaning than many of the previous contests. Not only was the local championship up for grabs for 2018, but several of the competitors were on the doorstep of admission to the Horseshoe Hall of Fame in Bemidji, Minnesota. A win for four competitors guaranteed entrance with two additional pitchers riding a long shot bid.
Unlike previous years, the partners were chosen by lot and not predetermined. This recent ruling had been put into place to prevent dominance by teams like West and Mason or Hohenadel and O’Connor. The league administrators determined this year that the championship would be determined by teams drawn by chance, possibly creating unbeatable tandems or isolating potential Hall of Famers with journeymen.
The pre-game rituals are often as entertaining as the competition itself. Competitors like Wally with their feathered chapeaus, gloves and shoe hooks warming up alongside others who prefer 12 & 16 oz. curls as the warmup. Sometimes the 12 or 16 ounces are the shoes themselves, other times it is a beverage usually made with hops and grain. Some of the more seasonal players arrive as if they were tailgating at a Bears game.
Regardless of the warm-up ritual, all the competitors stood in a tight group as the teams were announced. Each knew that not only a local prestigious championship was on the line but for some a chance at immortality at the Horseshoe Hall of Fame.
At this point, a bit of background might be informative for the reader to appreciate what the stakes actually were on Friday, September 14, 2018. Chicago is located in the middle, Midwest region for consideration for admission to the Horseshoe Hall of Fame. It is a competitive region which includes lower Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, and upper Tennessee and Kentucky. Chicago is a competitive hub, but in a very competitive region. As a result, the number of Hall of Fame nominees is limited compared to the rest of the region. Hence, the concern over pairings on this particular evening.
As the discs were pulled from the official container, the pairings were announced. Immediately the odds were adjusted to reflect the team compositions. The two G’s, Gary & George, were identified early on as a potential winning team. Matching shoes, fashionable packs tied around their waists and well-toned physiques made them early favorites.
Steve P, a perennial favorite, caught a tough break as his partner was a fierce competitor but one with hands of stone. Steve’s draw hurt not only his chances on the evening but also his bid for inclusion in the HSHF.
Don Hohenadel, a regular partner of Pat O’Connor’s, had still not fully recovered from their championship effort two years ago when Don finished the final game with torn rotator cuffs after pitching with an injured right arm and concluding with his left, which he hurt diving out of the way of a not particularly unintentional shoe from one of the opposing teams in the semi-final.
His brother Bill, an able stand-in, gained in the pre-tournament rankings by picking up Wally as his partner. The rest of the teams began to make their way to the pits they were assigned to. The last two to make their way to Pit #1 were Kevin Morrissey and Pat O’Connor. Both had won the Chicago tournament in the past, albeit with different partners, but both had been inactive for over 18 months, a lifetime in the prime of a horseshoe competitor.
The tournament went through several rounds as the rules call for double elimination. The evening wore on as the sound of metal on metal rang through Mather Park and the lights over the pits slowed the competitors going about their business in the most workman-like manner.
Three hours into the competition, the conditions of the new pits had revealed their flaws, new clay and too much moisture made it clear that those who thought ahead were in a much better position to move onto the finals than those who hadn’t. The mud that clung to the shoes made throwers’ hands slick and very dirty. As shoes hit the pit, mud flew up into the eyes of those waiting to throw. Microfiber cloths and lab googles gave a distinct advantage to those who anticipated the conditions.
At the end of the round robin, however, those who could toss were awaiting the playoffs, with the undefeated team of Morrissey and O’Connor waiting for the winners of Billy and Wally vs. the G/G’s. Either team would have to win twice to walk away a winner. The semi-final went into overtime as ringers became harder and harder to come by as mud and dirt caked the horseshoes and cloths of the throwers.
The G/G’s finally emerged victorious after a long game and the Morrissey/O’Connor team once again found themselves standing at Pit #1. Point after point was made by each team, and the honor to throw first traded back and forth several times. The G/G’s took a narrow lead when, without warning, the lights on the pits went dark. The tournament time had concluded as the light timers had timed out.
All of the competitors and the assembled crowd gathered around the bench as the night’s commissioner consulted the rulebook to determine what would happen next. Not since 1984 had the lights gone out on an unfinished championship, and the precedent was controlling in this instance. The point differential from all of the games played by both teams would determine the 2018 championship.
Having been undefeated up to that point, the Morrissey/O’Connor team carried the evening. Kevin thanked his trainer, Tom Mason, and Pat O’Connor dedicated the victory to his former teammate, Don Hohenadel, who we’ve previously indicated has limited use of both arms.
The upshot went beyond the 2018 award as both Morrissey and O’Connor earned tickets to the Horseshoe Hall of Fame in Bemidji, Minnesota. They join other Chicago Area inductees, Gerry Dietz, Robert Darow, Dwayne West, and former park supervisor, Tim Gibson.
Those who stood on the brink before the evening started and did not move beyond the round robin will simply have to wait for next year. Anyone interested in attending the induction ceremony can contact the Ward Office. There are plans to take buses up into Minnesota in late January for the event, with the last leg of the journey on snowmobiles into Bemidji. The induction takes place at halftime during the curling championships in Minnesota, so that promises to be a tremendous few days with Morrissey and O’Connor being given their powder blue jackets and hall of fame beer koozies.