Archie Peck, the man once described as the Babe Ruth of croquet, and the winner of seven national championships in the genteel sport played with exacting precision on lush greenswards, died May 16 at a hospice in West Palm Beach, Fla. He was 76.
The National Croquet Center in West Palm Beach, where Mr. Peck was croquet director, announced his death, which it attributed to cancer of the tongue.
Mr. Peck was a tall, tanned man whose hair grew as white as the outfits worn in croquet. He ran a real estate agency in high-toned Palm Beach, Fla., and was skilled at golf, tennis, skiing and jai-alai long before he knocked a ball through a wicket.
He was in his 30s before he took up a mallet and quickly became one of the stars of croquet, which has been called “the most misunderstood sport in America.”
Mr. Peck mastered the infinite possibilities and pitfalls of maneuvering a ball around a six-wicket court. In a promotional video for the National Croquet Center, Mr. Peck described croquet as “a game so rich in strategy, it’s known as playing chess and billiards on grass.”
Croquet developed in Great Britain in the 19th century, made its way to the United States and was soon condemned by New England clergymen for fostering gambling and drinking. It was an Olympic sport in 1900, then fell out of favor for years until it resurfaced as a Sunday-afternoon pastime of the wealthy.
In the 1950s, it regained middle-class popularity as a casual backyard game usually played with nine wickets. The competitive sport uses six wickets — made of cast iron, with just enough room for the ball to pass through. Competitors are required to make two passages around the court.
Mr. Peck won the U.S. Croquet Association’s national singles titles in 1977, 1979, 1980 and 1982 and is the only person to have won four individual championships. He was doubles champion in 1977 and 1979 and, in 2007, won the international-rules version of the doubles championship. He continued to compete until two weeks before his death.
Mr. Peck knew that croquet had a “geriatric stigma” and, in 2006, told the Orlando Sentinel, “It’s about the world’s worst spectator sport, unless you’re a croquet player.”
But students of croquet said the debonair Mr. Peck had a natural charisma. With his deep tan set off against an immaculate white uniform, he cut a dashing figure on the court. Often wearing shorts that showed off his long limbs, he became known to female admirers of the sport as “Silky Legs.”
“He had the style, the looks, the grace,” John Osborn, director of croquet at Palm Beach’s Mar-a-Lago Club, told the Palm Beach Daily News. “He won with ease. He was mesmerizing to watch.”
John Archibald McNeil Peck was born Oct. 10, 1935, in Norwalk, Conn., and grew up in Palm Beach. He was a television cameraman in the 1950s and 1960s for a station in West Palm Beach and later ran a real estate firm founded by his father.
He once drew a few muted objections from staid local residents when he rented a Palm Beach mansion to the Rolling Stones.
Mr. Peck was a natural athlete who excelled at many sports, including skiing (on both water and snow), golf and tennis. He even had a stint as a professional jai-alai player. Once he discovered croquet, however, he became one of the sport’s leading ambassadors and teachers.
When he was named to the U.S. Croquet Association Hall of Fame in 1984, his citation noted: “Baseball may have its Babe Ruth, football may have its O.J. Simpson, golf has its Jack Nicklaus and tennis has its Rod Laver. That is all right because we have our Archie Peck.”
In 2008, he was inducted into the World Croquet Federation Hall of Fame.
His marriages to Missy Duryea and Vivien Thesen ended in divorce.
Survivors include his longtime companion, Amy Weiss of Hypoluxo, Fla.; four children; a sister; and eight grandsons.
Mr. Peck’s easy grace on the croquet court belied the competitive tension of his sport. When he was at the height of his game, he sometimes smoked a pack of cigarettes during a single match, as he plotted his shots and strategy.
In 1982, after a sudden-death playoff battle to win the national championship over the defending world champion, Mr. Peck allowed himself a moment of public jubilation: He quaffed champagne from his newly won silver trophy.