My reaction to our hostess' suggestion was, at best, skepticism. Judging from the way the rest of the guests shuffled and dawdled toward the backyard, that was their reaction, too. But it was her party and her birthday, so we followed and tried to eke out a little enthusiasm when she announced cheerfully, "Croquet, anyone?"
A call to croquet probably would be met by most Americans with skepticism, if not outright disdain.. Our culture has not prepared us to regard croquet as a rousing sport of great fun and camaraderie. How many beer commercials have you seen in which four croquet opponents swing their mallets over their shoulders, wipe their brows, slap each other on the back and break open a six-pack? Have you ever heard Jim McKay gush about the thrill of a croquet victory, the agony of a defeat? Neither are the pro shops featuring custom-made mallets and monogrammed balls, nor are best sellers like Inner Croquet lining bookstore windows.
So instead we think of croquet as boring and dull, rather British--too stuffy and dry to be an honest American sport.
As evidence that croquet is taken quite seriously in the United Kingdom, the Oxford Encyclopedia of Sports requires eight pages to describe the rules, maneuvers and history of official association croquet. The game caught on in England just over a hundred years ago after crossing the channel from northern France, where it was played as early as the 14th century. Balls were hit through bent willow boughs by something like a shepherd's crook or a "crochet" (literally "crooked stick").
The definitive Routlege's Handbook of Croquet was published in London in 1861, and by 1867 the British were celebrating Walter Whitmore Jones as their first National Croquet Champion. Today, annual championships are played on the lawns of Hurlingham and Roehampton.
By most accounts, croquet was introduced here in the 1870s in Norwich, Conn.--a rather British enclave at that time--and soon spread to all sections of what was then the United States. It was played through the gay '90s when women, in a feat of dexterity, shot with one hand on the mallet, the other free to hold their long skirts. At the end of the century, however, croquet "suddenly died" in this country, according to the 1981 Collier's Encyclopedia.
It has never, at least so far, been revived, despite effort on the part of some. In 1950, in Oklahoma City, Okla., the National Croquet Association set out to "promote croquet as an organized sport in the U.S." Today, the Oklahoma City Directory Assistance records "no listing by that name."
Promoting croquet as an organized sport in America would defeat the finest public-relations team; here are a few notions about why.
First, croquet is too slow a sport for the temperament of most American sports fans. Granted, three-quarters of the most American of sports is even slower than croquet. It is slow enough for Reggie Jackson to eat sunflower seeds in right field. But it's not just that croquet is slow; it stays slow.
It should be added here that croquet as Americans know it is a different sport from the one played on the lawns at Hurlingham and Roehampton. The English version of croquet demands energy--but energy in the form of concentration. The English combine split stop-shots, split pass-rolls, full rolls and rushes in complicated strategies for a veritable "tactical battle," says the Oxford Encyclopedia.
Still, players walk from one "battle station" to the next. In Great Britain it is a brisk walk, of course, but a walk nonetheless. They stand still to concentrate. They stand and wait while others take their turns. So croquet will probably not catch on across the Atlantic where we think of sports as a means of weight loss as much as recreation.
A look at the British gives another hint about why croquet has never caught on as an organized sport here. The British have a woman as prime minister and croquet. Americans have neither.
The muscles of the male give him little or no advantage in croquet. A gentle tap is often more effective than a slam. When force is ineffective, the rational man often tries to calculate his way to winning--getting on hands and knees to figure the force in pounds per square inch with which to strike the ball given the distance and angle to the wicket, the slope of the ground, and the resistance offered by grass five centimeters long. The woman accustomed to performing methodical tasks, however, is generally better able to thread the ball through the wicket. Indeed, the Oxford Encyclopedia of Sports concedes that "Miss Steel, undoubtedly the greatest woman player of all time, with four wins in the open championships, proved that equality of play between the sexes is possible."
Croquet offers no good reason for leagues and circuits separated by "stronger" and "weaker" sex: cause enough to prevent it from gaining popular appeal.
Not only are women included in this sport without patronizing concessions ("we'll go slow," or "I promise not to throw hard," or "we won't tackle"), croquet excludes virtually no one: The pale 90-pound bookworm, the wheelchair-bound, the grandparent with a pacemaker, the most agile, muscled athlete. This is not to say croquet is a game that requires no skill or no practice. But the skills it takes to play a mean game of croquet are skills of temperament, disciplines of disposition--hard to capture in dramatic poses for color spreads in Sports Illustrated.
Neither does croquet exclude those economically handicapped by the price of popular sports. Maybe that is why, ironically, it has not caught on here. The entrepreneurs of sports haven't dressed up croquet with a sexy wrapper and a high price tag. If the advertisers don't find a sport attractive, neither do we.
So what we have left is a game that makes the most of any place available and any people present. Collier's, in fact, defines croquet in the United States as "an American version of English croquet that is not standardized, being essentially an adaptation through local rules to the particular terrain and social climate."
In other words, look over any scrap of land you've got and any motley crew assembled on it, and devise a variation that keeps the ball rolling and everybody playing.
The other guests called to croquet at that birthday party, besides being skeptics, were pacifists. So we dispensed with the one mildly vengeful component of basic croquet: We agreed there would be no "sending," euphemism for slamming an opponent's ball into the next block when one's own ball bumps up against it. Besides being at odds with our political identities, "sending" was at odds with our pocketbooks: One side of our playing lawn was bounded by 10-foot glass panes.
The other side of the lawn was bounded by a garden. Golf has its sandtraps for suspense; we had carrots, beets and leaf lettuce to dig our balls out of. And the lawn was small. We could finish a game in a short time, call out the reserves and recombine. New combinations ensured that no one came in last every time. Or first every time.
As darkness sneaked in, we skeptics were still squinting to see our balls, each calling his own play-by-play to others on the course. If ice cream hadn't been waiting in the kitchen, we probably would have pulled out the flashlights.