Fernando Isais

This issue, we will read how Roy Smith describes Fernando Isais in a March 1949 article from the Horseshoe Pitcher. We have read about Isais before, but this article is far more in depth and again first hand knowledge of the eight-time World Champion, the all-time great Fernando Isais. Keep in mind that Isais won five of his titles after this article was published. Isais was inducted into the NHPA Hall of Fame in 1966 as a charter inductee.

Horseshoe's "King of Swing"
By Roy Smith, Author of "Science at the Stake"

Out here on the West Coast of these United States, in the sprawling and overcrowded city of Los Angeles, California, lives a brown, lithe, well-built young man who is the World's Champion ringer flinger. Yes, all horseshoe pitchers know his name for it is a byword among players everywhere. His name is Fernando Isais and he really knows his way around the horseshoe court and a tennis court as well. He is a handsome, quiet, well-mannered fellow with a ready smile that crinkles up his face and displays asset of white, even teeth. He can be found almost everyday in his small sports and tennis shop near the Memorial Coliseum in Exposition Park, where he makes his living stringing tennis rackets and selling athletic equipment.

Fernando comes from a fairly large family and was born in the fishing village of La Paz, in Baja California, Mexico. He is of Spanish Basque descent and his last name is pronounced "ee-sah-ees" with the accent on the middle syllable. He has always gone in for sports and clean living. He is about 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighs about 165-170 pounds. There is not an ounce of surplus fat on him; his carriage is graceful; he is broad shouldered and slender hipped. His shock of black hair is becoming tinged with gray at the temples but this is due to the strong California sun rather than his age. He is only 34 years old and goes bare headed most of the time. His only other hirsute adornment is a small mustache.

Fernando became interested in horseshoes when he was a kid in his early teens. He started with a low one and one-quarter turn. John Gordon said he took one look at Fernando's long back-swing and "rubber" shoulder and immediately recognized him as a potential world's champion. So John persuaded the young Mexamerican to change to the one and three-quarter turn. Not long after this, Fernando won the California State Championship in 1931 when he was about 17 years old. He defended or won this title eight times and has been interstate Champion of Arizona, Utah, Oregon, Indiana and Iowa. In 1934 and 1935 he toured the county with Ted Allen who reigned as the National Champion from 1934 to 1941. Allen, whom I rate as the greatest all around tournament pitcher of all time, wrote me in one of his letters several years ago, and frankly admitted that Fernando was the only pitcher that he (Ted) feared might wrest the championship from him. However, I don't think that either Ted or Fernando has ever feared any other pitcher living. But they both admit that they learned a lot from each other and each has a high regard for the others ringer tossing ability.

Sure enough in 1941 at Des Moines, Iowa, Fernando snatched Ted's crown by averaging 82.9% for the entire tournament. Then World War II exploded in our faces with Hitler and Togo bent on trying to cancel out all liberty for the world. Allen went into the armed forces and Fernando into war work. He held his national title from 1941 to 1946 and did not defend it in 1946. Allen promptly grabbed the crown once more. Then in 1947, Fernando snatched Ted baldheaded again. But Ted was covered with painful blisters from poison ivy or the story might have been different. It is almost anyway with a dark horse in the form of husky Wayne Nelson from Indiana bursting upon the scene. But this story is about Fernando Isais, the champ and I am digressing.

In an issue of Colliers magazine, dated August 21, 1948, Bill Fay called Fernando "Horseshoe's Big Pitch". I prefer to call him "The Big Swing" for it's his unbelievably high back-swing that distinguishes him from all other players more than anything else. Many other good players have high back-swings too, but there are none exactly like Fernando's. His shoulder action is amazing and he seems to be either double jointed or his arm is set in rubber. Others, who have tried to imitate his swing have almost thrown their spines out of joint and suffered with stiff necks for days. Fernando's stance is quite ordinary, so are his other fundamentals, but there is only one big swing like that in all the world and I doubt if it can ever be imitated successfully. In fact, other pitchers are foolish to even attempt it. I have watched him closely many times and it seems that almost all the little effort he uses in delivering goes into that back-swing. Then he just straightens up out of his slight crouch with a hunch and the shoe is on its way. While it just seems to float when watched from sidelines, I have been down at the stake and watched it come towards me. Despite the floating appearance, it comes into the stake with a considerable amount of velocity. And there is something deadly final about the way those ringers come from high out of the air and splat into the clay around the stake. He loses a few ringers like everyone else, but that high hooking shoe seldom bounces or rebounds.

Fernando looks rather bored most of the time when he is pitching but when the chips are down, his face wears a slight fighting scowl and his lips are drawn firmly over his teeth. Aside from this he is stoical and his emotions do not show on his deadpan face. As I stated in a former article, he knows how to relax under pressure. Nothing seems to bother him and his movements are slow and unhurried. He acts like he just doesn't care where his shoes go but most of them wrap their arms around that stake like two lovers in Griffith Park. People who don't know Fernando very well might think that he is conceited but there isn't an ounce on conceit or egotist in his makeup. He is just naturally quiet, poised and full of self-confidence. I have visited him at his tennis shop and on the pitching courts. He is friendly, courteous and frank in answering questions. He never brags but I've heard him engage in friendly razzing with his tennis buddies when he or they lose a match to another. There is an atmosphere of good sportsmanship in his little store.

The first time I saw him, he was playing tennis on the Exposition Park Courts. His movements reminded me of those of a cat and he can really smack that ball around. He has teamed with the champion Pancho Gonzales and trounced him soundly in the Olympic Club Tournament last year. And you have to know your way around on a tennis court to whip Gonzales. Fernando's attractive wife, Hope, can swing a mean tennis racket herself and keeps his horseshoe and tennis trophies polished and immaculate. If he continues to win many more of these, he will have to either find a larger house or move into the Coliseum to make room for them.

Fernando was able to hang onto his world's title last year at Milwaukee but says it was the toughest tournament he has been in yet. He admits that he had some lucky breaks and won a game or two by the slender margin of one point. When one is the champ, there are many others out to dethrone him if they can. Allen, Zimmerman, Jones, Nelson, Brownell and others are after his scalp and he may lose it this year. But he isn't worrying about it. About 6 weeks before a national meet he begins to train in a serious manner. The rest of the time, he is quite busy with his business and tennis. If Fernando Isais would take the horseshoe pitching sport as seriously as most of the others, I don't believe there is a man in the world who could defeat him more than just an occasional game now and then. Guy Zimmerman has beaten him twice for the California State Championship but Fernando got some revenge when he trounced Zim at the California Open last October. Yes, Fernando Isais is a real champ and a fine example of manhood for all young pitchers to emulate. This is Fernando "the Champ" as I see him.

History and Folklore Jottings: What good is history if we don't have a quiz about it sometimes? So here are a couple of questions to test your trivia skills. 1) We have often read about the many triumphs and world championships of C.C. Davis, of course his first name was Charles, what was his middle name? 2) And we have also read about the Hall of Famer, D.D. Cottrell, what do the D's stand for, and David is not correct. 3) In 2008, Alan Francis pitched two perfect games. To that point, the only other perfect game was pitched by Guy Zimmerman, in 1948. Most of us knew about that game, but who was Zimmerman's opponent in the perfect game? 4) Alright, let's ease up a bit and can you name the two players Alan Francis beat in his two perfect games in 2008?

If you are having a bit of a recall problem with these questions, you might consider reviewing the NHPA web site at horseshoepitching.com. Thanks to Steve Summerlin's efforts and efforts by others, there is tremendous amount of our sport's history right there for your interest review and pleasure.