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A Look Back in Iowa - the final installment



Here we are, at the final installment in our three-part series on the history of horseshoe pitching in Iowa. This section deals with the activity during 1930's. Our sport made distinctive changes in the 30's. The shoes had major changes in the design of hooks and the development of the tournament shoe. And, there was a changing of the 'guard'. Most of the names of the key pitchers are more common to our readers. Some have only recently passed on. Another point to note as we close out this series - for the third straight decade, Iowa was among the leaders of all states in promotion of the sport and producing major events.

The tournament in 1939 was described to be covered by Life Magazine. That deserved some additional research and lo and behold I came across a copy of the specific issue in an antique shop. So the photos included in this article are the same pictures that appeared in Life Magazine in October 17, 1939.



IOWA

By Leland Mortenson

In spite of my efforts to boost fan interest in the tournament, the spectators were dwindling. I conclude that new blood was needed among the contestants, so I was successful in getting the meet opened to adjoining states in 1933. This tournament was called the "Mid-West." C.C. Davis came here and went away with the title, but not until he had to beat Jackson two out three games, winning the last 50-49 with 79 ringers apiece. That year a Davis-Zimmerman game was broadcast, play by play, over the radio.

In 1933, Mossman, Jackson and Lyle Brown all entered a Chicago National meet, and all failed to qualify among the best 24 pitchers.

Davis repeated his victory in 1934, but Jackson had now left the state, and to date he has not returned. In order to defeat Guy Zimmerman in a game which was to decide the 1934 championship, Davis used clever tactics. With Zimmerman leading 30-17, Davis started an argument with the announcer, and then with the crowd, with the simple purpose of rattling his opponent. It worked. Guy became nervous and Davis walked out 50-37. This tournament had among its entries little Charles "Casey" Jones, of Waukesha, Wis., then 15 years old, who took third place.

Frank Jackson and Zimmerman both entered a National meet in California in 1934. Jackson tied for third, Zimmerman was fifth.

The Mid-West Tournament had been an improvement over the State, but I was not satisfied and induced the Fair Board to put up $500 in prizes for a Mid-West National Tournament in 1935. Since then it has been the same each year and each year since the courts have been enclosed with a five-foot fence.

In 1935, Ted Allen, 27-year-old world's champion from California, dethroned Davis, and in 1936 he defeated "Casey" Jones in a play-off of a tie. In 1936, we secured a first-class public address system and have had one each year since. Leroy Page, a young man from Des Moines, who had helped me several times before in conducting the tournament, handled it exceptionally well, and has done so since.

In 1937, Fernando Isais, 22 years old, and from Mexico City, Mexico, dethroned Allen and won every game he played in the finals. In that tournament, Isias was the coolest pitching machine I have ever seen. He averaged 83.5 per cent ringers in 15 games on new iron stakes put in by John Gordon, a California enthusiast. Isais, in his final game against Allen that year, appeared to consider his time as a boring waste, and Allen as a beginner. He looked exceedingly bored as he proceeded to pitch ringers, walked slowly, and put Allen into a nervous state of mind. Isais won 50-28; every shoe he threw was a ringer, and the only time Allen scored was when the Mexican's ringers hopped off. Isais lost a large number of ringers as the clay was a little too dry. This game is one of the three greatest in Iowa history for the unusual aspect of it.

John Gordon was mentioned above. He is a wealthy retired California man who manufactures horseshoes, and in a dozen other ways is liked up with the game. He has taken an active part in the Iowa State Fair tournaments since 1935. If I say that Mossman is the most unusual personality in the history of the pitchers, I must also say that John Gordon is the most interesting personality of the non-pitchers connected with the game. No doubt, he is head and shoulders over anyone else in that respect. A full story about John Gordon must wait for at least ten years, for it seems that a story now would be only the beginning of a much longer story which can be later be assembled.

Ted Allen was an improved pitcher in 1938, while Isais had gone back. Ted averaged 84.1 per cent to win every game. In 1939, he again won every game to average 82.7 per cent.

The 1939 tournament was covered by Life Magazine, and a game by California star, Dean Brown, was broadcast by radio. In connection with this tournament, a convention of the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association was held at Hotel Fort Des Moines. At this convention, Leroy Page, of Des Moines was elected president, while another Iowan, Robert Tompkin, a young lawyer from Dysart, was appointed to be a member of the important Rules Committee.

An amusing incident occurred on the Sunday morning of this tournament. the Fair Board had permitted a preacher to use a huge dance hall tent to hold his service, and with the time for the sermon about to commence, he came over and furiously demanded that I compel the pitchers to stop practicing as the congregation was watching the pitchers instead of going to church. I agreed to stop them, so he announced to the crowd that there would be no more pitching that morning, and that church services would start immediately. Some of the people argued with him, but most of them went back into the church.

By 12 o'clock he was still preaching and I thought that two hours of that was enough, so I signaled for games to start. The preacher heard the sound of the shoes hitting the pegs and shouted “There they go, worrying about their box scores; some day they will worry about their box scores above.” The congregation snickered. The closing prayer came. The congregation hurried back to watch the games.

Since 1934 the Iowa championship has also been decided at the State Fair. Zimmerman won in 1934, 1936, 1937 and 1939, John Garvey, of Boone, in 1935 and Lyle Brown in 1938.

In 1939, Dale Dixon, of Des Moines, personally interested eight Des Moines business firms to pay the expenses of an industrial league tournament in which there were six men on each team, it was a success and is to be continued in 1940.

The State Horseshoe Pitchers' Association, after its collapse in 1927, was re-organized in 1936, but it did not become affiliated with the National Association. In 1938, Byron Stoney, of Cedar Rapids, replaced Lyle Brown, of Des Moines, as President, and it joined the National, and that year held a tournament at the Cedar Rapids Fair which was won by John Paxton, Fairfield. It was a statewide tournament, but was not for the state championship.

Some of Iowa's best horseshoe pitchers not already mentioned have been; Elzie Ray, of Shenandoah, who once beat Frank Jackson 50-0, John McCoy, of Des Moines, Bill Garvey, of Boone, and Russell Sheetz, of Cedar Rapids.

During the past 20 years, the only prominent pitchers of the nation who have not completed at the state fair have been Blair Nunamaker, of Cleveland, Ohio and Harvey Elmerson, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Since 1935, the Mid-West National has had ad its visitors many non-pitching prominents such as Gordon, Lattore and Levagood of Michigan, and Tanner of Illinois.

In closing, it may be said that the Mid-West National is different in the type of pitchers competing than were the state meets of the twenties. Then the contestants were mostly farmers. The Mid-West National has less farmers among the players, and has had such others as Professor Carl von der Lancken of Columbia University, New York; Jimmy O'Shea, a Massachusetts penitentiary guard; Eddie Packham, a California aeronautical engineer; Sam Somerhalder, of Guide Rock, Neb., a high school football coach; and Dean Brown, who made his living by pulling Zeppelins to earth; just to mention a few. In addition, there is a noticeable difference in the ages of the pitchers. In the twenties, Mossman was one of a few youths in a field of forty to fifty much older men, while today, if a man past 40 years of age gets into the finals it is a surprise.

The crowds watching the games today are larger than in the twenties, so large now, that we estimate the total number of ever-changing spectators of six-day competition at 60,000, with 2,500 the most at any one time.

The remarkable skill of Isais, Allen, Zimmerman and others of today has discouraged the poorer players to become spectators, so that the 105 entries of the 1923 state tournament have dropped to 38 in the Mid-West National in 1939.