Of Wits and Wickets
On a June morning near the peak of the rolling hills of Sandwich, the dew and cool have already burned off as the sun climbs towards its apex in a hazy blue sky. From this elevation atop the spine of the mid-Cape, one can sense the presence of the Bay, but trees just obscure the actual view. Earlier, these same trees cast deeper shadows over the grass court, but now the shade has receded to the sidelines; one bench remains sheltered from the direct sunlight as temperatures climb towards 90 degrees in the first true heatwave of 2021. In this setting of greens and blue, four devoted competitors clad in traditional white garb strike colored balls with heavy, rectangular mallets—perhaps of three pounds each—and calculate strategies to simultaneously advance their own teams’ positions and to impede the progress of their opponents. In its description of Winslow Homer’s 1866 painting Croquet Scene, the Yale University Art Gallery notes “the playfully vindictive nature of the game,” and today’s match bears this out as Red sends Black careening across the grass, out of bounds. It’s a game of teamwork, as the pairs consult over the optimal placement of balls to set up their next turns, but it’s also a game of skill, as each shot requires the precision of one in billiards. Ideally, one of the players notes, the wickets themselves should be so tight that when a ball passes through, there’s only room to fit a credit card in the spaces on either side. In an attempt to set up her next shot and to block the #4 wicket, the player of the black ball laments that she, “Just needed one more roll.” It’s a game of millimeters, and unlike billiards, the conditions of even the most perfectly manicured court can vary. Wet grass can slow the balls, and the natural terrain naturally contains imperfections. Much like a golf player reads a putting green, so too the croquet player must assess the lay of the court, adding another dimension to a game that is far more complex than the casual competition common to backyards at summertime barbeques. In the words of Jean Lynch, president of the board at the Sandwich Croquet Club, “It’s a mental game.”
Although the game of croquet has enjoyed popularity internationally since its “modern” origins, it’s a surprisingly young sport in the USA, at least in its official, competitive form. According to the Croquet Club of America, “Croquet is believed to have first been played by 13th century French peasants who used crudely fashioned mallets to whack wooden balls through hoops made of willow branches.” The roots of the modern version of the game date to 1830’s Ireland, however, where players called the game “crooky.” In 1852, the game crossed the Irish Sea to England, where “Widespread popularity came when a London sporting goods manufacturer by the name of John Jaques began selling complete croquet sets (John Jaques & Sons remains the foremost manufacturer of croquet equipment today). With the availability of equipment, croquet flourished and soon became one of the primary social and recreational activities of the British leisure class.” At the height of the British Empire, the game quickly expanded throughout the colonies, including some of the former ones. Since then, while the casual game became a staple of summertime, interest in the actual sport has waxed and waned. Just once, in 1900, players even competed in croquet at the Olympics, in Paris. In a 2015 article for Vanity Fair, Pippa Middleton notes that, “For many years, reportedly, it was Winston Churchill’s wish to be buried in his croquet lawn at Chartwell, his house in Kent.” In literary and popular culture, depictions of the sport have appeared in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (where players used flamingos as mallets to hit hedgehogs through bent playing cards), Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and in the 1998 black comedy Heathers (later adapted into a Broadway musical). According to the United States Croquet Association, “Croquet as a public sport suffered a setback in the 1890’s when the Boston clergy spoke out against the drinking, gambling, and licentious behavior associated with it on the Common,” but it experienced resurgences in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, largely due to its popularity amongst “famous entertainment and literary figures.” A match in 1960 between the Westhampton Mallet Club on Long Island and London’s Hurlingham Club was the harbinger of the modern game in America, however. Aficionados began constructing more “official” courts, and Jack Osborn organized the United States Croquet Association in 1977 with six clubs on the East Coast. The USCA website states: “Osborn hammered out a codified set of rules for a uniquely American variety of 6-wicket croquet and tirelessly promoted formation of local clubs and tournaments throughout the country. Today, as many as 10,000 men and women play this elegant and exacting sport on more than 600 greens in the U.S. and Canada.”
The Sandwich Croquet Club began in 2009, over two years prior to the construction of the courts that are here today. Croquet courts at the old Ballymeade Country Club in Falmouth and at the Heritage Museums & Gardens had recently closed, and players from both locations were interested in finding a new venue for their passion. A steering committee had formed, and Ed Gardella identified Sandwich Hollows Golf Club as a potential host for the new enterprise. According to the Sandwich Croquet Club’s website, “Ed, Bill Day, and Dave Polidor, SHGC Golf Course Superintendent, identified a site and measured out two small courts. Still uncertain of its future, the Sandwich Croquet Club was launched on May 3, 2009, when an informal group of seven winter-hardened souls met for a bone-chilling afternoon of play on the new courts.” As interest in the club grew, membership expanded to 24 members by the end of the season in 2011. That same year, through fundraising, agreements with Sandwich Hollows, and “the extraordinary generosity of the Crowell Construction Company,” the club was able to build a full-sized court just to the west of the Sandwich Hollows’ clubhouse and putting green. They planted the grass in December of 2011; member volunteers watered the greens throughout much of 2012, and the new courts opened for play that September with a “grand opening tournament and much excitement.”
Sandwich Hollows is a public golf club, so the Sandwich Croquet Club actually leases its land from the town. Although the croquet club is entirely volunteer-driven, it established a kind of partnership with the greenskeeping team at Sandwich Hollows, which provides the professional maintenance that keeps the courts in pristine shape. The layout allows for either one “full-sized” court setup or for two “half-sized” courts along with a “small courts” area off to the side for practice, golf croquet, or nine-wicket croquet. Most of the time the half-sized courts are used, and in this configuration, up to 24 players can be on the greens at once. Club president Jean Lynch notes that because they are a volunteer club, “We put the wickets up—whoever plays first, usually at 10:00—and then put everything away at the end of the day, after the last match. Every two weeks or so, volunteers paint the lines and mark the locations for the wickets with white dots.” In 2021, the club has seen a jump in membership and currently includes 73 members. This is up from about 60 over the past few years. Lynch believes that the club could probably sustain up to around 100 members, but at some point, the board will need to decide what the upper limits should be. “We have a good group,” she says. “I don’t know if the increase in numbers is due to Covid and people wanting to be outside more or just more people catching on.” Lynch further explains that the club’s affiliation with the US Croquet Association and outreach programs with the Sandwich Council on Aging have attracted more members and generated more enthusiasm for croquet. She says, “A lot of people take up the sport when they can no longer physically play tennis or golf. This is a good option, and there’s no real advantage based on strength or gender.”
While many other activities had to go on hiatus in 2020 because of the pandemic, croquet is an outdoor sport that allows for easy social distancing, so play continued in Sandwich. “Similar to golf, there are not many people on the course at once,” says Lynch. “We were masked the whole time, and we followed other protocols such as disinfecting everything, but even though we started last year’s season cautiously, we ended up having a few tournaments, and in the final analysis, we did have a good summer.” In 2021, as life has returned to more normal in many respects, the Sandwich Croquet Club still maintains one of its new traditions—that of tapping mallets at the end of games rather than shaking hands. The club is also looking forward to its annual events, including tournaments, an evening gathering on Sandy Neck, and their awards banquet towards the end of the year. Throughout the season, the club also hosts clinics to teach beginners and to help advanced players refine their skills. There are three standard games: Nine Wicket, which is the more casual of the games, similar to the one people play in their backyards; Golf Croquet, which is the fastest-moving of the styles, played around six wickets and similar to the game of golf; and Six Wicket, which is the most strategic and prestigious, and the game that draws the comparison of “chess on grass.” One of the supporters of the club and a regular instructor is Bob Kroeger of Dennis. A member of the Croquet Hall of Fame, Kroeger teaches when the club hosts its croquet academy. Says Lynch, “We’re lucky to have someone of his stature to come teach.”
As the sport enjoys an upturn in the US, the Sandwich Croquet Club is thriving and putting itself on the map. Members look forward to annual exchanges with other clubs, such as their summer trip to Nantucket. “We’re a social club,” says Lynch, “so we have events each month.” In addition, members recently competed in a USCA tournament held in Lennox, MA. “Someone from our club won first place in her flight,” Lynch beams. “It was nice to see seven of us participate in a national tournament.”
Chris White is a contributing writer for Cape Cod Life Publications.