IN THE center of the state of Georgia lies a town called Perry,
which is home to the Georgia National Fairgrounds and
Agricenter. In the center of the fairgrounds lies Reaves Arena.
And in the center of the arena, on center court at the 1995
World Horseshoe Pitching Championships last August, Walter Ray
Williams Jr. was the center of attention.
On the final day of competition the two-time Professional
Bowlers Association Player of the Year and six-time world
horseshoe-pitching champion peered over the 2 1/2-pound horseshoe
in his right hand at a 14-inch metal stake 40 feet away. He
started his arm swing and then released the shoe, watching it do
a 1 3/4 turn and land in the pit with a loud clang.
Ringer. Game over.
Williams had beaten Rick Cale of Masontown, W.Va., 41-9 to put
himself in first place halfway through the day. "Oh, well," said
one resigned spectator. "Looks like ol' Walter Ray's gonna win
Williams is so good at horseshoes that the prospect of his
seventh world title elicited nothing more than a yawn and a
shrug from most of the tournament's 3,200 spectators. But while
the 36-year-old native of California--who happens to be a dead
ringer for former major league pitcher Rick Sutcliffe--may not be
Neon Deion, he is no Gray Walter Ray either.
When not competing, he is quiet, even subdued. On the horseshoe
court or the bowling lanes, though, he becomes downright
demonstrative. While most of his opponents react impassively
when a sure ringer bounces off the stake, Williams cringes,
mutters to himself, throws his arms in the air and looks skyward
for help. After losing a match he has also been known to refuse
to shake hands with an opponent, which is considered to be about
the most deplorable thing a horseshoe player can do.
Bowling fans eat up Williams's emotional displays. He is one of
the most popular PBA players, not to mention one of 16 career
millionaires on the circuit. But to horseshoe fans he is more
like John McEnroe, Reggie Jackson or Wilt Chamberlain. "People
love to love him and love to hate him," says 1992 world champion
Indeed, on the rare occasions when Williams loses, the applause
becomes even louder. "I'm not as bad as I used to be, and I
probably know how to play to a crowd better now, but it
bewilders me," Williams admits. "I guess I'm more of a jerk than
I think I am." Of course, when the applause grows louder, it may
just be a show of appreciation. After all, when you outpitch
Williams, you have bettered the best.
Williams began pitching shoes in 1969, at the age of nine.
Within a year he was good enough to toss 45 ringers out of 50
shoes in one round of the junior world championship, and he
earned the nickname Dead-Eye. The following year, upon becoming
the youngest junior world champion ever, Williams appeared in
SI's FACES IN THE CROWD and on The Dick Cavett Show. He repeated
as junior champ in '72 and '75.
By then the whole Williams clan had developed the itch to pitch.
Dad (Ray) and Mom (Esther) would eventually receive achievement
awards from the National Horseshoe Pitching Association; little
brother Jeff would twice win the world junior championship; and
youngest brother Nathan would win six Arizona state titles. But
Walter Ray Jr. was still the one to beat.
"When it was time to do the dishes every evening, we would have
a little round-robin competition, and the loser would have to
wash them," says Ray. "Walter Ray didn't have to wash many
Eventually, the horseshoe prodigy began to consider the stakes
surrounding the stake. "My dream when I was really young was to
be a professional horseshoe player and make money that way,"
Williams says. "But it didn't take too long to realize that
probably wasn't going to work." While there are hundreds of
horseshoe tournaments throughout the country each year, prize
money is often less than the $50 cost of a pair of shoes.
Fortunately for Williams, he had discovered he had another talent.
Having bowled since the age of 11, Walter Ray began to take that
sport seriously at 17. As in horseshoes, he was a quick study
and soon entered local professional tournaments, partially
paying his way through Cal Poly-Pomona with his winnings. He
graduated with a degree in physics, having written a thesis on
the properties of a bowling ball rolling down a lane. "I think
it gave me a different viewpoint," says Williams. "I don't think
I necessarily looked at bowling or the bowling lane like a lot
of other people did."
Perhaps that explains his success. Since joining the PBA tour
full time in 1983, he has established himself as one of
bowling's alltime greats, earning Player of the Year honors in
1986 and 1993. In the latter season he averaged a record 222.98
per game and earned nearly $300,000. Williams is the current PBA
president, and last April he was inducted into the PBA Hall of
He travels to PBA tour stops in an enormous truck with a trailer
attached, often spending nights in bowling-center parking lots.
Along the way he competes in as many horseshoe tournaments as he
can, usually from 15 to 20 a year. Williams estimates that
between practice and competition, he throws a total of about
40,000 bowling balls and 15,000 horseshoes in a year.
But when it comes to choosing between the two sports, it's gotta
be the shoes. Every summer Williams takes two weeks off from the
bowling tour to participate in the World Horseshoe Pitching
Championships. This year he waved off potential bowling earnings
of $80,000 to travel to Perry for the tournament, where first
place was worth 5% of that amount. Some might consider that a
hefty price to pay for a hobby, but Williams considers the time
vacation. "Everybody else has to take weeks off their work," he
explains. "That's what I do. I take a week or two off my work."
More than 1,100 horseshoe enthusiasts from 46 states and five
Canadian provinces did the same last August, but the big
question was whether Williams would win his seventh men's title
in 18 attempts. "That's not a bad percentage, but I'm actually
disappointed in it," Williams admitted during the tournament.
"There are several years I felt I should have won, but I choked."
This year will go down as one of them.
The 16 finalists in the men's championship bracket constituted a
Who's Who of horseshoe luminaries. Besides Williams there was
Dale Lipovsky of Bloomington, Minn., a former righthanded
pitcher in the Boston Red Sox organization who has won three
world horseshoe titles lefthanded. There was Art Tyson of Mount
Vernon, N.Y., who was aiming to become the first
African-American champion. There was the youngest men's
competitor, 24-year-old Chad Hyatt of Indianapolis, whose
200-plus bowling average and 70-plus ringer percentage make him
the world's second-greatest bowler-horseshoe pitcher. And there
was 25-year-old Alan Francis of Blythedale, Mo., a two-time
world champ whose current ringer percentage of 85.2 was second
only to Williams's 89.2.
A typical championship game goes to 40 points. Each competitor
throws two shoes per round, and each ringer is worth three
points--unless it is negated by an opponent's ringer thrown in
the same round. Close shoes (within six inches) count for one
point if each pitcher has missed the stake. Since ringers cancel
each other out, games between top players tend to last longest.
For them a 50-shoe game is normal. In an invitational tournament
last April in New Melle, Mo., Williams and Francis tossed 136
shoes apiece. Williams threw 121 ringers; Francis threw 129 to
In the finals in Perry each of the contestants would play five
round-robin games a day for three days. The player with the best
won-loss record would be the champion.
Williams struggled in the first game, pitching only 59.7%
against Charles Meredith of Bowling Green, Ky. After making an
adjustment in his form, however, he rebounded to throw 35
ringers in 38 throws in the second game, and he went on to
finish the first day tied for second place with Brian Simmons of
South Berwick, Maine. Williams won three of five matches on the
second day, capping the performance with a dramatic 42-33 win
over Francis, but again he left the arena tied for second, this
time with Francis and Cale.
On day three Williams seemed to hit his stride. He beat
tournament leader Simmons 40-15, and he outpitched Lipovsky
43-18. After Williams easily beat Cale, all he had to do was win
one of his final two matches to at least force a playoff.
But then the proverbial shoe dropped. Williams lost the first
game to John Kapnis of Salem, Mass., after which he was tied for
the lead with Simmons and Francis. As Williams was losing the
second game to eventual seventh-place finisher Cone, Simmons and
Francis squared off for the championship.
They battled to a 39-39 tie, and the match came down to the last
shoe. With a resounding clang, Francis won his third world title.
Williams had come close; Simmons had come closer. Sometimes
close doesn't count. Even in horseshoes.
Brad Herzog wrote "The Sports 100," a book ranking the most
important people in sports history.
COLOR PHOTO: GREG FOSTER Williams throws strikes with shoes as well as balls.[Walter Ray Williams Jr. pitching horseshoes]COLOR PHOTO: FOCUS ON SPORTS Williams, here in the '80s, puts a colorful spin on bowling. [Walter Ray Williams Jr. bowling]