Wicket Moves | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Wicket Moves 

Croquet: it's not just for sissies anymore.

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Two summers ago Doug Johnson was heading south on Lake Shore Drive when, right past the 57th Street exit, something in Jackson Park caught his eye: lawn bowlers playing on two perfectly manicured greens. An avid croquet player since discovering the game 12 years earlier, Johnson was thrilled. For him and his croquet cronies, who had been forced to search Lincoln Park for freshly mown grass to play on, this was everything they could hope for: beautifully tended lawns, lights for night playing, and an idyllic setting practically right on the lake, all courtesy of the Chicago Park District.

Johnson, who directs marketing and government affairs for a highway construction company, had toyed with the idea of starting a croquet club and lobbying the city to build some public courts. He'd even placed a classified ad in the Reader looking for members. The Jackson Park find changed all that. That summer and the next, Johnson and his friends were occasionally joined by others, including Barney King, a manufacturer's representative from Northbrook who'd been driving to Milwaukee to play. But to form leagues, hold tournaments, and give lessons, they needed to create an official club and get the Park District's approval. They also needed to deal with the lawn bowlers.

The two courts and the field house were built in 1927, and the Lakeside Lawn Bowling Club was founded at the same time. Back in the day, both lawn bowling and croquet were popular pastimes, and parks all over the country maintained greens to accommodate players. But for as long as anyone can remember, the Jackson Park bowlers have pretty much had the grounds to themselves. The inside of the field house is full of black-and-white team photos and dusty trophies, and many of the battered green lockers are reserved for use by the club's members, most of them senior citizens.

Mindful of stepping on toes, Johnson introduced himself and explained what he wanted to do. "The lawn bowlers were apprehensive at first," he said. "I don't think they were too crazy about having to share the facility with a whole other club, especially one that really aspired to grow." Together they agreed on a schedule, trying not to disrupt the lawn bowlers' routine more than was necessary.

After several months of negotiations, the Chicago Croquet Club--with Johnson as president--got the official go-ahead from the Park District in February. Over the next few months, as membership swelled to 22, the club created a budget, bought equipment, and tried to get the word out about the official opening on June 15.

That day club members were out before the 9 AM start time carefully measuring distances between wickets. Classical music floated over players sipping coffee and nibbling on pastries as they waited for Bob Kroeger, a professional croquet player and instructor, to start some basic lessons. King had convinced the Croquet Foundation of America to fly Kroeger out from his home in Massachusetts. Johnson's girlfriend, Lynne Marek, a reporter for Bloomberg News, had encouraged a few friends to drop by. Dressed in white and wandering about the pristine greens nudging balls with mallets, the attendees made a pretty tableau that wouldn't have looked out of place in the Roaring Twenties.

In fact, the informed dress code is a matter of some disagreement. "A lot of people are like me--I like to see it but I don't like to wear it," said Johnson, who was looking natty in a white fedora. "Generally during the week I'd say we're about 50-50--half the people wear it and half the people don't. A lot of people say it discourages people from coming."

Perhaps the resistance has something to do with croquet's history as a diversion for the upper classes. Although the game probably began in the 13th century with peasants in France knocking balls through willow branches bent to form hoops, by the 17th century the English king Charles II was a devotee. It later became popular with Victorians in the 1850s and with members of the Algonquin round table in the 1920s. Some players do relish the symbols of gentility associated with the game--at one point someone passed around cold drinks on a silver platter--but it would be a mistake to classify them as tea-drinking sissies. "I was out here one day playing, talking to some people at the fence," said Johnson. "Then I noticed my girlfriend was about to hit a ball through the wrong wicket. I turned around and yelled, 'What the fuck are you doing?' And she was like, 'What the fuck do you think I'm doing?' And the people I was talking to were like, 'Whoa!'"

"Your average person doesn't really know about croquet," said Jason Benson, an export broker for a management consulting company who serves as the club's treasurer. "They think about the backyard set, with the wire wickets--the 'coat hangers.' I try to explain to my friends, you know, when you've played croquet, it's like what putt-putt is to golf."

The official rule book for six-wicket croquet, which is what the members play competitively among themselves, explains in detail the concept of "deadness"--after a player roquets another's ball (hits it with his or her own ball), it's "dead" and can't be hit again by that player until he or she scores another wicket--and terms like "rover ball," a ball that has gone through all the wickets and becomes something like a wild card. The white plastic wickets are high and very narrow--barely wider than the balls. Games can last anywhere from an hour and a half to upward of four hours. Strategy is just as important as making shots. "You have to think three or four moves ahead," said Johnson, who admitted that it's not much of a spectator sport. "If you don't know the rules it's kind of like watching a game of chess." Players say the game attracts problem-solving types. "You get a lot of stockbrokers," said Kroeger. "Lawyers really like it."

"It's very mental," said Benson. "It can be a very offensive or defensive game." He takes a wicked delight in the competitive aspects. "You can have as much fun spoiling someone else's good time as you can playing your own game. It's good for venting frustration."

"It's the ultimate war game," said club secretary Jeff Lee. "It's a race around the wickets. You get to attack your opponents." A freelance artist who does some carpentry on the side, he donated a bunch of mallets to the club that he made himself. His own had his last name carved on it in block letters. The mallets are a rich brown wood with a narrow stripe of lighter wood running along their lengths, which helps the player to line up shots. The handles, he confessed, came from Home Depot--they're intended for tools used to dig postholes.

Kroeger started out his lesson by demonstrating the proper stance and basic grasps and shots. After running through typical grips with names like "the Irish" and "the Solomon," he showed us how to shoot from between the legs, using our shoulders to swing it in an arc. Feet should be parallel and not more than a mallet head's length apart--about nine inches, "although I don't want to see anyone take a divot out of their ankle," he cautioned.

We stood in a line and started practicing some shots, trying to hit the ball to specific points. The lawn became quiet with concentration as everyone tried to keep the proper form in mind, waddling hips and shoulders to adjust their stances. Twenty-odd mallets swung to and fro like pendulums.

Around lunchtime some members of the bowling club showed up and, after mingling for a while, began setting up a lane on the edge of one of the courts. They weren't in the way, but some of the croquet club members were put out. "See, we would never do that, come by and start playing while they were having an event," one said. But most were understanding. "They really have had a huge presence at this place," said Marek. "Small cadres of people have played croquet here the last few summers, but this is the first time that the croquet players have kind of swarmed over the club."

After lunch, everyone split up into groups to play golf croquet, a simple game that the members say is a good introduction to the sport. Each team tries to get a ball through a wicket in turn. Players can try to hit their own ball through, block or roquet the other team's balls so they can't make a shot, or hit a partner's ball to maneuver it into a better position. One couple missed the lessons in the morning, so Benson gave them some quick tips. But as the game progressed, the mood on their team soured. The term "Mr. Know-It-All" was uttered. Apparently this happens often. "A couple weeks ago," said Benson, "this one couple, I swear they were going to come to blows."

As the day heated up, people started collecting in the shade underneath the eaves of the clubhouse, gabbing and relaxing. "I think this is why a lot of people play golf, to be outside," said a player, watching dragonflies buzz the sunny courts. Not at all averse to the purely social aspects of the game, the members are planning golf croquet nights one Wednesday a month, complete with a grill, in addition to their usual six-wicket games on weekend mornings and evenings. It's all part of their expansion plan. "You get people playing golf croquet and maybe a third of them will go on to learn six-wicket croquet," said King. "They're very excited to play once you get past the rules."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J. Douglas Johnson, Lynne Marek.

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