How Two Kentucky Farmers Became Kings Of Croquet, The Sport That Never Wanted Them

How Two Kentucky Farmers Became Kings Of Croquet, The Sport That Never Wanted Them
Illustration: Chelsea Beck (G/O Media)
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On a sunny September Sunday in 1982, Mark Burchfield, a 20-year-old tobacco farmer from rural Kentucky, stood in Manhattan’s Central Park, getting ready to take the most important croquet shot of his life.

Mark and his father Archie were one of 32 teams competing in the doubles tournament at the sixth annual U.S. Croquet Association National Championship. Archie already had seven state croquet titles under his belt, but this was Mark’s first tournament. He hadn’t even seen croquet played on grass until the month before; his father’s first time was in March. Back in Kentucky they played a different version of the game on hard-packed clay.

Spectators crowded the waist-high chain-link fence that ringed the courts. Over five days of competition, word had spread of the “Kentucky Riflemen,” with their down-home accents and astonishing skills. Everything about them stuck out: Archie’s burly farmer physique, Mark’s fuzzy mustache and shaggy haircut, their homemade mallets with handles made from pool cues. They were black swans among the white-clad East Coast croquet elite, who had welcomed them, as well as Archie’s wife, Betty, with decidedly muted enthusiasm.

But here they were, in the finals, leading by one point over two of the best players in the sport. Archie, who handled the strategy, showed his son exactly where he wanted him to put the ball.

A 2009 Garden & Gun article described the scene: Archie walked over to Betty and whispered, “If he don’t make that shot perfectly, it’s all over. I feel like I need to tell him.”

“Don’t you dare,” she whispered back. The night before the tournament started, Mark had told his mother that, even if his father knew a shot was critical, he didn’t want to hear about it. He was nervous enough already.

The story of how Mark and Archie got to this moment—told here through decades’ worth of articles and first-hand interviews with Mark, Betty, and others who were there for the Burchfields’ rise through the sport—is the story of a family that not only found a peculiar passion, but refused to accept that they didn’t belong in the bourgeois world that passion led them into.

Mark squatted to eyeball his line. Then he stood, took a deep breath, and swung.

The town of Stamping Ground sits a little over an hour east of Louisville, in the rolling bluegrass hills of northern Kentucky. It owes its name to a natural spring that once drew buffalo in such numbers that they flattened the earth as they congregated to drink.

In the 1980s, Stamping Ground’s 500 or so residents, including Archie Burchfield, mostly made a living growing tobacco and other crops, and raising cattle.

“Archie was raised pretty tough by his mom,” recalls Rick Wilhoite, a childhood friend who often played doubles with Archie. Betty attests to this, describing a moment when she watched her mother-in-law offer a baby a pacifier, only to take it away at the last second, over and over.

“When are you going to give it to her?” she asked, puzzled.

“I’m not,” Archie’s mother said. “I’m teaching her determination.”

Sports came naturally to Archie; his record for scoring in a basketball game at Scott County High School—52 points, set before the introduction of three-pointers—stood for decades.

Archie was also known for his persistence. Betty was a cheerleader, and Archie was smitten. “You see that girl right there?” he told friends. “I’m going to marry her.” It didn’t matter to Archie that she was dating someone else at the time. It might even have sped things up: Betty remembers that when she broke things off with the boyfriend, he told her, “I don’t care who you go out with, as long as it’s not that Archie Burchfield.”

Betty and Archie starting dating, and were married soon after graduating in 1955.

One evening in 1961, they were strolling down Main Street when they noticed lights on behind the Stamping Ground Christian Church. A handful of men were knocking balls around a clay court sprinkled with sand. The couple watched, fascinated, as the men bent over and swung 18-inch mallets between their legs, zooming balls through wickets made of bent rebar.

“Burchfield, you think you’re a pretty good sport,” Betty recalls one of the men saying. “Bet you can’t beat us in a game of croquet.”

Archie took up the challenge and proceeded to get trounced. To make it worse, the men laughed at him.

Humiliated but determined, Archie found a mallet and practiced on his own in secret, rising extra early to finish his farm work so he could hit balls alone after dark. Two weeks later he went back to the church court and won.

Croquet became Archie’s passion. He made his own mallets, shaping the heads from pieces of 50-year-old walnut and the shafts from sugar-tree wood dried in a tobacco barn. Each head was capped with a square of Bakelite plastic on one end and hard rubber on the other, for different kinds of shots.

On his farm just north of town, he scraped out space for two clay courts along the bank of Locust Fork stream. He raised lights on poles for playing at night, dragged in old bus seats for spectators, and set up a concession stand selling soda, candy, and hot dogs. (Archie didn’t drink.)

From May through October, players would gather at the court in the evenings—weekends don’t matter much to farmers—as cows milled around behind the fences. Anyone driving past on Locust Fork Road would see a dozen or so figures on and around the courts, mostly older men wearing coveralls. Betty, usually the only woman present, brought out pies and other homemade dishes. As darkness fell and moths swarmed the lights, laughter and occasional outbursts of anguish mixed with cicada chirps and the solid tok of mallets meeting balls.

The Kentucky version of croquet has little in common with the backyard, are-the-burgers-ready version most familiar to Americans. Modern croquet was born in 19th-century Britain, with roots in an older French game called roque. It was a hit among people with lots of grassy space and time on their hands, i.e. the rich; Wimbledon, remember, is still held at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.

A family in Lancashire plays croquet in 1865.
A family in Lancashire plays croquet in 1865.
Photo: Otto Herschan (Getty)

Croquet crossed the Atlantic around 1880 and made a brief appearance at the 1900 Olympics in Paris. In the 1920s and ‘30s, Hollywood types like Harpo Marx and Samuel Goldwyn became obsessed with the game. On Long Island estates, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald watched Groucho Marx, Dorothy Parker, and other members of the Algonquin Round Table play.

Croquet has a way of inciting fury even among the most mild-mannered players. Maybe it’s the rules, which seem to encourage not just defeating, but punishing and humiliating your opponent. Maybe it’s playing with a piece of equipment so temptingly lethal that American courts classified it as a deadly weapon.

Either way, croquet’s shady reputation got it banned in Boston during the 1890s. A turn-of-the-century magazine article titled “The Immorality of Croquet” described a game that “transforms gentle, chivalrous, good-humored man into a blaspheming, savage bully, [and] converts the sweetest and purest type of English maidenhood into a sly, snarling, cheating, brawling spitfire.”

Clay-court croquet arose in Kentucky and Tennessee during the Depression. It was cheap and open to anyone. And despite its bourgeois roots, croquet—in the South or elsewhere—is one of the few sports where age and sex don’t matter in tournament play. The basic rules are the same in all versions of the game: each player has to hit his or her balls through a series of wickets in order, and then finish by “staking out,” or hitting a post.

In the Kentucky version, nine steel wickets are set solidly into hard-packed clay in a diamond layout. It’s a game of physical finesse and millimeter precision. The balls can barely fit through the wickets, and a poorly aimed shot can rebound to the other end of the 100-foot-long court. With no time limits, games could go all night, sometimes until sunrise.

Archie couldn’t have found a more perfect outlet for his blend of competitive instincts and aggressiveness. A 6-foot-1 bear of a man, like John Goodman in overalls and a farmer’s ball cap, he was legendarily gregarious and good-humored, never smoked, drank or cursed. He made friends wherever he went and was happy to play with anyone, no matter how inexperienced they were. He loved teaching beginners the intricacies of the game, encouraging instead of embarrassing them.

Against skilled opponents, though, Archie was ruthless. He could pull off trick shots to make a pool shark weep. But his real talent was in the game’s complex strategy and Machiavellian mind games: blocking opponents’ balls, always thinking three or four shots ahead. He wasn’t above coughing when a friend was taking a particularly tricky shot.

Many of the skills that make a farmer successful—patience, practical ingenuity, physical endurance—served Archie well on the court. To him, croquet was a combination of chess and war. “I like to play for the other man to make a mistake,” he told the New Yorker. “Ninety per cent of the game is played from the neck up.” As Betty once told the New York Times, “In Kentucky, we play for blood, and you make a mistake only once.”

During the two years following his first taste of croquet, Archie played the game almost every day, and before long he was a local powerhouse. He won his first state croquet championship in 1962, and after that the titles kept coming. In the 1970s alone, he won seven state championships—five in singles and two in doubles. His shelves at home overflowed with awards, some of which were repurposed golf trophies on which the clubs had been replaced by mallets.

One day in 1977, Betty was in a beauty shop in town when she saw an ad for a croquet tournament in Florida organized by the U.S. Croquet Association. She had never heard of the group, and when she went home and asked Archie, he hadn’t either. But he liked the idea of new opponents.

Archie called USCA headquarters in New York City and spoke with its president Jack Osborn, who had founded the group just that year. Jack was an industrial designer and bon vivant who had all but single-handedly invented the six-wicket “Association” version of croquet, adding time limits and other tweaks to the grass-court British game to make it more challenging and fun to watch.

Osborn had high hopes for his fledgling association. He dreamed of taking the niche game mainstream, with help and funding from old money enclaves up and down the eastern seaboard, places like the Hamptons, Palm Beach, and Bermuda. His vision was exclusive and elite: a game meant for garden parties rather than barbecues. He turned down sponsorship offers from beer companies, preferring to cultivate a more champagne-flavored image instead. A quote in his obituary summed up his attitude toward the game: “Croquet in America is a sport for the affluent class.”

Archie called Jack to introduce himself, and ended up describing the Kentucky version of the game. Jack said it sounded like a backyard hobby, whereas the USCA was a professional organization. “We play a pretty tough game up here,” he once told the New Yorker. “We use a lot of strategy.”

Archie asked Jack if he would like to bring a few of his best players down to Kentucky to see how they did against the top clay-court players. Jack declined the offer. But, he added, if Archie really wanted to, he could make the trip to the Palm Beach Polo and Country Club in southern Florida to see how the game was really played.

In March 1982, a tractor trailer pulled to a stop early in the morning along State Highway 882 in Wellington, Florida, across the street from the Palm Beach Polo and Country Club. The truck belonged Archie’s friend, Don Crupper, and the pair had just unloaded 22 tons of lettuce at a town 45 minutes south. Archie had agreed to help with the delivery if Don would swing by the club afterward.

Shortly after sunrise, Archie grabbed a pair of mallets and walked up to the guard post at the gate. He was there to play croquet, he announced. The guard told him there was no way he was entering the club dressed in overalls.

Archie and Don found an unmanned side gate and let themselves in. The club was 2,200 acres of manicured grass, palm trees, and luxury homes. If you were looking for where Prince Charles played polo and Jack Osborn presided over croquet tournaments, you were in the right place.

Eventually, they found the croquet lawns. It was the first time Archie had ever seen the game played on grass, and it was his first encounter with the six-wicket game. The courts were 34 feet wider and the wickets, being larger and set in turf, were more forgiving and less prone to rebounds. Longer mallets gave more leverage for shots, which was good because the balls didn’t roll as far as they did on clay.

Archie met Teddy Prentis, the most famous croquet player in the country at the time. The men compared mallets and Teddy explained the different rules. The balls had to make two circuits of the court, and whoever scored 26 points first, or was ahead when time ran out, won. Players could even jump one ball over another. When Archie talked up his championship record in Kentucky, the Palm Beach pro challenged him to a match: Teddy and his girlfriend against Archie and Don, who had never played before.

As they played, a tall, tanned man with silver hair watched from the sidelines. Archie Peck was also a natural athlete, although his tastes ran to tennis, golf, and jai alai. Graceful and dashing, the Palm Beach native had been called the “Babe Ruth of croquet,” and had already won five national championships: three in singles and two in doubles, with his good friend Jack Osborn.

Archie and Don played until dark, losing some games, winning more. A humbled Prentis walked them back to their truck. He told Archie that if he wanted to compete in the USCA National Championships in New York City in September, he’d first have to qualify at the Southern Regionals in North Carolina.

Back home, Archie gleefully called Jack Osborn again. If Teddy Prentis was the best they had to offer on the East Coast, he said, never mind the invitation to Kentucky, because he’d beaten him his very first time playing on grass.

According to Garden & Gun, Osborn didn’t take too kindly to the provocation. “I’ll tell you this,” Jack said. “If you ever play Mr. Jack Osborn, I’ll wax your fanny.”

“Well, Mr. Osborn,” Archie replied, “if you’re not a whole lot better than Mr. Prentis, you’ll find that hard to do.”

If he was going to compete in the regionals, let alone the nationals, Archie knew he had to learn the subtleties of the grass game. He started by studying the USCA rulebook cover-to-cover, looking for ways to use the strategy of the Kentucky game to his advantage.

Winning a match on grass often comes down to who’s the best shooter. On clay, though, intimidation, patience, and careful planning can prevail over fancy mallet work. Both games use the rule of “deadness,” where a ball that hits another has to pass through a wicket before it can hit the same ball again. Deadness can get so complicated that players often use a scoresheet or courtside board to track which balls are “dead on” others. But Archie could keep it all in his head. He was an expert at using deadness and “wiring,” the tactic of obstructing balls to hamstring an opponent for an entire game.

To practice on grass, Archie had to drive over six hours to the Bon Vivant Country Club just south of Chicago. In July, he was offered a chance to play an exhibition match—against Jack Osborn. Archie put on a new set of white clothes and drove north.

True to his word, Jack waxed Archie’s fanny in singles on the first day. But the next day, Archie won in doubles.

Meanwhile, Archie still had a farm to run. His sons Mark and David worked alongside the hired hands, cutting hay, feeding cows, and growing tobacco. Archie had the same no-bullshit expectations his father had of him. Hard work and respect were both absolutes, and he never made a request twice. The boys didn’t have curfews, but they were expected to work the next day regardless. “All you had to do was stay out late one night and then pitch hay all day,” Mark says. “You wouldn’t do that again.”

In those days, before harvesting tobacco was widely automated, it was still a labor-intensive process that involved impaling stalks on wooden sticks driven into the ground. One day Mark was spearing plants when he drove a quarter inch-wide splinter through his hand. “I thought I was done for the day,” recalls Mark. “But when I showed Dad, he said, ‘Go get some of that black electrical tape out of the truck.’ He taped it up and said get back to work.”

Mark was a high-energy kid who was always in more trouble than his studious brother. As a teenager, he was most interested in hunting, cars, and girls. He had also inherited his father’s uncanny hand-eye coordination, winning archery competitions and excelling in basketball.

On the farm, the boys hung around the croquet courts in the evenings and on weekends. The endless games bored them to tears, but there wasn’t much else to do. Mark sometimes messed around hitting balls in between games. He wasn’t particularly interested in playing, but Archie couldn’t help noticing that his son’s shots hit their target almost every time.

Wilhoite, Archie’s regular doubles partner, had agreed to play with him in the regionals, but he said he was too busy to go to the nationals if they qualified. Archie had his pick of partners from Kentucky. When he settled on his own son, nobody was more shocked than Mark. His father had been watching him play, and was impressed. “You can shoot the lights out, as good as anybody I ever seen. I want you to play with me,” Mark remembers his father saying to him.

Mark demurred, but Archie persisted, telling Mark that all he needed to do was hit the ball to the spots Archie pointed to. Archie also knew that his son had been eyeing a new hunting bow, and promised him that he’d buy it for him if they won.

Mark didn’t want to disappoint his father. He got the impression Archie didn’t think they would win, anyway, so he said yes.

The Burchfields’ old Lincoln rolled into the Pinehurst Country Club in Pinehurst, North Carolina on August 27. The club had three brand new grass courts, making it the largest croquet facility in the Western Hemisphere.

The three-day Southern Regionals tournament had drawn some of the best players in the country, including Archie Peck, who greeted the Burchfields warmly. Other introductions were more chilly, but Archie Burchfield played the role of Kentucky ambassador with good humor. Mostly he was content to let his mallet do the talking.

“At first they were all making fun of us for bending over to hit,” Mark says. “‘Til they saw how we shot.” Mark’s doubles partner, his cousin Dean Barber, was just as new to tournament play. Nevertheless, they ended up winning the doubles title in their division. His first time playing croquet on grass, Mark won the singles trophy by a comfortable margin, qualifying for the national championships.

Archie had a tougher time. He had to fight his clay-court habit of picking up balls to brush the sand off of them; it was illegal to pick up balls on grass. During one doubles match, a referee called a foul on him that he didn’t understand. “He said, ‘That ain’t right, that ain’t in the rules,’” Betty recalls. When it looked like play was going to continue, he sat down in the middle of the court. “Nobody is taking another shot until you show me where what I just did is a foul.” As the judges conferred, he looked over at Betty and winked: I got this. Sure enough, ten minutes later the call was overturned.

Another time Archie walked off in a huff after making a shot. Betty asked what was the matter. “Nothing,” he said. “I put it exactly where I wanted to.” He was trolling his opponent.

Archie and his partner came in third in their doubles division, which was enough to qualify for the nationals. Peck’s team came in first.

The two Archies faced off again in the single finals. “It appeared that Peck was going through the motions in a number of matches leading up to his exciting final confrontation, and reserved some of his best shots for big matches,” wrote an observer from the USCA Gazette.

Burchfield played a strong game, and the match went into sudden-death overtime. Then double sudden-death overtime. Finally, Peck won by a single wicket, 22-21, taking home the title and an “authentic brass taxi horn” as a trophy.

The Kentuckian’s second-place finish even impressed Osborn. “The tournament regulars are staring at defeat at the hands of a farmer,” he said in an interview with a Louisville paper. It was clear to everyone that Archie and Mark were good enough to compete at the national level. The Burchfields were headed to New York.

Archie had to sell a cow to raise the money for the trip in late September, and had to leave home with six acres of tobacco still uncut. But he was determined to show the East Coast snobs what a couple of Kentucky boys could do. And with Mark as his partner, he felt their odds were better than anyone knew—as long as Mark followed his instructions.

Driving the Lincoln through the steel and glass canyons of Manhattan, Archie, Betty and Mark goggled at the ridiculous traffic, dirt, graffiti, and noise. Most overwhelming of all was how many people there were—almost twice as many as the state of Kentucky.

The sixth annual USCA National Championships had drawn more players and spectators than any event the Burchfields had ever seen. They were greeted with the same mix of curiosity and contempt as in North Carolina, but in New York the attitude was ratcheted to another level. Everyone knew how little experience the Kentucky players had with tournament play on grass.

At USCA-hosted cocktail parties, the Burchfields encountered the champagne-sipping image Jack Osborn was trying to cultivate in the young organization. In a TV interview, Archie described he and Betty sitting around nursing Cokes in Park Avenue homes with chandeliers “as big as my living room.” Other guests would chat with Betty, one of the few people who could compete with Archie in ebullience, while conspicuously ignoring her husband.

“Don’t let ‘em get to you,” Betty remembers saying, seeing Archie starting to stew. “Just beat ‘em with your mallet.”

The lawns for the tournament were surrounded by oak trees on the west side of Central Park, within sight of Tavern on the Green and the pink gables of the Dakota. The lineup of 32 teams included the best players in the country, like Teddy Prentis and his son, winners of the past two years’ doubles titles. Smart money, though, was on Archie Peck and Jack Osborn.

When the matches began, Archie and Mark won game after game, even taking down the Prentises. The Kentucky pair noticed more and more people coming to every match. The New York Times, the New York Post, and local TV stations covered the tournament, although they seemed oblivious to the Burchfields’ strategy: Many times when it was Mark’s turn, his father would point to a spot on the field, and Mark would put the ball right there with machine-like precision.

When they weren’t playing, Betty, Mark and Archie visited the Statue of Liberty and the World Trade Center. Mark couldn’t get over how expensive the food was. “We stayed in the room a lot, eating baloney and cheese,” Betty says.

By Sunday, the Kentucky Riflemen had made it to the finals against Jack Osborn and Archie Peck. Hundreds of spectators lined the fence in the late-summer sunshine. “I guess toward the end word got out,” Mark says. “We kind of had a following: ‘Those Kentucky boys sure can shoot!’”

Mark was always jumpy before a game started. As the final match was about to begin, he was getting visibly nervous.

Archie’s initial plan was to set Mark up for an early run, meaning he would clear every wicket in succession, like an expert running the table in pool. Mark shot well, but so did Peck and Osborn, and the East Coast champions held the lead through most of the game. After an hour of play, Osborn made a crucial series of wickets, and it looked like he and Peck had the match sewn up.

But, as Peck said later, Osborne’s ego wouldn’t let him win without humiliating the Burchfields. Instead of taking the next easy shot, he tried to make an unusually difficult one—and missed. Archie and Mark were back in the game.

Archie made a run of his own, and with time almost up, he and Mark had pulled ahead 20 to 19. If Peck cleared his next wicket, though—a mere eight-yard shot—it would tie the game and force an overtime.

Peck was dead on Mark, meaning he couldn’t hit Mark’s ball without going through a wicket first. Archie pointed with his mallet to a spot between Peck’s ball and the wicket he needed to make. If Mark could put his ball exactly there, it would block Peck’s shot, and maybe even decide the match. Betty warned Archie not to tell Mark how crucial the shot was, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew.

Mark took the shot. The ball spun across the manicured grass and rolled to a stop exactly where Archie had indicated.

Peck had one final chance. There was just enough time left for him to jump his ball over Mark’s and still clear his wicket. He tried, but missed. The clock ran out. Barely six months after Archie had snuck into the Palm Beach club and played grass croquet for the first time, the Burchfields were national champions, and in the process had completed perhaps the greatest upset in croquet history.

Archie hugged Mark as the crowd burst into applause, and Betty, in tears, ran out to join them.

After collecting their trophies, the Burchfields returned to Stamping Ground, picking up Mark’s new hunting bow on the way. The unlikely victory, combined with Archie’s natural ebullience, made him a minor celebrity. He sat for dozens of interviews and appeared on the Pat Sajak Show and Charles Kuralt’s On the Road. (He turned down an invitation to Late Night with David Letterman, feeling that his strong personality would clash with Letterman’s freewheeling interviewing style.)

For the next two decades, Archie firmly established himself as one of the best players in American croquet. He played on the USCA National Team with Peck and Osborne and won the USCA doubles championship again in 1987. Croquet took the tobacco farmer from Stamping Ground to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe. At every tournament, Betty was there, usually wearing Archie’s white embroidered jacket that listed all his championships on the back.

They still encountered the occasional gust of snobbery, both on and off the courts. Archie claimed the Palm Beach crowd refused to let him teach at their croquet school, and said that same attitude led to his exclusion from a $32,000 tournament at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach. Once he was told to use the servant’s phone when he had to make a call, The Courier-Journal reported.

“Jack Osborn cried when Archie won in New York,” Betty remembers. “He said, ‘Burchfield, you ruined our croquet. Now we can’t keep truckers, firefighters out, can’t keep none of them out.”

Osborn wasn’t completely wrong, his son John would later say; he just saw Archie’s impact as more negative than it was. “Archie helped democratize the sport. He was a hero to a lot of people,” John says.

The two champs did eventually come to a grudging mutual respect. As for Peck, he told Sports Illustrated that he considered Archie “the greatest thing that ever happened to this sport.”

There’s no doubt Archie’s influence changed the grass game. His shrewd use of deadness and wiring led the USCA to change its rules to make both harder to do. Championship purses weren’t big enough to make it possible to be a professional croquet player—“The upper crust don’t need the money,” Archie groused to Sports Illustrated—so he never stopped farming and raising cattle. But he always welcomed anyone who showed up at the farm to play, either on his two clay courts or the three grass courts he eventually added.

His dedication to the game was so strong that he still played in tournaments after being diagnosed with lymphoma. Sometimes he had to lie down in the grass between shots. Even then, he won the Kentucky state doubles championships in 2004, five months before he died at age 67. At his funeral, it took six hours for all the mourners to pass through the church.

Archie’s passing marked the beginning of the end for Kentucky clay court croquet. Young people didn’t seem to want to learn a game that was so long and complicated.

On a grey afternoon in January 2019, Mark returned to the farm on Locust Fork Road for the first time since his family sold it in 2011. The farmhouse stood empty up on the hill, and the clay courts down by the stream were overgrown with brambles.

Mark picked his way around the rusted frames of bus seats, where farmers once sat shooting the breeze and waiting for their turn to play. He reflected on being one of the few people in sports history to win a national championship—in a sport he didn’t even particularly enjoy—and never play competitively again.

After New York, Archie asked his son if he was interested in playing in more tournaments. “I said, ‘I’ll be honest, I just went up there for you,’” Mark said during an interview later in the day. “Croquet just never was my thing. I guess I got burned out when I was young.”

Although Archie never said it out loud, Mark could sense his father’s disappointment. “I told Mom, I feel bad that I don’t like it as much as Dad, because I know he wants me to play,” he said. “But I just don’t love the game. I wish I did.”

The bluebloods were probably relieved. Peck considered Mark to be one of the most naturally talented players to ever play the game. As Mark and his father had shown the world in 1982, together they could have been unstoppable. Instead, Mark worked as a firefighter for 25 years, and now works part-time for FedEx. Two of his four children have won national sports championships.

Amid the ruins of the snack counter, Mark picked up a broken mallet handle. It had a plastic cap at one end that read “A.B. 1965.” He turned it over in his hand, lost in thought. Twenty feet away, the Locust Fork flowed past, fed by the springs that drew endless herds of buffalo centuries ago. Maybe there was something in the water in Stamping Ground after all.

Julian Smith writes about sports, science, travel, and history. His latest book Aloha Rodeo: Three Hawaiian Cowboys, the World’s Greatest Rodeo, and a Hidden History of the American West came out in May.