• April 18, 2014

At St. John's College, a Wicket Good Afternoon

With Mallets Toward None ... 2

St. John's College

John Dusenbury, a senior at St. John's, lines up a shot. The three courts here aren't finely manicured croquet lawns; they're green patches carved out of the sea of spectators on the campus's main quad.

On an early afternoon here at St. John's College, a ripped-from-the-viewbook sunny Saturday, the institution's premiere sporting event is about to start. So, naturally, I'm staring at the line for the Porta-Johns.

It's a sartorial marvel: Gentlemen decked out in newsboy caps, seersucker suits, knee-high argyle socks, and madras shorts. Ladies wearing floral frocks and espadrilles. Toward the front of the line, a pair of women twirl parasols; toward the back, there's a guy sporting a monocle. It's vintage all the way—"vintage" as imagined by undergraduates with limited closets, that is.

So what turns a Porta-John line into a Great Gatsby-era runway show? A lawn game. For the 29th straight year, St. John's and the U.S. Naval Academy are battling at nine-wicket croquet. If that seems like an unlikely basis for fierce rivalry, well, try telling that to the throngs of spectators bedecked with orange-and-black Beat Navy pins.

The Annapolis Cup, started on a lark in 1983, is one of the few occasions when students at St. John's mingle with their neighbors across the street. But it's also become a capital-E Event—a chance for students to swing-dance in thrift-store finery, for alumni to trade war stories, and for townies to break out the champagne and cheese plates.

Which is to say: It's a competition that only a determinedly unique college could put on. St. John's is a Great Books college, with a focus on canonical literature and scholarship and a body of fewer than 600 students. When college leaders refashioned the curriculum in the 1930s, they abolished intercollegiate athletics. A few sports have crept back in at the club level since then, but the institution continues to wear its cerebral eccentricity like a badge.

So the sports hero here is Blake Myers, a bespectacled senior who's now striding into the campus library with a set of mallets. As student leader of the croquet club—the Imperial Wicket, everyone calls him—he's marshaling the troops for today's showdown.

And even the tailgaters who don't look like they've just stepped out of West Egg are a little different. Take the pair of young alumni, croquet vets themselves, who showed up at about 8 in the morning to stake out choice spots on the quad. By noon—with the match still an hour away—they're already well-lubricated and loopy.

"We came from Santa Fe," one says—the home of St. John's second campus. "Turns out it's a long flight."

So how'd you pass the time?

"We read some Walter Benjamin. You know who he is?"

Sure, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. That's an unusual choice in airplane reading.

"Yeah, but I agree with almost all of his tenets."

A Challenge

There weren't any tailgaters or Porta-Johns 28 years ago, when the Annapolis Cup made its debut. But there were pomp and circumstance right from the start. Kevin Heyburn made sure of that.

Mr. Heyburn, then a St. John's freshman, bumped into a Naval Academy admiral and mentioned that, back in the early 1900s, the two colleges competed in baseball and lacrosse. Sometimes the Johnnies even won. The admiral's response took the form of a dare: "I wouldn't recommend playing the Naval Academy in any sports now."

Well, we've got a croquet set in the library, Mr. Heyburn thought. Maybe we can beat them at that.

So he persuaded the student-government president at St. John's to issue an official challenge. To his surprise, Navy students cobbled together a team and marched over to the college one afternoon.

Mr. Heyburn and the St. John's squad had planned a few flourishes: They procured the tallest trophy they could find and got a student waitress in what Mr. Heyburn describes as a "very nice 1930s-era slinky dress" to serve drinks. St. John's triumphed, the mayor of Annapolis presented the team with the spoils, and the Navy men went home grumbling that they lost because of that sharp-dressed student who'd plied them with alcohol.

And then, year after year, the contest kept happening. Traditions formed: Navy started to show up with a waiter of its own. The teams met for a prematch lunch over at the Academy. Someone replaced the top of the trophy with an open cup so the victors could drink champagne from it. Spectators, emulating the young waitress who'd entered into campus lore, dressed to the nines.

And the two colleges, separated by a street that might as well have been a canyon, found themselves interacting.

"My idea was just to get St. John's students to do things with Navy students," Mr. Heyburn says, "and to celebrate both schools with a sense of fun."

What Mr. Heyburn didn't anticipate was the crowds. On a sunny Saturday, campus officials brace for several thousand visitors.

Even the croquet community has taken notice. A few years back, Christopher Nelson, president of St. John's, was surveying the action when he bumped into a woman who introduced herself as president of the United States Croquet Association. Mr. Nelson was shocked: How'd she happen to show up here?

"Don't you know," she asked, "that this is the largest croquet match in the world?"

Mr. Nelson laughs as he remembers the encounter. "And here we just thought we were having a nice croquet game with our neighbors across the street."

'A Great, Grand Picnic'

Funny thing about the world's largest croquet tournament: No one watches the croquet.

Well, that's not quite true. A small group of hard-core enthusiasts—mostly alums from past croquet squads, like the Walter Benjamin aficionados—hang by the fields, which are carved out of the sea of pastel partygoers enveloping the campus quad. But plenty of Annapolis Cup attendees never even get within sniffing distance of the matches. "It's just a great, grand picnic," Mr. Nelson says.

Which means you run into a lot of folks like J.R. Randles, of Mitchellville, Md., who's chatting up newcomers at the edge of the lawn as he struggles to uncork a bottle of champagne. Mr. Randles is quick to point out that he's neither a Johnnie, a Middie, nor a croquet buff. "It's all about the tailgate," he says, eyeing a table stocked with boxed wine, plastic champagne flutes, makings for mimosas, and an impressive array of snacks.

Just past Mr. Randles's outpost, a group of guys in pastel polos toss beanbags. Beyond them, a gaggle of Johnnies laze at the edge of the lawn in dingy couches of unknown provenance.

At about 1 in the afternoon, Jo Ann Mattson, alumni director of St. John's, seizes a microphone and welcomes the crowd. Then, some pageantry: Mr. Nelson and Vice Admiral Michael H. Miller, superintendent of the Naval Academy, trade customary jabs. The St. John's freshman chorus sings "The Star Spangled Banner" (Francis Scott Key was an alumnus), the Navy fight song, then the St. John's song—a winking parody ("Oh hear us when we boldly say/'defeat the Middies at croquet!'") set to the same melody.

Cue the electronic music, and the Navy squad surges out of the campus library, looking dapper, as they do every year, in all white: cardigans emblazoned with gold N's, slacks pressed, and shoes polished. The players reel off their names and birthplaces, one by one, and take their places in line.

With that, a hush descends over the crowd. It's time to answer the day's big question: What will the Johnnies be wearing? It's a closely guarded annual secret. A couple of years ago, they stormed out of the library disguised as Vikings. Another time, they chose Soviet bloc iconography, wearing red shirts marked with the letters SJCCCP—St. John's College Croquet Club of the Polity, apparently. That one didn't go over so well: "People thought this was not patriotic," recalls Mr. Nelson.

So the following year, out marched a troupe of mallet-wielding Bruce Springsteen impersonators, all dressed as the Boss on the iconic Born in the U.S.A. LP cover: white T-shirts, blue jeans, red ball caps in the back-right pocket.

Now, with the Navy squad looking on, out stride the Johnnies, wearing identical Navy uniforms. Sure, the St. John's team couldn't afford white shoes, and their pants look a little shabbier sans starch, but no one can accuse them of slacking: While the president and the admiral were getting the crowd fired up, the players were inside, shaving their heads.

The crowd erupts in chortles and applause, and the ersatz Middies and the actual ones take to the fields.

Talking Strategy

On the main pitch—the equivalent of Wimbledon's Centre Court—Mr. Myers and his partner, Johnnie Fleming, are taking on a duo helmed by Navy's Imperial Wicket, Dan Abney.

It's clear, early on, that the Johnnies have seized the initiative. Within a couple of turns, Mr. Myers has "gone rover," meaning that he's traversed all nine wickets, but instead of tapping the final post to end his game, he's zipping around the lawn helping his partner. After almost every shot—always taken between the legs, with a surprisingly forceful backswing and a nonchalant, pendulumlike flick forward—he's back with Mr. Fleming, conferring over strategy.

This is what makes croquet a less-than-scintillating spectator sport. "Do you know why St. John's always wins at croquet?" jokes Elliott Zuckerman, a retired faculty member. "Because it's a game that exists almost entirely of discussion."

"There's a great deal of strategy," Mr. Myers acknowledges, but he rejects the old saw that croquet is "chess on grass." He should know: He's been playing ever since he got to St. John's, and now he pretty much runs an intercollegiate sporting club. As Imperial Wicket, he's the de facto coach, equipment manager, scheduler, and, most importantly, costume coordinator for the Annapolis Cup.

The Johnnies play each spring in the National Collegiate Croquet Championships, and they compete against teams from Haverford, Davidson, and Ginger Cove, which bills itself as "Annapolis's premier life-care retirement community." As it turns out, the septuagenarians are skilled. "We beat them this semester, but in the fall, we lost," Mr. Myers says. "They give us lunch and everything. It's great."

Today, it doesn't take an expert to tell that both teams are playing pretty darn well. In one marathon flurry of cleared wickets and roquets (that's the term for hitting another ball and extending your turn), Mr. Myers and Mr. Fleming execute a decisive maneuver called a three-ball rush. On the sidelines, the Benjamin boys roar. They know it's all over.

If the Johnnies follow Mr. Myers's lead and triumph today, they'll push their overall Annapolis Cup record to 24-5, with nary a loss since 2005. "We've got more at stake than they do," Mr. Myers admits between drags on a cigarette and swigs from a bottle of Red Stripe beer. "There's not much of a stigma if they lose."

Meanwhile, the great, grand picnic continues.

Bill Lusby, programming director at Annapolis's WNAV 1430 AM, is soundtracking the event with swing, jazz, and jump chestnuts from the 30s, 40s, and 50s. When he takes a break, and the Naval Academy's band lights into "Embraceable You," a brick walkway over by the library becomes an impromptu dance floor.

Over at the main merch tent, a bucket of Beat Navy pins is looking pretty picked over. The folks manning the tent showed up today with 500 pins. Now, at about 3:30 p.m., they're down to their last four.

A half-hour later, a voice cuts in on the PA over the Andrews Sisters with an announcement: St. Johns has just closed out its third match, and with it, the 2011 Annapolis Cup. There's a flurry of cheers, but over on the quad, no one seems to move. The music swells once again. Tonight there's a grand cotillion, and in the meantime, it's a lovely, languid day. Why go anywhere?

Libby Sander contributed to this story.

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