WARRENTON - Even at 80, Mick Gillette can still ring up ringers with the best of them. “Them” being the who’s who in the world of shoes – horseshoes that is. We’re talking the game’s premier pitchers, the crème de la crème.
Horseshoes can be a small world, though. A competition that falls under the radar, at least in comparison to the rest of the sporting spectrum. But it’s a fascinating sport that’s definitely worth exploring. And it’s pretty easy to explore, especially for those who call Warren County home. A lot of folks may not realize this.
Here’s the deal. Baseball has Cooperstown. Football has Canton. And believe it or not, the National Horseshoe Pitchers Hall of Fame is just a 10-minute drive from Wright City, located at Quail Ridge Park in Wentzville.
It’s been a bustling location for slightly over a decade, but “every day people come in and say, ‘We had no idea this place existed,’” HOF museum host Chuck Gleason said. There’s a lot to get a load of in this 21,000-square-foot, million-dollar facility that features 16 indoor and 16 outdoor courts, but back to that in a bit.
Let’s home in on Gillette at his home in Warrenton, which he built himself on North Highway 47.
It’s a typical Missouri afternoon in July. The temperature has reached a scorching 95 degrees and it’s humid as heck to boot. Gillette goes out to the backyard where he’ll display his pitching technique and lifts the aluminum covers preserving the clay in a horseshoe pit he also constructed himself.
“Someone looking at the property once thought this (pit) was a hog pen,” Gillette observed. “That guy didn’t know much about horseshoes.”
Those who are in the know, they know it’s all about getting those ringers — wrapping the shoe around that 15-inch-high stake that’s drilled deep into the clay.
As Gillette prepares to launch the 2 1/2-pound horseshoe toward the target 40 feet away, he offers a bit of precaution and advice.
“It takes me a while to really get going so you might have to wait a bit,” he said.
Maybe he was just being humble. The first shoe he pitches misses the mark, but he seems dialed in by his next toss.
Clink. Clank. Clink. Clank. Clink. Clank.
Clapping sounds of iron striking iron buzz through the backyard as he nails six straight ringers in the summer heat. He said at his peak he could get a ringer on 70 percent of his throws and once made 24 in a row.
That clapping thunder of horseshoe cacophony is music to Gillette’s ears. It’s a familiar soundtrack of summer for anyone with a love for the lawn game.
Just like in baseball, horseshoe pitchers have different windups. Some are flailing and lurching, some quick and compact. Gillette’s is the latter. There aren’t many moving parts. His shoes don’t arc much.
Gillette’s perfected his shot through routine. He’s out pitching in his yard every morning by 6 a.m., when it’s still cool out. He aims to throw about 200 shoes each day to stay sharp, 100 is his minimum.
But you don’t have to watch Gillette pitch in person to realize he’s a Show-Me State standout.
Just take a peek in his basement. The plaster walls say it all. They’re covered in plaques and there’s shelves chock-full of trophies, “or as my wife likes to call them, dust collectors,” Gillette joked. Some of the award-winning collection sits on the ground, because there just isn’t enough space on the walls for it all.
Gillette doesn’t have a favorite piece of memorabilia but some of his highlights are his six Missouri State Senior Championship trophies, which he won in 1999, 2003 and consecutively from 2006 to 2009, and his St. Charles Amateur Sports Hall of Fame (1993) and Missouri Horseshoe Hall of Fame (2015) induction plaques. He's had success at state and world tournaments.
Gillette said there are about 150 awards currently in his basement. There used to be more, but he gave a bunch of trophies to different youth football and baseball leagues.
“They had to scratch off the name plates and there’s horseshoe players on them instead of football players, but the kids didn’t care one way or another. They were just happy to get a big trophy,” he said.
Gillette’s horseshoe lifestyle started when he was just age 10. The fifth of 12 children, he grew up on a Dardenne Prairie farm in a strict household. But when he wasn’t doing chores, he’d sneak out behind the family barn to pitch some shoes.
A few years later he joined a league with some buddies in O’Fallon Park, where he’d compete against much older players, which helped him learn some valuable lessons.
“The rules were different then,” Gillette said. “There weren’t 30 feet handicaps for seniors and children like there are now. Everyone shot from 40 feet. So you had two options, practice and get better or get your butt beat and just quit.”
If Gillette’s not on his home court, you can find him on the busy courts at the Quail Ridge Horseshoe Club, where he just won a doubles tournament last weekend.
The Quail Ridge Club, which has about 800 members, evolved from the previous New Melle Horseshoe Club. Members are caretakers of the Hall of Fame Museum, which includes historic photos of presidents Harry S Truman and George H.W. Bush playing horseshoes at the White House.
Gillette is not an inductee of the National Hall of Fame. But only six of the 166 inductees are from the Show-Me State, including Alan Francis, the top horseshoe player of all time. He’s what Lebron James is to basketball or Mike Trout is to baseball.
The Blythedale native has won 23 world titles and counting.
“I’ve played Francis before,” Gillette said. “He’s just tough, so, so tough.”
Anyone who plays horseshoes competitively is lying if they say they’re in it for the money. The most Gillette has won in a tournament is $2,000 and Francis, the face of the sport, averages only $4,000 per national title.
“There just ain’t no money in horseshoes,” Gillette conceded. “There’s probably more in cornhole or washers, but I wouldn’t say those require any more skill.”
Horseshoes is a labor of love for Gillette and many others. It’s all about the camaraderie developed on the court. Gillette has made friendships through the game that have stretched decades.
“Horseshoe pitchers — they’re some of the greatest people I’ve ever met,” Gillette said.
Not far from Gillette’s homemade horseshoe pit is a pond filled with fish. However, you won’t find him with a pole in his hand very often. Most of those fish are pretty safe.
“I use the pond sometimes, but I don’t have the patience,” he said. “I’m just not a fisherman.”
Gillette’s simply a horseshoe pitcher. He’s been doing it for more than 60 years, and he doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon.