Where in the world does one still go to experience the charm of a croquet tournament? Why, to St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, of course. There you will witness the traditional game played by the St. John’s croquet team against, of all groups, the United States Naval Academy. If you go to the campus lawn, there you will see between 2,000 and 3,000 spectators viewing the five-match tournament. You will see the crowd dressed in their “Easter Sunday best,” complete with flower-topped straw hats. You’ll even see more creative costumes such as hoopskirts topped with old-fashioned white-lace gowns and suits from the 1920s. You’ll see spectators sitting on blankets under the trees nibbling cheeses, breads, and wines from picnic baskets. You’ll see the alumni tent serving champagne, cucumber sandwiches, and chocolate-covered strawberries. You’ll hear the Naval Academy Band playing old Dixieland and Big Band favorites. Later in the afternoon, the band will be replaced by a DJ playing the same favorites, and St. John’s students, affectionately called “Johnnies,” and other spectators will dance on the concrete sidewalk in front of the steps leading up to Barr-Buchanan Centre, while the croquet ball continues to be tapped through the wickets by the mallets. (It’s not exactly a parquet dance floor, but it works.)
This unlikely sports event played between the Naval Academy (student population 4,000) and St. John’s College (a Western Classics Liberal Arts college, student population 400) began twenty-four years ago in 1982. Tradition has it that a midshipman from company 34, while attending the same party as a bunch of Johnnies, boasted that the Naval Academy could beat the Johnnies at anything. So one of the quick-thinking liberal arts students challenged the midshipman to a game of croquet. The challenge was accepted and the Naval Academy croquet team comprised of the midshipman and other midshipmen from company 34 was defeated. Though croquet is not listed on the academy website as a supported sport, each year a team from company 34 returns to the St. John’s lawn. The midshipmen won the trophy, dubbed the Annapolis Cup, twice in the first five years. But, for a solid 13 years they were again and again outwitted and defeated by the Johnnies. And thus was born the long-standing tradition appropriately dubbed Croquet Day.
Through the years, many traditions have developed for this peculiar day, besides the traditions of formal dress, food, and musical accompaniment offered by the Naval Academy Band. One such tradition is that each year the Johnny croquet team wears a different uniform. The uniform is kept a well-guarded secret until the moment the team makes its big entrance. And what an entrance it makes! This year the team wore, without any rhyme or reason, red T-shirts decorated with the communist symbol, the hammer and sickle, and the letters SJCCCP, a play on the acronym for the former Soviet Union, below it. They made their grand entrance, as they do every year, from the doors of Barr-Buchanan Center, (a building that opens up onto the lawn on the farthest north side of campus) and marched down the steps to the lawn with the Beatles’ song “Back in the USSR” playing in the background. Each year the Johnnies have a different theme song to go with their different uniforms, which have ranged from army camouflage to kilts. And each year the midshipmen witness their entrance with trembling anticipation while dressed in their more sophisticated and customary uniform of white slacks and white lettermen sweaters. But it is not the entrance of the Johnny team that officially begins Croquet Day. That anticipated moment is first ushered in each year by St. John’s tutor (read professor), Mr. May, conducting the Freshmen Chorus in an ode to Croquet Day ballad. Then comes the grand entrance.
Though Naval Academy defeat has been a large part of the long-standing tradition, that tide began to turn in 2001. That year the academy threatened not to field a team from company 34 unless they started winning some games. So the academy hired Anne Morris, a tournament-level croquet master from Easton, Maryland, who had also coached a team at Smith College. Along with Morris, came the replacement of the midshipmen’s handmade croquet mallets with professional mallets costing $120. Hence, the academy won the Annapolis Cup in 2001. But that did not begin a new tradition of annual St. John’s defeats. Oh, no, indeed. Despite the academy’s professional mallets, the Johnnies won the cup back again in 2002 and held it until last year’s, 2005, surprise defeat. But this year, again, St. John’s lived up to its tradition, and after playing for only three hours, students Geremy Coy and Mac Ward won the third match sealing an ultimate 5-0 victory.
As the tradition lives on and the academy becomes more and more serious about the competition, it will be interesting to see what victories the next years will bring. Will the academy soon have its own 13-year winning streak? A dreadful thought. But, who knows what may happen.