That was the headline on the newspaper. "We will win. Our advantage is our warrior spirit," said the Navy's leader in the first paragraph. Here we were, over a month into the war in Iraq, and I was reading stuff like this. The fight was basically over. The United States military had marched into Baghdad with alacrity that had never been seen. Yet here was more posturing in a post-bellum daily news report. Surreal?
Not in the world of St. John's College and Naval Academy croquet.
The first challenge for the Annapolis Cup occurred in 1982. haze, a St. John's Alumnus explains, "The Middies/Johnnies match began just after my time in the early 80's. Back in my day, we dressed up in spring clothes (think seersucker) and drank mint julips and played croquet under the Liberty Tree... It was only later that someone had the brilliant idea of challenging the Midshipmen."
Back in those days, relations betwixt the two universities were few and far between- the two schools are on nearly opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of politics, purpose, size, academic style and virtually everything else. Perhaps the only thing they share is a bit of frontage on King George Street, College Creek, and the good relations with the townies of Annapolis. Initially, the croquet match was fairly serious, with a large sterling silver trophy the reward for the victor. The match was proposed to grant one more way of settling the rivalry besides the annual crew and sailing regattas. Of course, the grounds for the challenge weren't level by any means, pun intended. The field used back in those days had a steep grade for a regulation croquet pitch (and still does today), and was filled with divots (which are now repaired thanks to donations from alumni from both colleges)- an advantage to the experienced Johnnies side. The St. John's team easily swept the match from the newly formed Middy squad, 0-5, and reveled in having done their part to bring down The Machine.
Today the game is actually more formal, but the purpose has changed a lot. Instead of being a golf croquet event, it is instead a nine-wicket, five game series. The teams have changed a bit too. Initially the St. John's team consisted of whomever showed up, as virtually every student learns and plays croquet at some point. Today, the team consists of their actual intercollegiate croquet team, which is usually nationally ranked. The Naval Academy team has changed too. At first, only the first class midshipmen from Twenty-eighth Company would play. Today, the midshipmen bend this rule and everyone from the Brigade Commander to Trident Scholars get "adopted" by "Club 28" for the team's matches, provided they show propensity for the game.
The pregame festivities have changed as well. Instead of being a hasty challenge, there is actually a formal delivery of the challenge by last year's loser (the Challenger) to last year's victor (the Defender). This ceremony takes place on the first day of spring, and like the actual match, it is covered by local media and national magazines alike. Gentleman's Quarterly and Sports Illustrated have both run stories on the event.
The week before, several smaller events occur. On Monday afternoon, the Academy's Mechanical Engineering department presents the midshipman team with new mallets. In almost self-mocking fashion, the mallets exhibit serious levels of over-engineering. This year's mallets featured carbon fiber shafts and transition metal-cored heads. On Thursday, the Academy team is invited to a picnic style brunch, and on Friday, the favor is returned when the St. Johns side is invited to join the wardroom for lunch in King Hall. Furthermore, the Imperial Wicket, the team captain, is invited to address the Brigade of Midshipmen prior to lunch; such an honor is typically reserved for the Commandant of Midshipmen and the Brigade Executive Officer. However, the Brigade cheers and applauds the Imperial Wicket so loudly, no one ever actually hears what he has to say (the Johnnie who sat at my table this year thought it was hillarious because the Imperial Wicket actually had spent the night before writing a speech).
The game's meaning has changed too- it's actually the closest thing St. John's has to a homecoming event, and the entire Annapolis community comes out in their best finery, much of it old-fashioned fashion. The game is actually a clever excuse for the students to stop studying for final exams and waiting for don rags and just hang out; few actually come for the croquet match. The Academy's swing group, the Trident Brass, plays dance music all afternoon, and multiple parties with barbeque and spirits dot the grass. And there is much speculation and anticipation in the choices of team uniforms. The Academy side wears the same uniform every year- a light, white wool cardigan, a white oxford shirt, white twill trousers and dress white patent leather shoes. The only thing that changes is the tie that they wear. Sometimes it's a conservative, solid four-in-hand, and sometimes it's a wild, bright 70's inspired Windsor tie. Meanwhile, the St. John's side wears a themed outfit- some years they wear kilts, preppy polo outfits, or cutoffs and Hawaiian shirts, with pretty much anything in between being fair game.
Results from the last few matches:
2005: St. John's 2 - 3 Naval Academy
2004: St. John's def. Naval Academy
2003: St. John's 4 - 1 Naval Academy
2002: St. John's 3 - 2 Naval Academy
2001: St. John's 2 - 3 Naval Academy
2000: St. John's 5 - 0 Naval Academy
1999: St. John's 3 - 2 Naval Academy
The series is now 18-5-0, in favor of St. John's College.