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Clamshell pitching makes a comeback in the region with a tournament in Avalon.

By STEVEN LEMONGELLO Staff Writer | Posted: Sunday, August 8, 2010 on pressofAtlanticCity.com

AVALON — Two men stood side by side on the sun-drenched beach, each grasping a weathered clamshell in their hand. Their gaze was focused on the tiny hole more than 25 feet away, carved out of the hard sand.

The first man’s shell hurtled through the air, landed at the base of the target and slid forward until it disappeared. It seemed like the match was going his way — until the second man walked to the line, tossed his shell and slowly raised his hands in the air.

His shell landed right on top of the other one.

It was that kind of day at the W. Norman Mackey Memorial Clamshell Tournament on Saturday, as novices and veterans alike took part in the first organized adult clamshell event in the region in years — and the first in memory in Avalon.

The tourney, which drew about 20 contestants in both the singles and doubles competition, was the brainchild of the Avalon Historical Society and History Center and the Mackey family, whose roots in Avalon go back decades.

W. Norman Mackey, an Avalon lifeguard in the early-to-mid 20th century, “was the best clamshell player I’ve ever seen,” said his son Allan Mackey, now of East Calais, Vt. “I would play 200 games a year with him. ... But I’ve been walking up and down the beach the last 30 to 40 years and nobody played it anymore.”

Allan Mackey, his son, Scott — “I wouldn’t call myself an expert, but I’m third-generation,” Scott said — and three grandchildren all gathered at the clamshell pitch carved out of the sand at the 30th Street beach — four holes, no waiting — an open oasis in the midst of a packed, chair-covered beach.

Among the contestants was Dave Boyer, a summer resident of Cape May, proud member of the International Clamshell Pitching Club of Cape May and a veritable fountain of knowledge in all things clamshell-related.

“My father taught me the game,” Boyer said. “It’s been played since the turn of the century — I know that because my father was a lifeguard here in the early ’30s. There wasn’t too many people, so the lifeguards played this game.”

Boyer, a clamshell traditionalist, critiqued the tournament like a wine expert swishing vino around in his mouth and spitting it back out.

“These folks play with sea clams, but the game is played with quahogs,” he said. “Do you know these shells?” he asked, tapping a couple of his own spare shells together. “These things are 1,000 years old. They’re like fine china.”

How to play

The rules were simple: two players stand behind a line 25-and-a-half feet from the hole — “That extra ‘half’ is a long story,” Boyer said — and each player tosses two shells during a round.

“The way they score here in Avalon is if you get it in the hole, that’s two points — so far, so good,” he said. “If your opponent puts his shell in the hole on top of yours, he gets all four points. Your (original) two points should just be cancelled, you see.”

In addition, if you get one shell in the hole and not the other — but your second shell is closer to the hole than the other player’s — you’d get three points. Like table tennis, first to 21 wins.

It was a loaded first-round matchup when Boyer faced off with Allan Mackey, with the victor to move on and the loser eliminated.

Mackey’s first shell landed just beyond the hole, while Boyer’s hit the sand well beyond — but his second shell caught the rim and found the hole.

Boyer was just as successful during the second round, with his first shell going in, but that’s when Mackey dropped his in right on top — stealing back Boyer’s two points and adding two of his own.

Asked about his own critique of that rule, made just minutes before, Boyer could only shake his head.

“That was pretty much all she wrote,” said Boyer afterwards, having come out on the short end of a 21-17 match. “(And) I think I put it in maybe 10 times.”

“That was one of the toughest games I’ve ever had playing clamshell in 65 years,” Mackey said. “On that last one, if I had not gotten that one in, it would have been tied.”

Sand’s the key

Boyer — who challenged Mackey to a friendly competition after the tournament — described some of the strategy of the fine art of clamshell pitching.

“If you miss, miss in front of the hole,” he said. “Because a clamshell, if ideally thrown, hits flat and slides forward. It either slides into the hole, or if it doesn’t, the shell will be there to block the hole. That’s why you need perfectly hard sand.”

Avalon’s sand, he said, was “perfect — dried, almost concrete and flat.”

He was almost wistful as he said it. For it was the sand, you see, that betrayed clamshell lovers in Cape May and led to the end of the International Clamshell Pitching Club’s adult tournament in 2000.

Dredging work during beach replenishment not only changed the “character” of the sand, Boyer said, but also stopped the coveted bivalve shells from washing up on the beach.

“The shells all went down in that hole they dug out there,” he grumbled — nature’s own four-point throw.

But a junior tournament lives on in Cape May — and now Avalon Historical Society secretary Rose Marie Chew hopes that the Mackey Tournament becomes an annual tradition.

A game for all ages

Longtime Avalon visitors, meanwhile, had different recollections of the game — but all were glad to see it return in grand style.

“I’ve been coming here for 20-something years and I’ve never seen it!” said Molly Reinhart, a Harrisburg, Pa., resident staying in Middle Township for the weekend. “I think it’s fantastic. Look at what’s going on here: grandfather vs. grandson. It’s easier than horseshoes, I think. You don’t have to buy equipment and all you have to do is dig a few holes.”

Lee Warren, meanwhile, said she had been coming to Avalon since she was a child and has fond memories of tossing the ol’ bivalve.

“This was a time before they had all those toys people bring to the beach,” said Warren, a Thornton, Pa. resident with a home on 13th Street in Avalon. “That’s what we would do — play clamshells!”

Warren said she hoped to one day teach her kids, Lenny, 4, and Alexandra, 2.

Meanwhile, a family tradition played out in its own fashion as a Mackey walked away with the singles championship — not Allan, but Scott Mackey, who defeated his father and then his own son, Eric, to take the title.

The clamshell student, it seems, had become the clamshell teacher.