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Many carried mallets and reveled in roque's heyday

By SCOTT TAYLOR HARTZELL
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 26, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- Between matches in 1925, champion roque player Eddie Clark assessed the Waterfront Park grounds.

"They are as fine as any courts I have seen," Clark said. "This is the only place where I have seen so many under one shelter. A great help to roque in St. Petersburg."

Roque, a meld of billiards and croquet, fascinated the city about 1912. Leagues were formed nationwide. Champions such as Clark dazzled fans during local tournaments. A roque stadium stood here for 34 years, until it was leveled to build a parking lot.

"One by one, the old landmarks disappear," journalist Mason Woolford lamented. "I always thought I'd take (roque) up. I waited too long."

Croquet spread to America in the late 19th century but fizzled about 1890, when tennis soared in popularity.

"Then some diehards in Norwich, Conn., revised the rules, cut off the C and the T, called the game roque and had themselves a nice game that caught on," the Evening Independent wrote.

Roque (pronounced roke) involves two to four players. Contestants battled on marl courts covered by sand. A 5-inch-high concrete wall bordered the court, and players banked amazing shots.

"Bank shots and a playing surface as smooth, level and well-kept as a billiard table," the St. Petersburg Times wrote. "(Roque is) one of the least understood but one of the most scientific sports in the city."

To win, a team had to move their balls in order by color through 16 wickets while hitting an opponent's ball at least once before proceeding through each arch. Balls were 31/4-inch composition rubber. Short rubber-handled mallets weighing up to 45 ounces sported either metal or ivory heads.

Competitors flocked to Williams Park about 1912 to form clubs and battle over chess, checkers, horseshoes and roque. "Thousands congregated there during the winter months and Williams Park became famed throughout the country," historian Karl H. Grismer wrote.

By spring 1922, the activity displeased city founder John C. Williams' descendants, who filed an injunction. The park, they successfully asserted, was established for public use -- not clubs.

With its passion for the game burgeoning in 1923, the St. Petersburg Roque Club escaped to Waterfront Park.

In 1926, the games moved to the east side of Mirror Lake Drive, north of the Mirror Lake Public Library. A huge yellow stucco building was built to house locker rooms and the newly formed Sunshine Roque Club.

Eight 30- by 60-foot octagonal courts with 6-foot diagonal corners were constructed. Four outside playing surfaces boasted lights to encourage night games; four inside courts allowed play regardless of weather.

Diamonds, similar to those on billiard rails, marked the courts' cement sides to enhance shooting skills. The 16 stainless steel wickets were designed to challenge.

Grismer said: "Mirror Lake Park now embraces one of the country's few roque stadiums." By 1928, membership reached 200.

The American Roque League operates today, mainly in the Midwest.

Amid the Depression, roque peaked in popularity. The Times reported that Harpo Marx often engaged in all-night games on his rooftop court.

By 1957, the Sunshine Roque Club had more than 500 members. It was among 50 roque clubs in the U.S.

Within three years, however, the courts were destroyed.

"Wrecking crews today were pulling down the venerable Roque Club building at Mirror Lake Drive and Third Avenue N," the Independent wrote April 26, 1960. "A (non-metered) parking lot holding some 120 cars will be created."

Today, a roque court decorates the Carlouel Yacht Club in Clearwater. "It's the concentration I like," said Dr. Delmar Harris, one of several players who enjoy a six-wicket variation of the sport there. "It's been a game that has a great deal of pleasure."

-- Scott Taylor Hartzell can be reached at hartzel@msn.com.

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