INDIANA COUNTY SPORTS HALL OF FAME: A 'world-class' talent, Dixson becomes first horseshoe pitcher in hall
• EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of an eight-part series profiling the individuals who will be inducted into the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame. Tomorrow: John Caruso.
You can see the question rolling around Clarence Dixson’s mind as he closes his eyes and takes a long, deep breath. There’s an obvious battle going on deep inside his soul: truth vs. humility.
So tell us, Clarence, are you the best horseshoe pitcher around these parts?
The 82-year old Dixson looks up and lifts his right index finger in the air. Whatever he is about to say must be important.
He takes another deep breath and then he speaks.
Truth has won out.
“I guess I am,” Dixson says with a stern, yet uncomfortable tone that tells you he’s not really thrilled about boasting.
A look then emerges on his face that reveals a simple truth: that Dixson doesn’t like it one bit that he has claimed to be the best.
“Let me say I am the most consistent,” he quickly adds, that finger shaking with authority. “I’m not perfect — I have been beaten before. But I am the most consistent.”
If Dixson is the most consistent pitcher around, then he certainly is the best. That’s because in horseshoes, consistency is everything. And while Dixson might answer the question with a qualifier, his peers are much more direct.
Tom Budner, who has known Dixson for decades through horseshoe circles, doesn’t hesitate when asked to evaluate just how good Dixson was or is — and still could be.
“He’s world class,” Budner says without consternation. “He is really hard to beat.”
o o o
OK, so it’s horseshoes — it’s not exactly a sexy sport. It’s not baseball or football. It’s not something you can watch on ESPN or follow the results of in the paper. There are no horseshoe fantasy leagues, and the greatest horseshoe pitcher to ever walk the earth is … well, who really knows? (And whoever he is almost certainly did not have groupies.)
But that’s just fine with Dixson. Maybe horseshoes isn’t a sport that has the mass appeal of even billiards or bowling — heck, both of them can occasionally be found on television. But it’s been a special part of Dixson’s life for many years.
“It’s about the friendships,” he says sincerely, noting the number of relationships he’s cultivated over the years at tournaments and the weekly gatherings around the county.
“We’ve been all over the place,” says Dixson’s wife of 58 years, Joanne. “We’ve met a lot of great people because of these tournaments.”
But just as the game of horseshoes is important to Dixson, the reverse is also true: Dixson is important to the game of horseshoes.
“He’s the kind of guy, who, when he wins, he doesn’t gloat,” Budner says. “But if he should lose, he’ll smile and shake the other guy’s hand and congratulate him. He’s just a phenomenal guy.”
To list his accomplishments in the sport would take all day. So let’s just sum it up by saying that if there’s a tournament to be played within driving distance of his 15th Street home, Dixson has probably won it, and probably more than once.
On a much bigger stage, Dixson has stood tall at the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association World Championships, winning the title once, in 2009, and finishing in the top five six other times.
And so it’s fitting that Dixson’s journey as one of the top horseshoe pitchers in the world over the past 40 years has brought him back home, where he will be inducted into the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame next Sunday evening.
For some of the 182 athletes who have been enshrined in the years past, the honor might have been just another thing added to a long list of lifetime achievements. For Dixson, who could fill up a guest bedroom with his trophies and plaques, it’s really much more than that.
You see, he’s is a trailblazer of sorts. Those 182 athletes had 182 careers in numerous sports — the usual suspects: Football, baseball, basketball. But none of them were chosen for induction based chiefly on their skill as a horseshoe pitcher.
Dixson is the first.
“It’s something I never expected,” he says. “I’m really surprised. It’s one of the top things that could have happened to me. The trophies and that other stuff are second to this.”
o o o
The truth is, though, if Dixson hadn’t become a champion horseshoe pitcher, he was a good enough athlete that he could have excelled at nearly any sport.
He was a standout baseball player in his hometown of Creekside, so much so that Indiana High baseball coach Ken Davis sought him out and more or less begged Dixson to be his shortstop back in the late 1940s. Dixson obliged, and he helped the Little Indians bring home their first-ever Tri-County League championship during his senior season. He went on to play in the Indiana County League for a number of years, and he was a key member of some of those great Creekside teams.
Shortstops make a variety of catches due to their position on the field, but Dixson jokes that his best one came in 1951 when he lunged into the stands for a pop-up and landed in the lap of a 16-year old girl named Joanne, whose father, Merle “Buss” Barry, just happened to be Creekside’s manager.
“He fell for me, I guess,” Joanne jokes now, reminiscing about the day the future bride and groom met for the first time.
Like many young men his age, Dixson had his number called by the draft board, and he was sent off to Korea in 1952 as a cryptographer for the U.S. Army. In addition to cracking codes sent by the North Koreans, Dixson also spent time overseas playing fastpitch softball for the military. Rather than re-enlist when his time was up, Dixson headed home in 1954, knowing Joanne would be waiting for him.
Back on the home front, Dixson continued to be an active baseball player and was named to the Indiana County league all-star team several times. A few years later, Dixson became active in coaching, and he helped with his four children’s careers in a number of sports, including Little League. He helped coach his son, Jeffrey, on the legendary 1975 Indiana Nationals team that came within one win of playing in Williamsport for the state championship.
Oddly enough, Dixson says the things that stand out the most in his sporting life are the games he watched from the bleachers.
“The most interesting part of sports for me wasn’t playing them,” he says, “it was watching my kids play them. I watched my son and daughters play all of them in high school. I really enjoyed that.”
o o o
Horseshoes had always been a part of Dixson’s life — he figures he first started throwing them when he was a child in the early 1940s, when the horseshoes were literally that: a horse’s shoes. Later on, he played the game at family picnics and places like that, but it was just a talent honed over the years in backyards and parks.
But it wasn’t until the 1970s that Dixson started pitching horseshoes competitively. He heard about tournaments in Shelocta, and one summer he decided to try it out.
“I started winning,” he says, “and that started it.”
Before long, Dixson started signing up for every horseshoe tournament he could find. The pile of trophies started building up, and so did Dixson’s reputation as a champion. He won numerous titles and along the way threw two perfect games — the elusive feat when a pitcher tosses nothing but ringers.
Some 40 years later, the reputation is still there, and Dixson can sense it when he walks into the Tide Sportsmen’s Club some evening to play a few games with his buddies.
“Sometimes I walk in there,” he says, “and I hear them say, ‘He’s the one to beat.’”
That’s quite a feat considering Dixson is now in his 80s, that he’s had a stroke and two heart attacks and that he lives with a pacemaker and a defibulator in his chest.
“My neighbors say I’m a walking time bomb,” he jokes.
“Oh, he’s in good shape,” Joanne retorts. “He’s had it all fixed.”
All jokes aside, Dixson is still a darn good horseshoe pitcher. The key statistic in the sport is ringers, and Dixson can toss them about 65 percent of the time these days, which ranks him fifth in the state, according to the NHPA. Last season, he averaged more than 70 percent ringers.
Dixson’s body might not be as solid as it once was, but his mind still is. He doesn’t like losing, and the desire to win keeps him going at an age when many men are content to watch the days pass by.
“I’m competitive in everything I do,” he says. “Table tennis. Cards. Let’s put it this way: I don’t play to lose. Ever. That’s just the way I am, I guess. I’m no different now than when I was 20.”
o o o
He still is competitive, even at the world championships, but how much longer can Dixson stay on top of his game? He can’t play much in the summertime because the heat makes him weary and his legs start to give out as the throws accumulate.
“I really don’t know how much longer I can do this,” he says with a sigh. “I can’t hunt because I can’t handle the hills. I can’t fish because I might slip in my boots and fall in the water. So horseshoes is it for me. That’s what I do.”
Regardless of the sport, every athlete knows there comes a day when it’s time to walk away, and Dixson isn’t eager for his to arrive. But much like a golfer who caps a bad round with a birdie on No. 18, the restless Dixson finds the drive to go back to the pits, horseshoes in hand, ready to take on all comers.
He just wishes there was more competition. Horseshoes isn’t as popular as it once was, for one reason or another. There are fewer tournaments with fewer players, and Dixson mourns the decline in his sport’s stature.
“We’ve just got to get young people involved in it,” he insists.
And maybe that’s Dixson’s bigger goal. Maybe it’s not necessarily to win one more tournament or to throw another perfect game. It’s to give the sport enough exposure to help it see a resurgence in popularity.
If that should happen — if this game some people consider an old man’s game turns into something today’s kids start picking up — maybe then Dixson will be able to give back to the sport that has given him so much.
o o o
The first step to that comes next Sunday night, when Dixson joins an elite list of Indiana County athletes who have gained a measure of notoriety for their exploits.
Dixson is humbled by the honor not just because he never once tossed a horseshoe thinking it would someday gain him some fame, but because being selected for induction is something usually reserved for sluggers and passers.
“This is wonderful,” Joanne says. “He thinks it’s the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to him. That’s because we’re just ordinary people.”
Honestly though, there really is nothing ordinary about Dixson or his career in horseshoes. The statistics — and the trophies in his basement — back up the idea that Dixson is one of the best to ever pick up a horseshoe and toss it at an iron stake in the ground.
But what those who know him best will say is that Dixson is a heckuva good horseshoe pitcher, but an even better man.
And that’s his true legacy.
“He’s a very, very friendly guy,” says Budner, who, along with a handful of other horseshoe pitchers will proudly attend the hall of fame banquet to see their friend be honored. “He’s very benevolent. He’s got a lot of energy. He’s a guy that impresses me because he really enjoys life and he puts a lot of himself into what he does. He’s just pretty much a great guy.”
This story edited May 14 to correct the spelling of Dixson's name in several references.