The best part of summer isn’t the long, warm days or the cookouts, or the opportunity to putter in the garden.
It’s the lawn games.
Why? Lawn games epitomize summer. And they are so superior to other sports. Socks and shoes are generally optional. Participants often play with a cold beverage in one hand.
And, truth be told, you don’t need to be the greatest athlete. If you brag that you can run the 100 in 10 seconds, your fellow competitors won’t be impressed; they’ll just put you in charge of the beer runs.
Granted, lawn games may lack the heated competition of toe wrestling or the crowd-pleasing pageantry of bog snorkeling, but these are sports nonetheless, sports that people love.
People like Brooks Butler Hays, who has written “Balls on the Lawn: Games to Live By” (Chronicle Books), in which he examines some of the most popular — and some of the more obscure — lawn diversions.
The former includes horseshoes, badminton and croquet. The latter, KanJam, stump and petanque (pronounced pay-tonk). For the uninitiated, KanJam is a Frisbee game. Stump — or “nails,” as it is called in some areas of the country — involves pounding nails into a tree stump. People take turns, they flip hammers, they get feisty. Welcome to the world of stump. Petanque is a popular European game making inroads here; it shares similarities to bocce.
These games, Hays says, are more about leisure and friendship than win-at-all-cost competition.
“I take them seriously, but you can bring a less active person into the fold,” he says. “That’s why they often accompany parties. You’re inviting people you like rather than people with athletic skills.
“The Frisbee games require some athletic skills, but the other ones — especially the ball-throwing games — anyone can play those and have fun.”
“Balls,” which is nicely illustrated by Jeremy Stein, presents a veritable decathlon of lawn sports.
Hays explains the history of each, the (mostly minimal) equipment, rules, terminology. And to enhance the experience — though, really, how can you make lawn bowling any better? Hays suggests drinks to accompany each sport. (His book is definitely skewed to adults.)
Some of these sports are centuries old. According to tradition, the ancient Greeks stuck a stake in the ground and threw horseshoes at it.
Others, though, are of a more recent vintage. Hays says he was introduced to some of the games when he attended the College of William & Mary in Virginia, and fellow students brought their regional sports to campus.
“A game like stump, no one has heard of outside the New Hampshire, Vermont area,” Hays explains. “Now it’s starting to spread. KanJam is getting popular. No one was playing it five years ago when I was in college. It was just coming out of upstate New York. I had a friend from Rochester who brought it to William & Mary.”
Although all these games are perfectly at home on any lawn, some can be made part of a larger event. Badminton or croquet, for example, can add a Victorian elegance to an event such as a wedding, Hays contends.
“A thing I like about croquet,” he says, “it’s got this stately appeal. A croquet mallet in your hand is a nice accouterment to summer wedding garb.”
Here are some of the lawn sports featured in “Balls on the Lawn,” with author Hays weighing in on the pros and cons of each. (All of these games can be found on YouTube for further instruction, visual and otherwise. Also, we found equipment for many of these on sale at Amazon.com.)
Stump (also called Hammerschlagen). Pros: Makes you feel like a lumberjack, equipment easy and cheap to procure, ideal for tailgates. Cons: Sometimes you take a hammer to the shinbone. And if there’s no tree stump around, perhaps it’s time to play . . .
Pentaque. Pros: You can pretend it’s bocce. Cons: Why don’t you just play bocce?
Beanbag toss. Pros: Readily available at tailgates and parties, easy to learn, easy to enjoy. Cons: Boring.
Badminton. Pros: You get to say “shuttlecock” as much as you want. Cons: You feel like a jerk the whole time you play; also you have to transport, set up and then take down a giant net.
Poleish (involves knocking a bottle off a pole with a Frisbee). Pros: Frisbees, beer bottles to the face, stitches, diving is encouraged, Wiffle ball bats rule. Cons: See previous part about beer bottles to the face and stitches.