DIES IN PALM BEACH GARDENS
The man who created the sport of 6-wicket croquet in America as we know it
today died at home in Palm Beach Gardens on Sunday, May 12, at the age of 67
following a long battle with cancer.
Osborn was born in San Francisco on March 17, 1929, where he grew up and
attended school. He made his career mark in New York with the industrial
design firm of Osborn Charles, which he owned and managed in partnership with
his first wife, Irene Charles.
Osborn started to play croquet regularly in the 1960's in New York, later to
be the headquarters of the USCA during its formative years in the late
seventies and early eighties. In 1987, Osborn moved the USCA and the
Foundation south to headquarter in the midst of his strongest contingent of
patrons in Palm Beach, Florida - wealthy and retired enthusiasts who started
the croquet boom in Florida. The state still has the biggest croquet
FORMING THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION
It was Jack Osborn's vision, marketing saavy, energy, and sheer dogged
determination that brought together five clubs in 1977 to form the nucleus
of the United States Croquet Association. Although the sport had long
flourished in the Commonwealth countries, croquet had devolved to a backyard
pastime in the United States, and there were no agreed-upon rules.
One of the first orders of business of the new association was to hammer out
compromise rules acceptable to all five clubs - Green Gables Croquet Club,
Palm Beach Croquet Club, New York Croquet Club, Wasthampton Mallet Club, and
the Croquet Club of Bermuda. Since then, the list has grown to nearly 400
member clubs with 3500 members, and the rules have survived with minor
The primary distinguishing elements of the unique American rules game are
strick rotation of the balls in play (blue/red/black/yellow) and carry-over
deadness. In the first half-dozen years of the USCA, International Rules
were virtually unknown in this country, and there were no USCA events using
the rules the rest of the world played by. Osborn was the tireless promotor
not only of the sport of croquet, but also of the new American rules.
When Abercrombie and Fitch, the exclusive American distributor of Jscques
croquet equpment, went out of business in 1978, Osborn seized the opportunity
to become the US distributor, forming his company, Croquet International,
Ltd., which became not only a source of income for Osborn but part of his
grand strategy for promoting croquet through making available quality
equipment to "backyard croquet" players who could be persuaded to start
clubs and play Osborn's rules.
PROMOTING THE SPORT TO THE AFFLUENT CLASS
Osborn was a devotee of New York cafe society, and the contacts he made in
social circles were essential to croquet's growth. He made no secret of
his strategy. "Croquet in America," he said, "is a sport for the affluent
class." The strategy worked. Croquet could grow only where there were
lawns, and lawns would be built only by those with the financial resources to
build them. USCA croquet took root at resorts and country clubs up and down
the East Coast. "Black tie and sneaker" croquet balls became a common
feature of the social calendars of the East Coast elite. Croquet was the
"in" thing. The press loved the story and repeated it endlessly - usually on
the society or "lifestyle" pages, almost never in the sports section.
Although the creation of the nonprofit Croquet Foundation of America provided
a vital channel of support for croquet, it never produced enough income for
croquet's founding spirit. For the better part of two decades, with help
from his friends and patrons, Jack Osborn lived a life of near monk-like
devotion to his cause, sacrificing income, personal security, and even close
relationships to the demands of his fledgling sport.
Osborn surrendered the presidency of the USCA in 1989 in the midst of
controversy, the seeds of which were sown by Osborn himself, out of his early
success. With the growth of the sport and the increasing involvement of
others in the operation and management of the USCA and the Foundation, he
was unable to exercise the degree of personal control he had had in earlier
days. The notions of other enthusiasts conflicted with his own vision for
the sport in many ways. Many in the croquet establishment began to speak of
Osborn's continued leadership as more of a problem than a benefit.
The leadership issue reached a boiling point in 1988 with the publication in
Osborn's CROQUET GAZETTE of a pointed attack on the "killer players" he
felt were a threat to the future of croquet especially in the western states,
which had partially defected to the rival American Croquet Association.
ASSUMING THE CRITIC'S ROLE
Osborn strongly opposed the USCA's sponsorship of International Rules events
as a staple of American play. "The International Rules are not particularly
suited to broader tastes of Americans," he told CROQUET MAGAZINE in 1987.
"It is less tactically involved and far less interactive. I'm not saying
that the British game doesn't have its merits, but it does not have appeal to
the greatest number of American players."
To build a strong national association, Osborn thought it essential to
provide USCA members with uniform standards, and only one game: the American
Rules game. This policy gave rise to the formation of the American Croquet
Association as a promoter of International Rules play. The rival association
flowered for a while, then withered after most of the reforms it proposed
were taken up by the USCA itself during the reign of Foxy Carter, who
succeeded Osborn as USCA president in 1989.
But Osborn did succeed in establishing the American Rules as the dominant
game in America. From the perspective of 1996, a strong case can be made
that he was correct in his assessment of the relative prospects for the two
games in the American culture. For while the western states produce most of
the top-ranked players on the United States International Team, they provide
little more than one tenth of the total membership base of the USCA.
In the early nineties, Osborn worked to develop Croquet International Limited
as the leading supplier and distributer of quality croquet equipment in the
United States. Osborn remained a strong figure in the USCA and the Croquet
Foundation of America. He was a highly vocal critic of many of Foxy Carter's
financial and administrative reforms.
In the subsequent presidency of Bill Berne, now in the final year of his
second two-year term, Osborn's criticism of the organization became ever more
strident, in tandem with the USCA's failing financial fortunes and the
administrative chaos at headquarters that resulted in a 100 percent turnover
of staff in a one-year period.
Such was the disarray in the USCA that Osborn voiced to many his fear that
the USCA would not survive. His many friends and supporters rallied to
honor him at an "Appreciation Ball" in Palm Beach produced by the Croquet
Foundation of America and to let him know that the darkest hour for the USCA
had passed, and they would not allow his creation to die.
SPEAKING HIS FINAL FAREWELL
At the ball, surrounded by the friends and supporters who financed the birth
of the sport of croquet in America under his single-minded leadership for two
decades, he spoke his final farewell. "The game of croquet, to which I have
given such a large portion of my life, fuses so many different elements:
competition, a fine eye, a sharp mind, a firm stroke, a large amount of
patience, ability to plan ahead and, by no means the least, a control of
one's temper. Few of us have had all of these qualities in hand in every
game. But they are there to strive for in all games.
"Yet beyond all of these, our game provides that finest of outcomes -
comradeship. It is that which brings us together. It is that which I have
always enjoyed, wicket by wicket."
Osborn excelled as a player in the early days of the USCA, winning two
national doubles titles with partner Archie Peck and leading the United
States International Team for eight years. He never won a national singles
Osborn authored the books that have been for many years the standard texts of
American croquet. He wrote with Jesse Kornbluth WINNING CROQUET - FROM
BACKYARD TO GREENSWARD, and later with his son the current standard, CROQUET,
Osborn is survived by his son John, one of the top players in the country and
among the most popular professional instructor/coaches. The father and son
owned together the Osborn Croquet Academy at PGA National.
Even in death, Jack Osborn will retain his influence in the sport and in the
many projects, enterprises, and corporate structures he put together around
it and which will continue to bear his stamp for many years to come.
In organizing the sport, with it's uniquely American rules and culture, he
did, perhaps, what no one else could have done. The sport of croquet in
America will endure - as will Osborn's beloved American rules - as his