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USCA FOUNDER
JACK OSBORN
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 population.

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 periodic adjustments.

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 title.

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, THE SPORT.

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 everlasting legacy.

--Bob Alman


 
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