Tossing One Back

Spark the grill, snap open a beer, and drag those beloved cornhole boards from the garage.
Legend has it that the game of cornhole was invented on the west side. No less august an authority than Wikipedia states, “The west side of Cincinnati has been widely accepted as the birthplace of cornhole. The first games were played in the early ’60s and dubbed ‘cornhole’ due to the bag’s feed corn stuffing.”

Now, true, just about anybody can write whatever they want on Wikipedia, but I’m going to take their word as gospel, even though the admittedly sketchy research I’ve done doesn’t fully support the claim. (What!? Look, it’s a west side game, and I’m a west side guy.)

A number of other Web sites note the legend, popular in cornhole circles, of a Midwestern farmer named Jebediah Magillicutty, who allegedly invented the game sometime in the 19th century, but this is no doubt apocryphal. As far as I can tell, the game, like most, evolved from a number of similar games. Saying it was invented by any one person is like saying Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown, New York, a story many of us learned in history books, though it’s since been proved that he not only didn’t invent it, he may never have heard of it. By the best estimates of most scholars, it seems that cornhole has been played for a long time, since World War II anyway, and called by a variety of names, including bag, corn bags, bag toss, bean toss, and Indiana Horseshoes. It also has been played with a variety of rules and scoring systems.

In the past decade or so, the game has become extremely popular among college students, tailgaters, campers, and various other inebriated suburbanites. And it has become America’s backyard game of choice largely because our earlier ones proved to be so dangerous. For many years gatherings of families and friends featured the game of horseshoes. The clink of the shoe against a metal stake driven into the ground sounded the rhapsodic note of summer. But horseshoes are made of heavy metal, and not the kind my sons bang out in my basement. At parties a giddy aunt or tenacious toddler would invariably take one in the ankle—or worse, the head—heaving the party into a frenzy of hand-wringing ministrations.

To avoid such a fuss, America embraced Jarts, short, metal-tipped missiles with plastic wings that were tossed in the air in hopes that they would land like tiny javelins within a small yellow plastic circle. Gone was the sweet chime of metal against metal, not to mention the bare spots in the yard created by horseshoes. The downside was that a giddy aunt or tenacious toddler would invariably take one in the ankle—or worse, the head—heaving the party into a frenzy of hand-wringing ministrations. Maybe even a trip to the emergency ward. Jarts was considered so dangerous, in fact, that in 1988 the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned its sale in the United States.

Our country, therefore, faced a serious dilemma. How could Americans be expected to enjoy a neighborhood barbecue or family reunion without being able to pitch something?

Inventive west-siders came to the rescue.

THE IDENTITIES OF these heroes are lost in the mists of time. Who are these vaunted warriors of backyard gamesmanship who so selflessly bestowed upon the tossing of bags into a hole the moniker that would capture the hearts of an entire country? Sure, that name carried with it a, shall we say, indecorous connotation, but it has caught on nonetheless. In fact, many players believe the name’s scatological inference is somewhat responsible for the game’s popularity.

“I grew up in Mt. Healthy and played the game in 1952, but it wasn’t called that at the time,” says Mike Whitton, president of the American Cornhole Association. “Part of the reason it’s become popular is because of the name. People giggle about it and it draws them in.”

And the origin of that name?

“I can’t really pinpoint it, “Whitton replies, “but all the roots I can find are on the west side.”

In 2003 Whitton and his sons went to a family reunion where people were playing cornhole, and he says they grew “irritated” by the inconsistency of the rules. “Every yard you played in had different rules,” he recalls. “We thought somebody should standardize the game. So we did.”

He formed the American Cornhole Association, a sanctioning body that has created a set of rules and guidelines for the game, established tournaments, and even developed a national ranking system for players in ACA tournaments. In five years the ACA has amassed more than 25,000 members in every state in America as well as in 21 countries. Tournaments are played all over the U.S., some with purses as large as $10,000.

Whitton says he receives 50 or 60 e-mails a day from people across the nation inquiring about cornhole tournaments, products, and groups in their area. “People will write to say they’ve just moved from Cincinnati and they’re looking for someone to play cornhole with,” he says. He tries to help them connect with other far-flung cornholers. He also sells hats and T-shirts with a cornhole theme. For himself, he loves the game. The bed of his truck always contains a set of boards, just in case the opportunity arises to throw some bags. By day he works in sales, but he says that when he comes home at night he works on ACA business till around eleven o’clock.

He also receives regular e-mails from angry folks who object to the name. Whitton, who speaks in a smooth, languorous voice, chuckles as he thinks of this rather reactionary faction. “They ask if I know what the word means,” he says. “They say I’m subverting the youth. I tell them the word refers to a family game that people like to play. That’s what it means to me.”

His rival in cornhole sanctioning is the American Cornhole Organization (ACO), run by Frank Geers in Milford. Geers and his company manufacture and sell boards, bags, and other cornhole products. Geers, who takes his cornhole very seriously, hopes someday to see cornhole made an Olympic sport. He also believes his company has set the standard for quality. He has teamed with Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer to create the Carson Palmer Cornhole Classic, held right here in River City.

Though based in Milford, Geers supports the theory that cornhole was christened on the west side. He and Whitton agree that the game is popular mostly because it’s very easy to play and requires virtually no athleticism. If you can move your arm, you’re a player. Divide up teams into guys and gals and the field is still level. Kids can throw down with, and happily drub, their parents. Pit an octogenarian against a strapping teen—it’s go time.

Another key feature of the game is that it’s portable. It’s easy to set up, take down, and carry around. You can take it, and play it, almost anywhere. And keeping score is so easy drunks could handle it, and often do.

THERE ARE THOSE players, however, who don’t see cornhole as a mere locus for backyard revelry. They don’t wait for warm weather to indulge their passion. In fact, they play every week, in some cases five or six times per week. And they’re damn serious about it. On Tuesdays and Thursdays they gather at Cheviot Sports Tavern on Harrison Avenue for determined cornhole combat.

I checked it out on a recent Tuesday, and witnessed cornhole as I’ve never seen it played. A hearty band of maybe 20 men, varying in age from early 20s to early 60s, bunched around the four boards set up in the center of the tavern, which was otherwise nearly empty. They drew names to create teams, anted up five bucks, and tested their mettle against other players. Two games are played simultaneously, and usually three tournaments are played each night.

With two guys throwing, the wide, dark room is filled with a steady but sporadic thump, as if someone without a hint of rhythm is trying to keep time to the blare of music on the tavern’s sound system. Owner Mike Robbins stands behind the bar looking barely old enough to get into the place. He’s 25, born and raised in White Oak and now a resident of Cheviot. He and buddy Brian Aker opened the tavern a little over two years ago, and thought adding cornhole to the usual array of bar games would draw a crowd. They were right. He says that on weekends a long line of customers wait for their turn to play.

“When you think of cornhole, you correlate it with having a good time,” he says. “People like to go to a bar where they can do stuff. We have other games, but cornhole is the main attraction.” He adds that the weekly tournaments have drawn players from as far away as Columbus and Chicago. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, anyone willing to ante up can play, and teams are made by the luck of the draw. But be warned. The regulars are good. Very good. At a family picnic most of us toss the bags and, when it goes in the hole, we celebrate with a cheer. These guys don’t so much as slap a high five. In fact, they look irritated when the bag doesn’t go in. Unless, of course, they are trying to hang a bag on the lip of the hole to block a competitor. They use a variety of styles, from spinning the bag to lofting it end over end, throwing it in a high arc or side-arming it so that it hits low on the board and skitters up into the hole. Every player looks deeply focused, like a chess player surveying a board before making a move.

“An outsider who comes in and hasn’t played a lot is just going to get smoked,” Robbins says.

Mike Schaffer of Riverside is definitely an insider. He comes every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday and plays elsewhere on other nights. Mike is 54, a compact guy with glasses, his gray hair cropped short in a flat top. He’s quiet and genial, self-possessed but self-effacing. In American Cornhole’s rating system, he is ranked as a professional, one of only 19 players who can claim that level of expertise. He is ranked fourth in the world, and has played in the organization’s annual King of Cornhole tournament in Las Vegas.

“It’s just fun,” he says. When asked about his high level of achievement in the game, he shrugs and says, “I do pretty well.” He says he started playing the game just a couple of years ago with some guys from FedEx, where he works. He obviously had a knack for it and began playing more regularly. Now he spends his weekends driving to tournaments throughout the Midwest, competing for prizes much larger than the hundred bucks riding on tonight’s game.

Scott Schmitz, 42, and Joe Miller, 25, both of Delhi, also show up for the tournaments at Cheviot Sports Tavern and travel to weekend tournaments where they play as a team. Scott has reached the ranking of semi-pro, while Joe has not taken American Cornhole’s Skills Challenge yet. “I’m too good to be ranked,” he says with a laugh.

They’re an affable bunch—until it’s their turn to play. Then they focus on that board as if it held the key to life’s mysteries.

RIC AND MAUREEN Scheiner of Delhi have wrapped their lives around the game in a different, and more capitalistic, way. For the past five years they’ve been making and selling cornhole products, shipping them from their suburban home. Ric is a talented woodworker in his spare time, and five years ago his boss asked if he could make a cornhole board. Ric figured it out and finished the job. Soon other people were asking for boards, and a business was born.

Last year the Scheiners, through, their Internet enterprise, sold 700 sets of cornhole boards. They sold 50,000 cornhole bags. Business is booming so loudly that they’ve made it a family affair. Ric’s mom, dad, and brothers make the products in a converted barn in Rising Sun, Indiana. Maureen’s mom and sister-in-law pitch in, as do their three children. The dining area in their home has been turned into an office, where Maureen answers calls and e-mails all day, and where Ric cuts the vinyl patterns for the boards. The two-car garage, says Ric, has never sheltered their cars. Instead, it’s filled with seed bags stuffed with finished cornhole bags, with rolls of vinyl in a variety of colors, with cornhole hats and T-shirts, with boards waiting for vinyl applications or waiting to be shipped, with pretty much anything you can think of pertaining to the game of cornhole.

“The business could be as big as we want to make it,” says Ric. “The only problem is our time.” Maureen cut back on her job as a substitute teacher at St. Catharine of Siena School in Westwood to devote herself to Ric, a systems administrator at MedPlus in Mason, spends evenings and weekends on the business. “Last year we did six figures,” he says. “Our goal is to reach a million in sales. If we had the financial backing and could do it full-time, we could make that this year. Judging by how much and where we’ve shipped, we’re at the tip of the iceberg.”

Judging by how many orders she’s processed, Maureen is not sure about that. “It feels like we’ve shipped to every household in the country,” she says. As for who’s buying the games, she says, “A lot of times there’s some Midwest connection.” People say they’ve moved from the region or that on a recent visit they discovered the game and want one themselves. Here’s the ironic thing: Though their lives revolve around the game, neither has a passion for playing it. “We don’t have time for it,” Maureen says.

Whether or not the game and the name are west side originals, we’ve certainly become the vortex of its expanding popularity. In our age of viral marketing, cornhole circles are growing wider all the time—and before starting my research I didn’t even know there were cornhole circles. It’s like that moment in a science-fiction novel when the hero comes upon one of those hidden civilizations that exists in a parallel dimension or near the earth’s core. Last year, a mockumentary titled Cornhole: The Movie, written and directed by Cincinnati native Tim Clarke, was shot here. There’s even a music video for “The Cornhole Song,” by a duo called Rhett and Link, posted on YouTube. Though I take exception to the characterization of the game as ideally suited to lazy, drunken, uncoordinated types with limited educations and even more limited social prospects, I applaud the line that asserts, “The man with the boards is a man never bored.” I think that just about sums it up.

Illustration by Ryan Snook
Originally published in the May 2008 issue.

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