OCEAN CITY — The game of clam-shell pitching is an old and treasured tradition along the South Jersey shore — but there’s just one problem.
“We found a bunch of shells, but one of my son’s shells broke and it was game over,” Joe McGettigan, of Delanco, Burlington County, said. “And even in December, we searched the jetties but couldn’t find shells. So we started messing around with molds and stuff.”
The result: artificial shells made of urethane resin, exact replicas of ones he picked up at an Ocean City jetty, each colored a brilliant red, white or blue — and, he said, patented. And now any visitor to Ocean City can pick up the “Clam Drain” game at local shops.
“It’s about 75 percent the weight of a real model,” McGettigan said. “We’re working on it. We want to get that up just a little bit. But the aerodynamics are excellent.”
On Saturday, the First Martin Z. Mollusk Clam Drain Federation World’s Championship took place on the beach at Ocean City, where McGettigan, a Somers Point native, spent many summers playing the classic game of shell pitching. The one thing he wanted to stress — acknowledging the strong opinions many serious players have about shell pitching — is that he respects the game and isn’t trying to change it.
“I fully understand that the game means a lot to people on the Jersey Shore,” he said. “We’re on the shoulders of the people before us.”
Thirteen doubles teams and 12 single players faced each other across a number of playing surfaces in the wet sand, each consisting of two holes 25.5 feet apart with a circle.
“The way we play, and there’s other varieties, is that you have to be in the scoring circle in order to score,” McGettigan said. “Close to the hole is one point, over the edge without going in is what we call a ‘clam lip,’ and that’s two points, and in the hole is three.”
Players can “steal” an opponent’s three points if they land a shell in the hole on the next turn, but then the other player can steal it right back.
Most of the players, it seemed, had experience ranging from hours to as far back as a few days.
“They just got some clams the day before and they practiced on the beach a little bit,” said Brenna Gagnon, a Michigan resident staying in Ocean City, of her husband, Dan, and father, Dave Jazowski. “I tried to play a little bit, but I’m not very good. My dad beat me the first time — and then two times after that. And then I gave it up.”
McGettigan joked to Brenna about Dan Gagnon’s skills. “‘Oh, I don’t know how to play!’” he quoted Dan as saying, “I’m basically accusing him of lying.”
Morgan Hobensack’s description of her skills? “Not that good,” said the Warminster, Pa., resident.
Ten-year-old Patrick Taney, of Cherry Hill and Ocean City, said, “Really bad!”
“He’s never done it before,” said his mother, Sheila. “But he plays baseball, so at least he has the arm for it. Though it’s all different throwing mechanics.”
Saturday was the first day of play for Gwen Wills and her son Brent, of Yardley, Pa., and Ocean City. “But we love the competition,” Gwen said. “We lost the first one, 16 to 21, but we had a comeback.”
Marie Moore, of Blue Bell, Pa., had a different reaction.
“We played quoits on the beach for 30 years,” she said, referring to another name for the game. “In later years, we could never find big enough shells. We were thinking about working around with different (materials), thinking about how much we would charge. ... And now we come up this year, and oh my god! I’m so disappointed, although I’m pleased to see it.”
Talking later with Moore, McGettigan joked about how he’s received similar mixed reactions by others who had considered the idea of artificial shells.
“‘I love you and I hate you,’” was one reaction he got on Island Beach State Park, he said.
“That’s awesome,” Moore acknowledged. “We dropped the ball.”
Though she did have one complaint.
“They charge $18 for it in the store and that’s a lot,” Moore said. What would she have charged? “I don’t know. Not $18.”
The ultimate winners of the first world championship were Larry Calio, of Newark, Del., who won the singles tournament, and The Clam Diggers, Dennis Hewski, of Aberdeen and Ocean City, and Kevin Farren, of Springfield, Pa., and Ocean City, who won the doubles tournament.
“How long have we played the game?” asked Hewski between rounds.
“About an hour,” Farren responded.
“A friend of ours played it a lot and got us into it,” Hewski said. The last game was close, 21 to 15, I think. I think it’s great. It’s old school. Just dig a hole in the sand and throw shells into it. It’s simple. And a lot of fun.”
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