SI Vault
Sarah Ballard
November 03, 1986
Long Island. Today those words evoke suburbia, endless miles of housing developments and shopping centers connected to New York City by an infamous expressway and a hapless commuter railroad. Once upon a time, though, Long Island was dream country. In the imaginations of millions of moviegoers, readers of fiction and sports fans in the 1920s and '30s, Long Island was Bel Air, Palm Beach and Grosse Pointe rolled into one, a semirural paradise where beautiful people of enormous wealth drove fabulous open cars along leafy lanes amid vast country estates, and where everyone, when not drinking cocktails or sailing to Europe, played polo.
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November 03, 1986

Polo Player Tommy Hitchcock Led A Life Of Action From Beginning To End

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Hitchcock was among the youngest of the heroes. He was already 5'10", his full adult height. His torso was long and his legs short and strong, the perfect build for many sports, but especially for polo—the legs for welding rider to horse, the torso for leaning far out of the saddle to hit the ball, forehand or back, near side or off side, hook or slice, all the while traveling at speeds up to 35 mph.

During his three months at the French front, Hitchcock was credited with two "kills"—German planes shot down. Then he was shot down, behind enemy lines. Wounded, he was captured and held by the Germans for six months before he escaped by jumping from a train that was transporting prisoners from one facility to another. After eight days of hunger and cold, hiding by day and traveling by night, he reached the safety of the Swiss border, 100 miles away.

When the war ended, Hitchcock, 18 and a hero, entered Harvard; the next year he began to play polo again and in 1921 he was selected to the first postwar international team. The Westchester Cup, lost to the English in 1914, was to be contested for the first time since the war, and Hitchcock was assigned the number 2 position. (On polo's four-man teams, numbers 1 and 2 are forwards, the high scorers; number 3 is a pivot man, the playmaker; the back is in charge of defense.) Of the number 2 position Hitchcock later wrote, "The two should be the most active and aggressive man on the side, should have his nose in every play and be continually forcing the attack." That was Tommy Hitchcock all over.

The Westchester Cup matches took place in June at London's Hurlingham polo ground with everybody, including King George V and Winston Churchill, watching. The Americans won in two straight games, and Hitchcock, the youngest member of the squad, was a sensation. In the first game he scored five goals, more than the entire English team. Alongside its account of the game, The New York Times ran a separate story headlined, " Hitchcock, a War Hero, Was Captured by Germans After Airplane Fall, But Escaped."

The Golden Age of Sport was under way. Babe Ruth was in his second year with the Yankees, Jack Dempsey had been world champion for two years, Gene Tunney was still a preliminary fighter, Bill Tilden had won Wimbledon the year before, and Bobby Jones was two years away from his first U.S. Open championship. With the first game of the 1921 Westchester Cup, T. Hitchcock Jr. assumed his place at the center of the spectacle.

A close and fascinated observer of Hitchcock and his milieu was F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald modeled two characters on Hitchcock—Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby and Tommy Barban, a wealthy soldier-adventurer in Tender Is The Night. Of Barban, Fitzgerald wrote, "Courage was his game and his companions were always a little afraid of him."

Courage was a theme running through Hitchcock lore, too, and if his friends were not afraid, they were at least wary. Mills was a Long Island neighbor of Hitchcock's in the '30s. Both worked on Wall Street then, Hitchcock for Lehman Brothers in investment banking and Mills for C.D. Barney, a brokerage house. Hitchcock frequently commuted from his home in Sands Point to a pier in the East River at the lower end of Manhattan by seaplane, which he piloted. Mills recalls flying to work with Hitchcock one day when the weather was marginal: "We were coming down the East River toward the Queensboro Bridge. The clouds were low, so instead of going over the bridge where the clouds were, Tommy decided to go under. That was bad enough, but as we're going under, what do we see coming in the opposite direction but a battleship of some kind. I won't tell you what I almost did. Tommy was a very bold person, very brave."

Some people called Hitchcock's boldness on the polo field courage; others said it was recklessness. Polo magazine deplored the effect of Hitchcock's style on younger players: "...many of them copied their games after his unthinkingly, not realizing that finesse was a cornerstone of his game as well as power, that team play was still most important." All agreed, however, that Hitchcock played harder and hit the ball farther than anyone. In fact, his play revolutionized the American game. Only the Argentines, who began making inroads in polo in the '20s and who dominate the game today, played in the same hell-for-leather style. Jos� Reynal, a famous Argentine 10-goal player of the '30s, recalled watching Hitchcock hit a ball 170 yards. Having overridden the ball at midfield, Hitchcock checked his mount, turned and, as Reynal bore down on him, managed to get off a quick shot. "I sat helpless and watched the ball climb into the wind," said Reynal. "It wavered to right and left but held a generally true line. Finally it came to earth and rolled between the posts. It didn't seem possible."

Hitchcock introduced one aggressive tactic into the game that was eventually outlawed. He would race directly at his opposite number from an extreme angle, as if he intended to barge straight through man and horse. At the last second he would pull up short, but by that time his opponent, with survival uppermost in his mind, had altered his route—which, of course, was the whole idea. Now the practice is considered a "foul of intimidation" and it incurs a penalty shot.

Hitchcock's father, Thomas Sr., a 10-goal player himself in the earliest years of the American game, was a true horseman and the most successful gentleman trainer of steeplechase horses in the country. Tommy's mother, too, was a fine horsewoman, mistress of the Aiken drag hunt (a hunt in which an animal's scent is dragged over a predetermined course to attract the hounds) and patron of junior polo in Aiken and on Long Island. In spite of this background, Tommy himself was not known as a horseman. He was above all an athlete and a games player. To him a horse was a machine. To win the game it was important to have the best machine, but if a machine broke down, another was always available to take its place.

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