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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A story is still told about the day Hitchcock tried a new pony on Cochrane Field at Meadow Brook. The horse wanted to go one way, Hitchcock the other, and Hitchcock jerked the horse's head so hard to one side that he broke the animal's back. If true, the story tells something not only about Hitchcock and horses, but also about the strength of his shoulders and arms.

Hitchcock was rough, but high-goal polo is a contact sport. Falls, concussions and broken bones are not unusual, and strength and nervelessness are great advantages. "Riding off" one's opponent, for instance, means using the half-ton weight of one's galloping horse plus one's own shoulders to bull an opposing player and his horse out of the play. The late William Jackson, a Wall Street lawyer and investment banker, wrote a tribute to Hitchcock called "Memories of a Hero." In it Jackson recalled being ridden off by Hitchcock so hard that his horse fell to its knees. Just as Jackson, too, began to fall, Hitchcock reached across with his left hand (the hand holding the reins), jerked Jackson back into the saddle and "still had time to hit a near-side backhand at the last split second a long way in the opposite direction."

"He didn't have a nerve in his body," says Mills, who was an 8-goaler in the '30s but is now best known for having syndicated his 2-year-old thoroughbred, Devil's Bag, for an extraordinary $36 million in 1984. "It was just part of his physical makeup. He had great anticipatory powers. If there was a split second between you and the shot, he'd beat you to it, and he could hit the ball a country mile. Pat Roark [a famous British 9-goaler] was my favorite to play with because he'd touch the ball and put it right on your mallet. With Tommy Hitchcock you had to chase it when it came down out of the clouds."

In 1930, when 45,000 people showed up for the first game of the Westchester Cup, Ten-Goal Tommy was at the top of his game. His celebrity was also at its peak. His wedding in 1928 to Margaret Mellon Laughlin, a handsome young widow from Pittsburgh, had been covered as if he were a movie star. When Hitchcock arrived at a public event he was besieged. Tommy's eldest daughter, Louise Hitchcock Stephaich, still remembers "crowds pushing and people applauding" when the family arrived for a match. "There was a sort of godlike worship for Dad," she says. "Mummy said it was kind of unhealthy."

Symbolic of the popular turn the sport took in the '30s were the series of East-West All-Star matches. For many years players in western outposts such as California and Texas had been growing in numbers and in skill. Two Texas cowboys, Cecil Smith and Rube Williams, were ranked at 9 and 7 goals respectively, while Californians Elmer Boeseke and Eric Pedley were both at 8. Most of these men had played on U.S. international teams alongside their Eastern peers, but pitting the regions against each other was a new idea.

Better polo had been played than the first East-West encounter in 1933, but probably none so brutal. The underdog West team was made up of cowboys Smith and Williams, Boeseke, a rancher, and Aidan Roark, a movie company executive. The Easterners—Hitchcock, Michael Phipps, Winston Guest and his brother Raymond Guest—were 100% New York Social Register.

The West won the first game of the best-of-three series 15-11. Smith's horse fell on him, knocking him out for half an hour, and Williams collided with a goalpost and was hit in the ribs by a swinging mallet, a blow that grounded him for 15 minutes. In the best tradition of high-goal guts polo, all the injured continued to play.

The East won the second game 12-8. Boeseke broke his foot, Williams broke his leg—an injury that seriously damaged his polo career—and Hitchcock, in ajar-ring collision with Boeseke, was thrown and lay on the ground unconscious for 20 minutes.

For the third and deciding game, Williams was replaced by Eric Pedley, who was flown in from California; Hitchcock was still dazed from what turned out to be a serious concussion; and Boeseke played with his broken foot stuffed into a tennis sneaker. Nevertheless, the sixth and seventh periods of the last game were, said TIME magazine, "two of the most savage chukkers ever played. East and West locked in a mutual flailing strangle." The West prevailed again, 12-6, winning the series. Humorist Will Rogers, a California polo enthusiast, gloated in print: "The East never thought the West could muster up four guys with white pants, much less some mallets...the hillbillies beat the dudes and look the polo championship right out of the drawing room and into the bunkhouse...."

As a result of those first East-West matches Smith and Boeseke were raised to 10 goals and Hitchcock had company on the top rung of the game. In 1934, however, Hitchcock suffered another concussion. His play fell off that season, and at the end of the year his handicap was lowered for the first time to a 9. At 34 Hitchcock was past his peak, said the smart money.

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