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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Smart money never learns. In the U.S. Open of 1935, Hitchcock made a spectacular comeback. Playing for John Hay (Jock) Whitney's Greentree team, he had two of the best games of his life in the semifinal and final rounds, and at the end of the season he was raised again to a 10. "No one in the polo world today can challenge Hitchcock's supremacy," wrote one New York newspaper. "His play during the past season was nearly faultless."

Hitchcock kept his 10 until his retirement from the game in 1939. Of his last international series, the Westchester Cup, TIME said, "...after a quarter century of competitive polo [he] proved last week that he is still the best player in the world. Spectators, gasping at his fearless riding, peerless tactics, magnificent driving and accurate shotmaking, realized why he has been rated at 10 goals for 17 years—greatest feat in the annals of polo."

No hullabaloo attended Hitchcock's retirement. He merely stopped playing. The Golden Age of Sport had finally come to an end. Of all its heroes, only Hitchcock had played right through the '30s, still at the top of his game.

When the U.S. went to war again in 1941, Hitchcock left his partnership in Lehman Brothers and joined Air Intelligence with the rank of major. He wanted to fly, but 41 was too old, he was told. J. Averell Clark. Hitchcock's nephew and a highly decorated World War II pilot, remembers Hitchcock's frustration. His attitude, says Clark, was, "What's the use of wearing a brown suit if you don't have anyone to pop at?"

Hitchcock spent most of the war in desk jobs in London and Washington. He was a prime mover in developing the P-51 B, known as the Mustang, into the Allies' most effective fighter-bomber. In 1944, when Mustangs began crashing mysteriously, failing to come out of their bombing dives, Hitchcock's job was to find out why. His group of engineers arrived at a theory to explain the malfunction; Hitchcock elected to test the theory himself. On April 12, 1944, at the age of 44, Tommy Hitchcock died when the Mustang he was flying crashed near Salisbury, England. In its obituary, The New York Times wrote, "He was intelligent, personable, humorous, of superb physical equipment, and wholly devoid of pretense.... The best of America was in his veins—not the nonsense of any social class but the country's intellect and character."

Hitchcock's life was one of action from beginning to end. Had fate allowed him to reach a contemplative old age he might have written about polo as Bobby Jones wrote about golf. As it is, the only written record that remains of Hitchcock's approach to the game he ruled for two decades is a list of instructions he drew up in 1930 when he was captain of a U.S. polo squad about to meet the English for the Westchester Cup. Instruction No. 1 could have been a credo: "Try as hard as you can all the time. Do not let up for one second, and do not stop until the referee blows his whistle."

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