Fittingly for its reputation as an aristocratic game, the first international polo match in North America was played in 1886 at Newport, R.I., then in its heyday as the favorite resort of high society. The match was between the Hurlingham Club of England and New York's Westchester Polo Club.
The arrangements for the event were made by Griswold Lorillard of the tobacco family, who had homes both in New York City and Newport. He had been a dinner guest one evening that June at the Hurlingham clubhouse in Fulham, near London, and mentioned that polo was played, and played rather well, in the U.S. This caused a certain insular surprise among his hosts. Hurlingham was, so to speak, the supreme headquarters of polo and had not yet heard that its game had reached the emigrants. The club officers suggested that perhaps they could send over a team to play the Americans if suitable financial arrangements could be made.
In Lorillard's set financial arrangements could always be made. The minutes of the Westchester Polo Club's meeting of June 4, 1886, in the firm, round hand of F. Gray Griswold, the club secretary-treasurer, records:
"Letter received from T. Shaw Safe, Hurlingham Club, England, asking whether we could arrange for a match with team from England and what we could propose toward their expenses. The secretary was instructed to inform Mr. Safe that...we would gladly play them in August and would land five members, five servants, five grooms in New York and return them to Liverpool, paying all freight and passages."
The terms met with British approval. Subsequently the Westchester Polo Club elected to put up a cup, costing $1,000, to be emblematic of the championship of the two countries. The best two-of-three matches were to be played at the club's summer grounds in Newport starting the last week of August—at the very peak of Newport's season.
Newport's brilliant, pleasure-fraught days and evenings, as Henry James termed them, began usually at noon, with the gathering of the cottagers at Newport Casino. There, to the scrapings of Mullaly's String Orchestra, off somewhere behind the potted palms, the elite strolled the Horseshoe Piazza and the tennis grounds, exchanging gossip of last night's gala, planning lunch and afternoon diversions and, of course, the evening's schedule.
Dinner was at 8 if one was going elsewhere afterward, 9 if nothing additional was arranged. Galas began at midnight and ended at dawn, if then. And hostesses vied with one another to stage spectaculars, such as unloosing thousands of butterflies at the height of dinner or having a silver bucket and shovel at each place setting so that guests, on signal, could dig for jewels buried in a sand-pile that ran down the center of the table. One cottager, Mrs. Pembroke Jones, used to say that she always set aside $300,000 at the beginning of every Newport season just for entertaining. Some thought she was scrimping.
Sports were large among the daily diversions. In addition to the usual tennis week—involving the national championship—the golf, the fishing, the horse show and the like, the summer of 1886 offered another America's Cup race, preceded by trials in which four American contenders battled for the privilege of defending against the British challenger Galatea, and, of course, the new and perhaps most posh entry, international polo.
The American team was chosen in a weirdly complicated system of balloting by club members. Thomas Hitchcock was named captain. He was the most experienced of American poloists, having played the game while attending Oxford. The other players were Foxhall Keene, Raymond Belmont, Edwin K. Morgan and William K. Thorn Jr.
The British players, Hurlingham members all, were army officers, with the exception of the team captain, John Watson, a polo buff supreme who had recently returned from India, where he had gone simply to play polo, and the team substitute T. Shaw Safe. The other team members: Captain the Hon. R. Lawley. 7th Hussars, Captain T. Hone, 9th Hussars, and Captain Malcolm Little, 7th Hussars.