Marshall later became celebrated as Brigadier General Samuel Lyman Atwood Marshall, the historian of World War II. Marshall had learned to play polo after World War I, while serving under General Adna Chaffee, then a major, who had been a polo star in his young days at Fort Riley, Kans. Chaffee, who was a good writer himself, wanted Marshall to write about military affairs. Marshall balked; his literary work then was not as distinguished as his polo. Chaffee said, "If you do the writing, I'll let you use my polo string." Thus did a great military historian come into being. When he left the Army, Marshall became sports editor of an El Paso newspaper, switching to Detroit after Smith began to play there. "I got to know Sam Marshall real well," says Smith. "We were together a lot. He's a real nice fellow."
Marshall was critical of the Eastern polo Establishment centered at Meadow Brook, though he admired individual players. Writing of Hitchcock and Stewart Iglehart, both 10-goal, he noted that both were "sons of fathers who have long exercised a dominant influence in polo, on the handicap committee and elsewhere...." Another time, comparing Hitchcock and Cecil Smith, he wrote, " Hitchcock is wealthy; Smith hasn't a dime. Hitchcock is one of the game's keenest students; Smith was born with the technique of play in his brain and the knack and the drive in his good right arm."
Handicaps are rated according to a player's hitting, his horsemanship, his mastery of the game and the quality of his horses—this last accounting for 60% to 75%—as well as his sportsmanship. Smith believes that horses account for 75% to 80%. "You can't hit the ball if your horse can't get you to it," he says. When he first went to Long Island in 1927 he took only one horse with him.
There were 20 to 40 wealthy amateurs playing polo then, owning strings of 30 or more ponies, with the cost of horses, handlers and travel coming to perhaps $50,000 a year or more, depending on how many trips were made to California. The players were almost as interrelated as European royal families—fathers and sons, like the junior and senior Devereux Milburns and Thomas Hitchcocks, or brothers, including Raymond and Winston Guest and Michael and Hubert Phipps, or brothers-in-law, such as Averell Harriman and Robert Gerry, as well as an array of cousins, nephews and grandsons. Their wealth was spectacular. Laddie Sanford inherited the $26 million Bigelow-Sanford carpet works, Bobby Strawbridge a major share of the Strawbridge & Clothier department store in Philadelphia, Seymour Knox a part of the Woolworth fortune. Averell Harriman's father left an estate of $100 million. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney and his cousin Jock were members of an enormously wealthy New York family.
Marshall wrote of Smith's career as a case of Smith vs. The Rest. The nub of the problem was the international matches, then major sports events. In more than 50 years of international competition, before Smith's appearance in a match against Mexico in 1941, only one player who was not a member of the Long Island group had ever played on a U.S. team—Eric Pedley, who lived in California. When in the early 1930s an East-West match was proposed, the best of the Meadow Brook regulars against the best from the rest of the country, Marshall expressed doubt that it would take place. "Suppose the West should win. Would the East give way in the matter of international selection? You know very well they would not."
When polo was introduced into the U.S. in 1876, James Gordon Bennett Jr. of the New York Herald sent a New York riding master to Texas to buy polo ponies. The first game was a farce—on only one swing in 30 did the players even make contact with the ball—but the horses were a hit. "The Texas mustangs ridden by the party were all active, wiry animals," said the
New York Times
account of the first game, "and joined in the game with as much apparent zest as the owners. They presented an animated appearance, fairly flashing about the turf with a great deal of spirit and chasing the ball with incredible speed." ("Horses won't chase a ball," says Smith. "A dog will, but a horse won't.")
Texas became the main supplier of polo ponies for the next century; more than 25,000 have been shipped to Eastern players. The peak of the business came in the '20s and '30s. In 1927 Miller moved his stables from Austin to San Antonio, where there were some 14 polo teams on nearby Army posts, as well as the local club. Miller, Smith and Williams spent two months each year traveling from one Texas ranch to another, gathering 80 or more horses to be trained, usually during the winter months. Polo ponies should not play until they are four or five years old and their growth completed. But a good cow horse has "that balance and quickness developed in watching that cow all the time." says Smith.
"When we came back with the horses, we'd work them a little bit every day," he says. "We'd take them slow. If you get them into a game too soon, they don't do so well. We hired extra help, but Miller and Rube and I would still ride 10 or 12 horses a day. I've ridden as many as 15, but that's an awful lot."
After four months of training, the horses were taken to California, where the season opened in February. The polo community that had formed around Darryl Zanuck in Hollywood was a mixed group, including English actors, high-goal players hired by Zanuck and Western stars. Among them were Reginald Denny, Raymond Griffith, Walt Disney, Hal Roach, Jack Holt, James Gleason. Charles Farrell and Guinn (Big Boy) Williams. "Big Boy Williams was a pretty good player," says Smith. "He was a great fellow. Will Rogers was a good player, about three goals. I think. I was at his place a lot. We used to play polo in the morning and rope calves in the afternoon. He had a lot of barbecues. We were close friends."
The horses that were not sold in California, Miller shipped back to Texas, where they were seasoned further in actual play and later taken north to Long Island or other polo centers. In one way or another Smith played polo every day of the year, except when he was traveling with the horses. A good cow horse cost $250 to $500. Trained as a polo pony, it sold for at least $1,000. Smith never had a string of his own until 1946, after he had been playing for 22 years and had been a 10-goal star for the best part of a decade. Whenever he and Rube Williams found and trained an exceptionally good horse, Miller sold it. After they went into the business for themselves, they found they often had to sell the good ones. Smith managed to keep Badger, one of his favorite horses, which he found on a ranch in Sonora, Texas and rode for 12 years. He found his most famous mount, Bonnie J, at a ranch near Brady, not far from his old home in Llano. Other players said Smith should have had a 12-goal rating when he was riding her. Bonnie J had started out badly, but he stayed with her. "Her bones and muscles had set and she had worked around cattle." Smith says. "These were good signs, but she wouldn't stick-and-ball. She'd fight the stick and she'd shy at the ball, even paw at it. But once she was running with other horses, she never took time to worry about the ball or the stick. I just touched her to point her where I wanted her to go. If a ball bounced off a divot in the last second, she would fly over to where I could hit it."