SI Vault
The Cowboy Who Showed 'Em
Robert Gantwell
May 09, 1977
Cecil Smith, now 73, was a Texas ranch hand when he discovered polo, the millionaires' sport. He invaded that alien world and, with brilliant horsemanship, became the game's best player
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
May 09, 1977

The Cowboy Who Showed 'em

Cecil Smith, now 73, was a Texas ranch hand when he discovered polo, the millionaires' sport. He invaded that alien world and, with brilliant horsemanship, became the game's best player

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Though Marshall wrote that social snobbery kept Smith from getting the handicap he deserved, the fact that he had no string of his own was also a factor. It was not until 1930 that Smith was rated as high as seven goals. In that year he and Rube Williams played on a Roslyn, Long Island team formed by Harold Talbott (Hill, Yale, Electric Auto-Lite, six goals). They defeated Greentree, made up of Meadow Brook stars, for the Monty Waterbury Cup, the most prestigious trophy in American polo. Two years later the two cowboys played with Jock Whitney's Greentree team for the same cup. Smith's pony fell in the semifinals, and he broke a bone in his arm below his right elbow. With Smith out of the lineup Greentree was eliminated. The accident also cost Smith a chance to go to England with the next international team selected.

Still, his mastery could no longer be ignored. In 1933 the East-West match eventually came about largely because of the attention Smith had received. The question of how he would do against Hitchcock, who had been a 10-goal player for 12 straight seasons, was a popular argument. The East-West was a special sports event connected with the Century of Progress exposition in Chicago. The first game of the three-game match began at 4:30 Sunday afternoon, Aug. 13, at the Onwentsia Club in Lake Forest. With Hitchcock on the East team were Winston and Raymond Guest (eight and seven goals) and Michael Phipps (seven goals). It was a superior 32-goal team.

On the other side were Smith, now rated at nine goals. Rube Williams, at seven, Elmer Boeseke, a seven-goal veteran who played in Buffalo with the Aurora team, and Aidan Roark, later the husband of Helen Wills, seven goals. It was a good 30-goal team, but the East was favored because of Hitchcock's experience and its horses. The East team had arrived in Chicago with 32 horses and nine handlers traveling in special cars attached to a fast train. Private cars carried a contingent of fashionable supporters. Twelve years of consecutive victories over English and Argentine teams in international matches had made it clear that the Meadow Brook players were the best in the world. But there was a nagging question that they might not be the best in their own country. "There was an awful lot of money bet on those games," Tobin Armstrong says, "with the big money on the East team."

Yet it began as a rout of the East. Smith got the ball at the toss-in and drove toward the goal. A foul gave him a penalty shot from 60 yards out. He lofted it over the heads of the defenders lined up in front of the goal, directly between the goalposts. After the next toss-in, Boeseke got the ball near the West goal and raced the length of the field to make it 2-0. But then Hitchcock and Winston Guest passed the ball to within range of the West goal, from which point Guest drove the ball between the posts. A moment later Hitchcock deftly played the ball along the boards—the low fence marking the boundary of the field—where his opponents could not get at it, and made the score 2-2 as the period ended.

Three minutes to change horses. In this sort of polo the players race back to midfield for the toss-in with an astonishing eagerness, almost like children, sometimes appearing to race to get there first. Smith got off another of the high line drives that were his trademark, high enough to clear men on horseback. But Raymond Guest, swinging his mallet overhead, brought it down in midflight, chased it into the open and scored to put the East ahead 3-2.

That was the last time the East led. Another 60-yard penalty shot by Smith made it 3-3, and yet another, from 40 yards, made it 4-3, and the West was on its way. The half ended with the West ahead 9-6, and after the five-minute rest period, two quick goals from the field and an 80-yard penalty shot by Smith made the score 12-6.

What was happening was unbelievable: "Polo never seen before and perhaps never to be seen again," according to Marshall. Near the end of the fifth chukker—there were eight chukkers, or periods, each 7� minutes long—Smith fell, his horse rolling over him. He was unconscious for 23 minutes and rumors swept the crowd that he was dead. When he came to, he waved away the ambulance and returned to the field, play having stopped for more than half an hour. "They changed the rules after that," he says. "Now you have to get back on the field after 15 minutes." He rode around the field like a zombie. There were no goals for either team in the sixth period. Rube Williams was knocked out when a swing of Winston Guest's mallet accidentally caught him in the chest. (Earlier Williams had acquired a scalp wound when he hit a goalpost after a fall.) After play resumed, Hitchcock scored two quick goals to make the score 12-8. What with time out and injuries, the last period did not start until 7:30.

At the start of the final period Hitchcock. Michael Phipps and Raymond Guest scored three goals within three minutes to bring the score to 12-11, and only a brilliant save by Aidan Roark prevented the East from tying it. Roark got the ball to Smith, who, apparently himself again, drove it from midfield for another goal. With that, the last East offensive collapsed and Smith and Roark each scored again to make the final score 15-11.

Smith was a national hero, on the front pages, in the newsreels, on a nationwide radio hookup. He had scored five of six penalty shots, and he also scored from the field with distance and accuracy that no other player could match. "The most dramatic upset in a generation," Marshall wrote. "Smith outthought Hitchcock, outrode him and outhit him by a wide margin."

In the second game, three days later. Rube Williams was the victim of a freak accident. At the end of one of the periods Hitchcock nonchalantly whacked the ball toward the sidelines and accidentally hit Williams instead. The force of the blow broke his leg, the third time Williams had broken a leg that season. The West had no real substitute, and Neil McCarthy, a low-goal player, took Williams' place. The West could not stop Hitchcock's drives near the goal, and the East won 12-8.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7