When Detroit rode the polo ponies

Polo, the sport of kings

Polo has long been viewed as a sport for kings, aristrocrats and the very rich, despite the game’s savage origins.  According to legend, the game springs from the  Mongol invaders’ habit of batting around the decapitated heads of  vanquished enemies while on horseback. It can be presumed that this had the desired effect of inspiring terror in other would-be enemies of the Mongols.

Over the centuries the game spread to Arabia, Tibet, China, Japan and India, where it was adopted by the British. In 1876 American sportsman and publisher James Gorden Bennett saw his first polo match in England and brought it back to New York, where the wealthy quickly established teams and private clubs in which to play the game.

The earliest mention of polo in Detroit comes in a Detroit News report of a game in April,1881 in which a Detroit team defeated a Chicago team.

A polo team representing the Japanese Imperial Household.

Another Detroit match in 1912 ended in a tie, but there were no horses. The players all drove automobiles, but apparently it was decided that the newfangled invention would not replace the horse since there are no further mentions of such games.

As the game developed in Britain and America, the British dominated until early in the 20th Century. American teams reigned in international play from 1909 until the 1950s when they were dethroned by the Argentines.

At the height of the sport’s popularity — the 1920s through the ’50s — there were many teams active in the Detroit area, and The Detroit News carried almost daily coverage of polo during the summer season as well as indoor games during the winter. This coverage included women’s teams, college and high school teams as well as teams from many area clubs.

Well-known military analyst and historian S.L.A. Marshall covered polo for The Detroit News early in his career.

A Detroit News sports writer assigned to cover polo was S.L.A. Marshall, who later rose to the rank of brigadier general in the U.S. Army and became a well-known military correspondent and historian with more than 20 books to his credit, including “Pork Chop Hill” which became a movie.

His writing style shows in a 1930 article in The Detroit News, “Polo Cups Won in Movie Style,” an account of the Detroit Freebooters’ defeat of the champion Army team from Fort Sam Houston to win the coveted Detroit News Cup.

“The score is tied, but the game is still to be won. They ride on. A scant 20 seconds remain of the period. The ball starts toward the other goal. The opposing Three passes it. The Back makes a fatal error. He rides straight at a bounding ball to hit forward. But the swing misses, and the way is open to goal. The oncoming Three sees his chance. He closes in fast, hits the ball hard. Straight down to goal he carries it. Two defensive players swing in from the side and block the road, but the ball goes through. It rolls to the mouth of the goal. No.1 pushes over. The bell rings. The deciding goal in 660 minutes of polo has been scored in the final second of play.

“The scenario if mad, fantastic; its chances of happening aren’t one in a million. But it happened that way yesterday at Harrison Polo field when the Detroit Freebooters won The Detroit News cups from Fort Sam Houston. When that last heart-pumping goal, carried and set up by Marvin Harrison and tapped over by Fred N Alger, was scored as the gong sounded, everybody went just a little bit mad. The heat helped it along. Hats went in the air, chairs and parasols were thrown after them. And the crowd that swarmed onto the field almost mobbed the ponies and the players before the cups could be presented by Mrs Phil H. Grennan, on behalf of The News.”

Polo lovers knew that the ponies were 80 percent of the game, so they annually awarded the best pony a bronze medal. In 1931 “Single E,” a bay gelding brought from Texas by Marvin H Harrison, and owned by Phil H. Grennan, won the medal. Marshall wrote, “Single E is still the best high-goal polo pony in Michigan, No other mount in the area can touch him for speed, endurance and all-around polo qualities.”

Each season English, Cuban and Argentine teams visited Detroit with their ponies despite the extreme expense of transporting the ponies and the players over oceans and mountains. Teams from the Detroit area included the Triple Cs, the All-Stars, Ivory Rangers, Freebooters, Majors, the Birmingham Rockets and Ramblers, the Brookwood Blues, the Blue Eagles, Cavaliers, Lancers, Broncos, the Pontiac Chiefs, Rangers and the Franklin Hills. The Detroit Polo Club’s Gold Hats were named by a bowler who promised the name to his teammates if they won. More teams played as colors — the Blues, the Greens, the Reds and the Yellows.

Cars line the polo field during a match at Southfield and Nine Mile roads in 1930.

The teams played at the Detroit Polo Club at Nine Mile and Southfield, which opened in 1923; Ivory field at Lahser and Eight Mile; Roy’s Ranch on Walnut Lake Road in Walled Lake, and fields in Union Lake, Milford, Grosse Pointe (at Cook Road Field, 7 Mile and Mack), White Lake (The Hammonds), The State Fair (indoor) and other cities such as Flint and Mt Clemens. Other types of clubs often served as base for more than one team. The Detroit Riding and Hunt Club had an indoor field at Wyoming and Seven Mile Road.

Wealthy families often sponsored their own teams, such as the Hammond family team. Edward P. Hammond Jr. related to the Chicago Hammond-Standish meat packer family, became a Detroit businessman and owner of the Hammond Building. Hammond belonged to several clubs including the Bloomfield Open Hunt, where his sons played the game. Known as the Hillwoods or The Hammond Brothers, George, Fred, John and Ted became world famous players.

Harvey Firestone, the tiremaker from Akron, Ohio, played his team in Detroit,. His four sons, Russell, Raymond, Leonard and Harvey Jr rode the “best horseflesh” Firestone could muster. His team, named “The Firestones” defeated the Gold Hats 11 to 8 in a 1927 game in Detroit.

During the 1950s, Detroit industrialist A.D.(Don) Beveridge sponsored the Triple Cs and also served as a playing captain. He had his nephew, Bobby Beveridge, Harold Barry from Texas, and George Oliver from FLorida on his winning team. Formed in 1951, the team won 31 of 41 tournament games played.

Both pony and rider had to be fine athletes.

Beveridge recalled his early polo days in Michigan in 1937.

“You really had to like the game to play when I started. A friend wanted an apple orchard cleared so he offered to let us play in return for chopping down the trees. He probably was surprised when we agreed just for a chance to play some pasture polo.”

His team won the United States Open in 1954, 1955 and 1957, the Butler in 1954 and 1956. No other team had taken the U.S. Open event three times in a four year period.

Another well-known polo player, Cecil Smith, began his career in Michigan but left to play for the Texas Rangers. During a 1932 game in Detroit the Rangers against the Michigan Freebooters, the Detroit crowd chanted “Forget Cecil!” The Freebooter responded to the cheers and scored a string of goals, winning 11-8.

The 1954 CCC-Meadowbrook championship team. From left: Harold Barry, Alan L. Corey jr., G.H. Bostwick and Don Beveridge.

In 1938, S.L.A. Marshall wrote the obituary of flashy polo in Detroit. after the polo clubhouse at Southfield and Nine Mile road had just burned:

“The internationalists came and left their mark on Detroit polo. There were other days when Kube Williams, teaming with Cecil Smith, played in successive matches while so badly crippled that he had to be lifted in and out of the saddle. George Huthsteiner, the great Army back, played here through one season. But no other picture sitrs the memory more vividly than that of the wind-up of the Detroit Freebooters and the championship army team from Ft. Sam Houston played for The News Cups through 12 matches. Was there ever in any sport a series of like duration in which the winning tally was scored in the last five seconds of the final game? It was 103 in the shade that day and the spectators were so delirious that they rushed into the field and tried to carry away the ponies.

Moving magnate John F. Ivory was a huge supporter of polo in the Detroit area.

“High-goal polo developed here because of the indulgence of three men — L.A. Young, who owned the fields, built the clubhouse, sponsored the early Gold Hats, and in later days made several brave efforts to revive the game; Phil H. Grennan, now dead, a nonpareil among sportsmen, an able though fragile competitor and a national influence, and Marvin H. Harrison, who went so all-out in his devotion to the game that his high-goal polo expenditures eventually bankrupted him.”

The sport was supported in this area by many such angels, including John F. Ivory

Ivory, who died in 1971 at the age of 83, had made his fortune with the John F. Ivory Moving and Storage Co. His father, a saddler in Queenstown, Ireland, moved to Norwich, N.Y., where he taught his son to love horses.

In his early teens Ivory had a horse and wagon which he drove for a butcher. Folks were always asking him to carry trunks so he decided to go into the the new auto-truck cartage business.

Ivory loved sports in general and sponsored bowling, baseball and bantam hockey teams several of which won national championships, as well as polo.

Despite the failure of his 20-year effort to make Detroit a major polo center, he stayed in the Detroit area. and opened his 150-acre farm in White Lake Township and allowed his 90 ponies to be ridden by school children.

Weekend outings at his farm attracted groups of up to 10,000 youngsters. Many young girls learned to ride at the farm. Ivory claimed that girls were more adept at riding than boys because they had more sensitive hands, a better sense of balance and a better understanding of horses.

“Single E” was named the best polo pony in Michigan in 1931.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News.)

By Vivian M. Baulch / The Detroit News