Will hordes of hoi polloi head out to the Hamptons this summer to watch a bunch of South Americans prance around on a polo field? Not likely. But back in the ‘30s it was a real crowd pleaser. “Every weekend this summer thousands of hot-dog munching spectators have crowded the polo centers of Long Island,” LIFE noted in 1938. “They paid 50¢ each to see socialites, expensive horses, rough-riding action. But mostly they paid to see Tommy Hitchcock, the world’s greatest polo player.”
The fact that he was unabashedly patrician did not stop Hitchcock from becoming a national hero. Under his leadership the U.S. hadn’t lost an international polo match to England since 1921, when Winston Churchill and King George V watched him trounce the Brits on their home turf. He was a born horseman, but his success on the field had more to do with bringing an American aggressiveness to what had always been a gentleman’s game. 45,000 hot dog munchers turned out to watch the opening day of the 1930 Westchester Cup. Fewer than 3,000 were at the Hamptons Cup final last summer.
“I played with him and I played against him,” James P. (Jimmy) Mills, 78, a breeder of thoroughbreds at his Hickory Tree Farm in Middleburg, Va. told Sports Illustrated in 1986. ”There was no player like him, ever. If these Argentineans today are 10 [goalers],Tommy Hitchcock was a 12!” One of Hitchcock’s signature tactics, rushing hell-for-leather at an opposing player to throw him off his stride, was subsequently dubbed a “foul of intimidation” and now incurs a penalty shot.
Hitchcock’s biographer Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr., author of Old Money, figured that he’d been the inspiration for Tom Buchanan, the polo playing oaf in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (see more on that subject in Christian Chensvold’s excellent article for RL Magazine last summer). He was certainly the inspiration for the Tommy Barban character in Tender Is the Night. Neither very flattering portraits even though Fitzgerald more than once referred to Hitchcock as his only rich friend, aside from Gerald Murphy (aka Dick Diver).
Hitchcock was born with money, married a Mellon Bank heiress, and became a partner in Lehman Brothers in 1937 thanks to his fellow polo player Robert Lehman. His father, Tommy Sr., helped found the Meadowbrook Polo Club on Long Island, the oldest polo club in the U.S., in 1881 and captained the American team in the inaugural 1886 International Polo Cup. Tommy Jr. played football and hockey at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, became a fighter pilot in the famed Lafayette Escadrille at the age of 18 in World War I and once limped 100 miles to the Swiss frontier after being shot down behind German lines.
After the war he attended Oxford and Harvard and honed his hard-charging polo skills; in 1939 LIFE looked in on him again at his waterfront estate in Sands Point on the North Shore, aka the Gold Coast (home to a stylish sporting set), on the eve of his retirement from professional polo, still considered the world’s best player. There he commuted to work on Wall Street via seaplane and later helped found the Sands Point Polo Club for people like Irving Berlin and Harry Guggenheim who couldn’t get into the Meadowbrook. In these long-buried outtakes from the LIFE shoot he looks more Buchanan-ish than ever.
We love the battered straw hat with the madras band he put on with his polo coat between chukkers, the military field glasses he used on his terrace to watch passing boats, and his polo equipment impeccably laid out. Unable to refrain from war work when hostilities broke out though he was too old to fight, Hitchcock quit Lehman Brothers in 1941 and joined Air Intelligence with the rank of major. He was killed in a crash at the age of 44 while testing the new P-51 Mustang, which he’d helped develop. 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.” —JPS