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Original Issue

A Posh Game in a Posh Town

It was precisely the proper setting for the first international polo match in the U.S.: exclusive Newport, R.I. in 1886

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.

The British group sailed on the Cunard steamship Servia on Aug. 7 and had an extremely rough crossing. Their 15 ponies had been placed upon the National Line's Erin, sailing at an earlier date, and that vessel encountered relatively good weather. On their arrival at Newport, the players took lodging at the Ocean House Hotel, the town's best, of course, and "were at once the cynosure of neighboring eyes," in the view of Field, a London magazine.

The first polo match was scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 24, at 4 p.m. By 3 o'clock the three main roads to Izzard's Field were jammed with all manner of conveyance: at least a dozen four-in-hand coaches, many park phaetons, barouches, buggies, curricles, carryalls, jumpers of every style, men and women on horseback and even mobs on foot. Most of the last named were the townspeople, off for the appropriately named Dead Head Hill, which overlooked Izzard's Field.

Below them, a Providence Journal reporter wrote, "was a sight never before witnessed, even in gay Newport.... The attendance composed the entire assemblage of wealth, beauty, culture and fashion which Newport's summer population can boast, and that is not small." The Union Jack and the American flag were displayed on poles near the clubhouse, along with the club flags of the participants—yellow for Westchester, blue for Hurlingham. Mullaly's Orchestra was present and playing, the clubhouse porch was filled and the fleet of spectator vehicles was drawn up two and three rows deep at the east side and south end of the field. The moment was at hand in precisely the proper setting.

But then a small unpleasantness arose. The British captain, John Watson, protested what he considered a variance in the method of officiating. As customary, each side had named an umpire to work the match, and above them, functioning as sort of the court of last appeal, was the referee, in this case an American, S. Howland Robbins Jr.

Watson's complaint was that Robbins should take his post in a stand at the field's edge and not, as he was for this day, on horseback. It seemed a thoroughly minor point to the Americans, hardly more than a technicality, but not to Watson. He notified the committee that his team "positively would refuse to play" if the change was not made. This put the committee in something of a bind, for here they were, with the clan gathered, their club and selves caught with transportation expenses of several thousand dollars, not to mention the cost of partying the visitors—and now a walkout threatened.

The only course was to rig a makeshift stand and place Robbins therein, which they did. The match began with a charge; that is, a race by one member of each team, starting from opposite ends of the field, to reach and gain control of the ball placed at the center of the field. Foxhall Keene was the choice to go it for the Americans, against Captain Little. Keene won the dash and, furthermore,' with three beautifully deft strokes scored a goal in the stunning time of 24 seconds.

Applause, which costs nothing, arose from Dead Head Hill. An excited buzz came from the spectators around the field and, on the piazza, Mullaly's Orchestra struck up Yankee Doodle. The charge was omitted when play was resumed, and within 45 seconds Captain Little tied the score for the British. Again Dead Head Hill applauded in a nonpartisan spirit, and this time the band played God Save the Queen.

In the next period the British began to get organized as a team and Watson, as an individual, played superbly. In one skirmish he broke his mallet, but, as a reporter put it, "electrified the spectators by making a brilliant stroke with the broken stick." For all that, the next goal went to the Americans, made by Thomas Hitchcock. And one minute after that Keene scored and made it 3-1, Americans. The audience was thrilled at this completely unexpected development. It lasted only a moment, however.

Two goals down, the Englishmen simply got cracking. "They began to show some of their magnificent team play," one account noted. "In this they far surpassed the Americans, who played well individually but with little passing or teamwork." The same reporter mentioned, almost parenthetically, that the British began to get in "some sly work in heading off and obstructing their opponents." By early in the second of the three periods of 20 minutes each, the British tied the score on a goal by John Watson, and then Watson made it 4-3. The final score was 10-4 in favor of the British.

Saturday's crowd at Izzard's Field far surpassed that of Wednesday's, with carriages four deep and twice as numerous this time. Dead Head Hill was more crowded and more responsive than previously. At game time a light fog hung on the field and, as play progressed, became more dense, until at the end it interfered with both view and comfort and caused many to leave before the finish.

There was really not much to stay around for, from the American standpoint. As in the first match, Foxhall Keene and Captain Little staged the opening charge and, as before, Keene was first to the ball and even propelled it downfield with two fine strokes. But there he encountered the ubiquitous John Watson, who took it from him and started proceedings that led to a goal for the British, scored by Captain Lawley. The same man scored the second, and the British ran off two more before Keene, whose play was adjudged the strongest and most effective throughout for the American side, managed to drive one home.

From that point, however, it was a rout, as the English ran the score to 10-1 and finally 14-2. Nonetheless, there were two satisfactions for the Americans, small but telling. For one, they managed to hold the British scoreless for the last 17 minutes and 17 seconds of the match. For the other, they as a team, and Keene as an individual assigned to guard him, were able to contain John Watson and, in the doing, stir him to a monumental pique.

The Westchesterites adopted what might be termed their "get-Watson" policy about the time the score had reached 10-1, and something different was demanded of the Americans, obviously. Mainly, they zeroed in on Watson, and Keene was assigned the task of staying with him and badgering his every move. This irritated and then infuriated Watson to the point that, as a reporter put it, "he lost his temper and lost friends, as well."

Watson had been building toward both, it must be said, since the beginnings of the first match. His complaint about Referee Robbins' place on the field raised many an eyebrow and his method of directing his own team's operations caused much comment.

"Big John Watson, their captain, directed and encouraged his men, not always in Sunday school superintendent language," reported James Gordon Bennett's paper, the New York Herald. Another paper described Watson's harangues to his teammates as being delivered "in language more forcible than elegant when they fail to get advantage of their opponents, and they seemed afraid of him."

At any rate, during the latter stages of the Saturday match, with Keene guarding him unremittingly, Watson blew up, stopped the game and excitedly claimed a foul on Keene. This struck the audience as gauche, since the Hurlingham group was leading 11-2 at the time and the $1,000 Westchester Cup was virtually theirs for the packing. Watson's claim was taken to the referee for a ruling. The claim was disallowed.

The British players did not linger overly long at Newport, but they did take part in one final social and financial coup. They put up at auction their ponies, complete with saddles, bridles and, in a few cases, even blankets. The sale took place at a Newport stable and, as with everything else connected with the Hurlingham visit, it was a social triumph. Carriages lined the street in the vicinity of the auction site, and everyone who was anyone was in attendance, including all members of the English team except Captain Hone. John Watson was most prominently in evidence, sitting hard by the auctioneer during almost every minute of the doings. Eleven of the 15 ponies were purchased, with miscellaneous equipment, and the lot was knocked down for $5,476, not including one horse taken off the list and later sold at a private sale on private terms to August Belmont Jr.

A few days afterward the British started for home, with a sightseeing visit scheduled for Saratoga before sailing, and with much that must have pleased them. They had had themselves a time; their home-going expenses were previously covered. They had fresh money in pocket and the $1,000 cup in hand. In all ways they had carried the day.