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Collections Cameo, August 2014

Ticket, East vs. West Polo Series, August 1933

This ticket was good for one general admission to Game 3 of what was dubbed “the World Series of Polo” in August 1933. The event pitted the best polo players of the eastern and western United States against each other in a best-of-three series. Held at the Onwentsia Club, each match drew thousands of spectators to Lake Forest from Chicago and across the country. Frank Farwell donated this item to our collection in 1998 – he had attended as a young boy.

The ticket itself as a historical artifact reveals quite a lot of information, even beyond the date, time and location of the event. It was probably torn when the ticketholder entered the gates. The Farwells attended Game 3 and sat in section 7, paying $1.10 per ticket. The map drawn on the reverse side shows how the field and grandstands were set up in relation to Green Bay Road and the Onwentsia clubhouse. Handwriting indicates that Mr. Farwell “went with Bill & my family.”

Why was this major sporting event – the first-ever polo intersectional series – held in Lake Forest? Well, the Onwentsia Club was both storied and neutral territory. Though fully 20 years behind the early eastern clubs, Onwentsia had launched the first country club team in the Midwest in 1896. Chicago was also conveniently situated between the stomping grounds of the nation’s best polo players on the eastern seaboard, the Pacific coast, and the ranches of Texas. 

The main reason, though, was that the chairman of the organizing committee was Major Frederic McLaughlin of Lake Forest, a significant polo talent himself in the early 1900s. He persuaded the U. S. Polo Association to bring the matches to Chicago as a capstone to the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition. Chicago and Onwentsia had also proved their mettle as polo hosts earlier in the decade, successfully holding the national indoor championships the previous year and an international series in 1931 between Old Aiken (South Carolina) and Santa Paula of Argentina.

To prepare for the series, the Onwentsia Club erected boxes and temporary grandstands large enough to fit 15,000 (and 5,000 additional seats were added for Game 3). The field was combed and manicured. Space nearby was cleared for parking up to 8,000 motor vehicles and special trains were scheduled to transport spectators up from the city. Onwentsia prepared its cottages and the Deerpath Inn readied its lodgings to accommodate the players and their families. Blocks of rooms were reserved at Chicago’s finest hotels for the eastern attendees – which had to be rebooked when the series extended to three games. Strings of ponies arrived from the east and west by railcar. Warm-up matches were held between the westerners and the Fort Sheridan team. Advance ticket sales for the first game were capped at around 10,000, with 5,000 more available at the gates.

Chicago Daily News collection, s010095

 

Conventional wisdom held that the East, with its long traditions and roster of polo bluebloods, remained superior, though the upstart West was closing the gap. The newspapers painted it as a contest between eastern “old money” elitists and western cowboys. Humorist Will Rogers wrote that the West team threatened to "take the polo championship from the drawing room to the bunkhouse." This, as might be imagined, was a bit of an exaggeration: though at least two on the West team did garner their early experience on horseback as cowhands, the roster was made up of affluent stockbrokers and ranchers.

Though most Chicagoans and Lake Foresters favored the western team, few expected them to actually win, so entrenched was eastern dominance of the sport. Yet win the West did, in a thrilling 2-1 series that many dubbed the best matchup U.S. polo had ever witnessed.

Game 1, Sunday, August 13, 1933 – West 15, East 11
Game 2, Wednesday, August 16, 1933 – East 12, West 8
Game 3, Sunday, August 20, 1933 – West 12, East 6

The first game was the shocker. “Four rough riding westerners yesterday dealt a telling blow at the long cherished prestige of eastern polo,” the Chicago Daily Tribune crowed on August 14. The New York Times was stunned: “When that final score appeared on the scoreboard at the end of eight periods, one of the roughest, most sensational games of polo in recent years had resulted in a complete upset.”

Throughout the series, play was fiercely competitive and physical, though a high level of skill was maintained as well. The first game took over three hours, because the West’s star player, Cecil Smith, was knocked out for nearly 30 minutes. He revived as soon as the ambulance arrived on the pitch and refused its services, stubbornly insisting on completing the match. The other games were similarly marked by knockdowns, countless bruises, and even broken bones.

As a result of the roughness of these matches, in subsequent years the USPA rules were changed to penalize severe fouls and to ensure that injured players were substituted if they were incapacitated and unable to play.

Despite all the injuries, the West’s Rube Williams was the only player who missed any time after he fractured his leg during Game 2, an East victory. He was treated and fitted for a cast at Alice Home Hospital. With Williams out for the decisive third game, the West flew in Eric Pedley from Pasadena, California. Pedley was a star player who had missed the first two matches with a business conflict.

The West took the final game 12 to 6, clinching the series victory before a crowd of over 17,500. Louis E. Stoddard, chairman of the executive committee of the U.S. Polo Association, said in the Tribune that “Nobody who was fortunate enough to watch the games, which were the most exciting ever seen, will ever forget the series, which definitely put Chicago in a high place on the world’s polo map.”

Check out the highlights from the West's decisive Game 3 win over the East below.