AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL: Will Rogers, beloved humorist and accomplished poloist, was happiest on horseback.
Tommy Hitchcock, the great ten-goal player of the 1920s and '30s, had hit the ball to within 60 yards of the goal. Charging after the ball, Hitchcock was followed closely by a more famous teammate, a three-goal player better known for his horsemanship than his shot-making. As Hitchcock bore down on the ball, raising his mallet for an easy score, teammate Will Rogers, riding tight on Hitchcock's tail, yelled, "Leave it." Rogers raced to the ball with his mallet cocked for the uncontested goal. He whiffed. Later, Rogers, wearing a sheepish grin, told Hitchcock, "I just wanted to see what it felt like to have a ten-goal player leave a ball for a rube like me."
Seven decades have passed since Rogers laid chase to Hitchcock on that field on Long Island, but the event, recalled by Rogers's son Jim, illustrates the great humorist's passion for polo. It also indicates how proficient--and confident--Rogers was while on horseback. A well-known movie star, radio personality, newspaper columnist, and expert roper, the joke-cracking Rogers also was an accomplished poloist whose ardor for the game was unequaled. Rogers worked to popularize and support polo programs throughout the 1920s and '30s while playing with and against some of the most famous people on the planet. Guests who mounted for practice games at Rogers's Santa Monica ranch included Hollywood types such as Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Darryl Zanuck, and Walt Disney. Rogers was introduced to the game about 1915 during a stint in New York with the Ziegfeld Follies, and over the next two decades, played polo every chance he got, in Mexico, the Philippines, England, Spain, even with the Maharaja of Jaipur in India.
Extraordinarily skilled in the saddle, Rogers had a natural talent for polo and seldom found time for other sports. He disdained golf. However, if visitors to his ranch wanted to practice their strokes, Rogers often would shag their golf balls on horseback, smashing them back with his polo mallet.
Rated as a three-goal player at his death, Rogers had played as high as five goals. In a 1929 match at the Uplifter's Club, while playing with his longtime friend, movie producer Hal Roach (a three-goal player), Rogers scored eight of his team's 14 goals, including four goals in a single chukker. His passion made him excel, says his son Jim. "He was terribly competitive," recalls the younger Rogers. "You did things one way, and that was full out. What do they say about golfers? 'He was a money player.' Well, that was Dad when it came to polo." But as soon as everyone dismounted, his father's competitive edge immediately softened. "Dad never cared who had won the game," recalls Jim. "What mattered was that you played hard."
Rogers certainly did. He was known for playing a rough-and-tumble game and often was thrown from his mount. In one spill, he broke two ribs when his horse rolled over him. Jim recalls a 1934 match, held at the Santa Barbara Polo Club, in which he played on the same side as his father.
As his father raised his mallet for a near-side back shot, his mount suddenly turned its head and the Oklahoma cowboy broke two fingers when his mallet hand hit the horse's skull. Later, commenting on the rough nature of the sport, he wrote, "They call it [polo] a gentleman's game for the same reason they call a tall man 'Shorty.'"
Although Rogers played on some of the most elegant polo fields on earth, he was not a typical poloist. One-quarter Cherokee, he was born in 1879 on his family's ranch near Oolagah, a smudge of a town in what was then known as Indian Territory, and began riding soon after he could walk. His deft horsemanship and roping soon enabled him to leave Oolagah for Argentina, where he planned to strike it rich in the cattle business. Quickly impoverished by his venture, he ended up taking a slow boat across the South Atlantic as an animal tender aboard a livestock ship. Upon arrival in South Africa, he joined Texas Jack's Wild West Circus, working as a bronc rider and trick roper. He then made his way to New Zealand, where a reviewer in the Auckland Herald deemed Rogers capable of lassoing anything from "a wildly galloping steed to the business end of a flash of lightning."
Upon his return to America for the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, Rogers quickly found work in Wild West shows and vaudeville. In 1905, making $20 a week, he appeared in New York's Madison Square Garden for the first time. His blend of shy humor, political commentary, and trick roping enchanted East Coast audiences. In one of his signature tricks, Rogers threw three lariats at one time: The first ensnared the horse's head, the second the rider's body, and the third, the horse's legs. Ten years after his arrival in New York, he was making $750 a week with the Ziegfeld Follies. Hollywood beckoned. By 1930, Rogers was making $200,000 per film, appearing with stars like Myrna Loy and Mickey Rooney, usually portraying himself in parts for which he often wrote the scripts and ad-libbed the dialogue. He eventually made 50 silent films and 21 talkies.
Given his humble roots in Oklahoma, it's not surprising that Rogers rebelled against some of polo's formal conventions. He often wore chaps or dungarees during games instead of the traditional whites, a matter that was a source of continuing consternation for his wife, Betty. Shortly after Rogers was killed in a 1935 plane crash, Los Angeles Times reporter Frank Finch wrote, "He erased the tea-drinking and 'high society' ideas about the mallet sport by appearing at swank polo clubs donned in overalls, cowboy boots,hatless and coatless, his $1.98 shirt open at the throat."
While working to popularize polo, Rogers also undertook philanthropic efforts, paying for polo teams from schools in New Mexico and Oklahoma to travel to California to play the Stanford University team and sponsoring tournaments in Santa Monica for prep school programs. In 1933, he helped finance and mount the West Team so that it could compete against the East in Chicago. Led by Eric Pedley and Cecil Smith, the West won the series 15-11, 8-12, 12-6.
An aviation enthusiast, Rogers once wrote he had "found a real, legitimate use for my polo field. We landed on it." Rogers played polo for the last time in Seattle, just days before heading to Alaska aboard an experimental seaplane with famed aviator Wiley Post. At the time of his death on August 15, 1935, Rogers was the highest-paid actor in Hollywood and undoubtedly the most famous man in America. The New York Times devoted four pages to the story of the Rogers-Post crash.
Rogers's legacy--both philanthropic and paternal--continues to advance the sport of polo. The field and stables he built at his ranch a few blocks off Sunset Boulevard are now the Will Rogers Polo Club. It is the only grass polo field in Los Angeles County. The polo fields at the Uplifter's and Riviera clubs, where Rogers often played, have long since fallen to the bulldozer. The field Rogers built, located inside the Will Rogers State Historic Park, currently hosts regular tournaments and has become a regional center for polo.
Following in their father¹s footsteps, Rogers¹s sons learned to play polo. Jim became a three-goal player as did his brother Will Jr. Jims two sons both grew up playing polo as well. Chuck Rogers a two-goal player played professionally for 20 years and has recently retired from the sport, and resides on his ranch in New Mexico. Kem Rogers continues to play and is a certified United States Polo Assn. umpire. He works at the club level and has officiated at many intercollegiate and interscholastic games mostly in the central region. Kem resides in Tennessee.
While Will Rogers enjoyed the competition and camaraderie of polo, he truly loved horses and was at his happiest on horseback. Polo offered him the perfect opportunity to escape his admiring fans. It also allowed him to compete, exercise, and, most of all, ride his favorite horses. "Polo," he wrote, is played "by us lazy ones, because the horse does all the work and we love to just go for the ride."