Hitchcock, Thomas, Jr. ("Tommy")

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HITCHCOCK, Thomas, Jr. ("Tommy")

(b. 1900 in Aiken, South Carolina; d. 12 April 1944 in Salisbury, England), charismatic and highly successful polo player; youngest ten-goaler in polo history in his day and for eighty years thereafter; member of five unbeaten Westchester cup teams; and four-time U.S. Open championship winner.

Hitchcock, the son of Thomas Hitchcock and Louise Corcoran Eustis, was born at Mon Repos, his family's winter home in Aiken, South Carolina. Both his parents had strong equestrian interests. His father was a ten-goal polo player who played in the first international match on record, against England in 1886 in Newport, Rhode Island. His mother was a well-known rider to hounds, polo coach, and mentor of many youngsters who under her tutelage were known as the Meadow Larks and who went on to distinguished careers on the polo field. Under these circumstances, it is no surprise that Hitchcock began to ride at an early age. Attendance at Saint Paul's School did not prevent him from winning both the Junior Championship at age sixteen and the Senior Championship three years later, both coveted prizes in that era.

In 1917 the United States entered World War I. Hitchcock tried to enlist in the armed forces but was turned down because he was too young. Through family connections with the former president Theodore Roosevelt, he was posted to the Escadrille Lafayette, a French unit composed of American volunteers. After undergoing combat training at Bourges, France, Hitchcock saw action at the Western Front and shot down some German planes before being brought down himself and taken as a prisoner of war. Typically indomitable, while being transferred from one POW camp to another he escaped from a train and found his way to neutral Switzerland, trudging along for eight nights on foot. He returned to the United States toward the end of the war and enrolled at Harvard, studying chemical engineering. An indifferent student, after a few years Hitchcock went to Oxford University in England, following his father's footsteps.

While in England Hitchcock was on the team that won the 1921 Hurlingham Club's Champion Cup, the most important British polo tournament. Always recognized as an outstanding polo player, his international career began with the 1921 American challenge for the Westchester Cup, a United States–England contest. Still a student at Oxford, Hitchcock played in the number two position on the team that took the Cup back to the United States with ease.

After that successful outing, Hitchcock's handicap was raised to the maximum rating of ten goals, making him the youngest player to achieve that summit. Only Adolfo Cambiaso, the Argentine phenomenon, has broken that record, which stood unchallenged for almost eighty years. Hitchcock held his ten-goal handicap until his retirement from the game at the onset of World War II. There was one exception: in 1935 he was lowered to nine goals following a serious fall in an East-West match in Chicago, an injury-plagued series in which he was captain of the East squad.

The 1924 Olympic Games were held in Paris, France. The countries entered in the polo competition were Argentina, Great Britain, Spain, France, and the United States. Hitchcock led the American team, which included the tall Californian Elmer J. Boeseke, Rodman Wanamaker, and Fred Roe from Pennsylvania. In a round-robin format, the U.S. and Argentine teams easily disposed of the others, so the decisive game came down to those two. The match, played in a light rain, was tied until the final seconds, when Jack Nelson managed to score, making the final tally Argentina 6, United States 5. This was Argentina's first-ever Olympic gold medal.

Hitchcock's successes on the polo grounds and in the business world—he was a partner in Lehman Brothers—were complemented by a happy family life. In the late 1920s he married Margaret Mellon Laughlin, a young widow with an infant son. Avoiding a church wedding, as he was Catholic and she Presbyterian, they were married at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. They had four children, two daughters and twin sons.

Hitchcock fired the American imagination more than any other polo player. It was commonly said that when he stormed onto the field, polo became a national sport. His presence drew crowds of enthusiasts to the Meadow Brook Club on Long Island, New York, for the U.S. Open Championship and the international series with Argentina and England. His famous piebald pony, Tobiano, became an icon and a great favorite of the polo crowd. An inspirational leader and a relentless player, Hitchcock was also a shrewd strategist of the game. His Rules and Tactics, issued to his teammates prior to the 1930 international series, has been reprinted several times and remains current today.

Most of Hitchcock's career in polo took place during what has been called the golden era of American sport. His name was as well known in his day as were the names Babe Ruth, Bill Tilden, and Bobby Jones. No other polo player, before or since, has projected his charisma and been as instantly recognizable. Hitchcock was a member of five un-beaten Westchester Cup teams—in 1921, 1924, 1927, 1930, and 1936. All but the first played at Meadow Brook. He also was on the 1928 Cup of the Americas winning team; in this series the Argentines managed to take one of the three matches, finally beating the Americans in the 1936 contest. Business commitments prevented him from participating in the 1932 Cup of the Americas in Buenos Aires and the 1936 Westchester Cup, played at Hurlingham Club in London. His record in the U.S. Open stands at four championships (1923, 1927, 1935, and 1936).

Hitchcock also pursued a lifelong interest in aviation. His first airplane purchase was a Fairchild seaplane; he owned two other airplanes as well. He started the American Export Airline Company and later purchased TACA, a Latin-American air carrier. All this brought him into direct competition with the all-powerful Juan Trippe's Pan Am airline. Before much more could be accomplished, World War II started in Europe. Hitchcock's polo career came to an end, but not before he led the first forty-goal team ever—four ten-goalers, the absolute maximum—in a handicap match against a visiting British side.

Hitchcock enlisted as a pilot when the United States entered World War II. On 12 April 1944 he was killed when the Mustang fighter plane he was test-flying crashed near the ancient cathedral city of Salisbury in southern England. He was forty-four years old. His death was reported on the first page of the New York Times. An unidentified reporter wrote, "He was intelligent, personable, humorous, of superb physical equipment and wholly devoid of pretense … The best of America was in his veins—not the nonsense of any social class, but the country's intellect and character."

For further information, see Nelson Aldrich, Tommy Hitchcock: An American Hero (1985); Grantland Rice, The Tumult and the Shouting (1954); and David L. Porter, Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Outdoor Sports (1998).

Horace A. Laffaye