By on October 10, 2016

Auto Polo - Bain's New York

People do strange, dangerous things to entertain themselves and others. Real lawn darts were once sold as children’s toys. Almost as soon as automobiles became somewhat practical, people were figuring out dangerous and fun things to do with them.

The earliest automobiles were typically rich folks’ novelties, which may explain why, in 1902, Joshua Crane, Jr., a polo enthusiast active with the Dedham Polo Club of Boston, decided to put on an exhibition polo match wherein Mobile Runabouts replaced horses.

That it might not have been the safest endeavor can be seen from a surviving photograph of the match catching one of the drivers/mallet men doing a header into the ground, about to be run over by his own steed.

Just exactly how dangerous it was is hard to tell. Wikipedia explains the risk of injury to both competitors and spectators eventually put an end to the practice in the late 1920s, but a contemporary account says that deaths were rare. It’s clear that some of the danger might have been exaggerated by staged photographs, but broken bones were apparently not uncommon. In some photos, it seems that competitors wore leather football helmets, showing there was at least some concern about safety — some.

Though Mr. Crane put on the first auto polo match, it was a Topeka, Kansas Ford dealer who turned it into an organized sport.

Ralph “Pappy” Hankinson saw polo with cars as a way of promoting the sale of the Model T. The first match Hankinson organized took place in an alfalfa field near Wichita on July 20, 1912, with four cars, eight players, and a reported crowd of 5,000 spectators. Each car carried a seat-belted driver and a free-standing mallet man who had to hang on — often unsuccessfully. The ball was the size of a basketball (some accounts say it was, in fact, a basketball), and after learning something about physics and inertia, weights were added to the mallets so they didn’t “backfire” when striking the balls. Stripped-down Model Ts were fitted with crude roll bars to protect the driver and the cars’ radiators. Speeds were not high, never more than 45 mph, but high enough for mayhem.

Auto Polo Wrecked Cars - Bain's New York

If you think about some of the stuff people look at on the internet and that auto polo was invented before the radio, let alone television, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Hankinson’s idea quickly caught on. Under the Auto Polo Association, local leagues were founded across the United States and a large exhibition of the sport was staged in Washington, D.C.’s League Stadium in November 1912.

Auto Polo - Archival Photo, Public Domain

Hankinson sent exhibition teams to England, Europe, and even the Philipines to promote the sport. In 1913, auto polo became the first motorsport to be featured at the Canadian National Exhibition. Britain’s The Auto magazine was impressed but described it as a “lunatic game” that they hoped would not catch on in the UK.

Auto polo at Chicago's Comiskey Park

By the 1920s, New York City and Chicago were hosting daily auto polo matches, with some of the games playing at NYC’s famous Madison Square Garden.

Chicago Auto Polo

Many car racing fans today disavow their interest in crashes, but that was genuinely part of the appeal of auto polo. By the end of the matches, the cars were either severely damaged or completely demolished. Hankinson’s own accounting of damages to the cars used by his British and American auto polo teams in 1924 lists 1,564 broken wheels (most cars then used wooden spoked “artillery” wheels), 538 unusable tires, 66 broken axles, 10 cracked engines and 6 completely destroyed cars.

Auto Polo Match - Bain's New York

While injuries to competitors were frequent, and even spectators were not infrequently hurt by balls flying into the stands or runaway cars, it appears that economics, not concerns about safety, put an end to auto polo.

According to the book Bain’s New York: The City in News Pictures 1900-1925, as the 1920s wore on, the cost of fixing and replacing the cars became too costly. By then, organized car racing was well established. If that wasn’t dangerous enough, there were board-track motordromes and walls of death. So as dangerous as auto polo must have been, it might have seemed a bit quaint during the Roaring Twenties.

In any case, auto polo was a real thing — loony, but real. There are a fair number of archival photographs and even a 1915 film from an auto polo match held in Bob Dylan’s (and Kevin McHale’s, Roger Maris’ and Geno from Geno’s Pizza’s) hometown, Hibbing, Minnesota. You can try to identify which photos were staged. You can see the wooden struts they used to keep the cars akimbo in some photos or where they were retouched to scratch out the props.

[Images: Collier’s, International News Service, Bain’s New York, Wikimedia Commons]

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