The Ontario Motor League brought an exciting sport to the CNE Grandstand in 1913.
In the summer of 1913, a new sport arrived in Toronto, one which promised to be faster and more exciting than anything the city had yet seen. The new sport was auto polo, combining all the excitement of traditional polo with the thrilling speed of the society’s latest obsession, the automobile.
By the 1910s, horse-based polo was one of many recreational sports enjoying a new period of popularity across the continent. Although the Toronto Polo Club only traces Toronto’s polo history back to the 1920s, there are several newspaper reports of local polo matches earlier in the century. Woodbine Racetrack hosted a match between Toronto and Buffalo in 1912, evidently part of an annually contested tournament between the two cities. In 1913, an advertisement appeared in the Globe for a polo match at Scarboro Beach Park between two teams called the Thistles and the Shamrocks. The Star noted that “wherever polo is played its popularity increases with leaps and bounds, it being recognized at once as one of the most interesting, most spectacular, and from the military point of view, the most practically useful game that is played.”
Alongside baseball, lacrosse, and the exploits of famed runner Tom Longboat, Toronto’s summer sports pages reported on the Westchester Cup, a regularly held polo contest between top teams from the United States and England. In June of 1913, the Telegram had a special reporter, Burton Holland, send daily reports of the results from the Meadowbrook Polo Club back to Toronto. The Americans won the 1913 series, spurred on by their style of play which had helped transform polo from a sedate and social affair to a sport known for great danger and excitement. In Polo: The Emperor of Games, Frank Milburn describes the “hell-for-leather” approach to polo introduced by American players: “When a man or woman hit the ground in the power game, the horse was travelling at thirty-five miles per hour, and bad things happened. The rider bounced along the turf; the horse fell on the rider; the rider got run over by players in hot pursuit; or the rider bailed, breaking his legs.”
Auto polo appears to have been around in some form since at least as early as 1902, when a member of a traditional polo club in Dedham, Massachusetts was reported to have demonstrated some success with playing polo shots while driving a touring car. Over the following years others made similar attempts, and by 1912 there were reports of auto polo teams in both England and the United States.
It appears that Toronto first got wind of automobile polo in late 1912, when various newspapers heralded its arrival in New York City. According to a brief article in the Toronto Telegram, “specially built machines, small and compact, are used, one man driving and another man standing on the running board, mallet in hand, dribbling and driving the ball hither and thither until finally it is pushed between the goal posts.” Vehicles were customized for the sport, stripped of many of their elements to make them lighter and more agile. They were also fitted with steel hoops so as to protect the cars’ components and the players, and to make it easier for the players to right their cars should they flip over.
Perhaps hoping to capitalize on the local interest in traditional polo, auto polo was first brought to Toronto in June of 1913 by the Ontario Motor League, the forerunner of the Canadian Automobile Association in Ontario. Formed in 1907, the Ontario Motor League was involved in a variety of activities at the time designed to promote the automobile and to improve conditions for motorists. These early projects included creating signs for wayfinding, improving the quality of road surfaces, and other initiatives, many with a view toward road safety. Their event in June of 1913, however, put safety firmly to one side and showcased one of the most dangerous sports the city had yet seen.
As with the Westchester Cup, the tournament was contested between elite teams representing England and the United States. Teams consisted of two vehicles per side, each equipped with a driver and a mallet-man who used his mallet to drive an inflated leather ball, eight inches in diameter, into the opposing team’s goal. A match consisted of five periods lasting 10 minutes each, separated by five-minute intervals. “The rules which govern ordinary polo govern auto polo,” wrote the Star, “except that the referee is on the sidelines and fast cars are used instead of ponies.” The Star, quoting the Illustrated London News, wrote that the new sport “combines all the risks of a bullfight, a football game, and a ride in an aeroplane; the element of danger which is imminent is lost in the thrilling intensity of the play.”
Events commenced on Saturday, June 28, with a parade organized by the Ontario Motor League to herald the beginning of an unusual week of events at the Canadian National Exhibition Grandstand. Dealers and automobile owners were encouraged to decorate their cars with flags, flowers, and bunting and enter them into the parade, which began at Queen’s Park, passed a “reviewing stand,” and ended at the CNE Grandstand itself.
That afternoon at the Grandstand, Toronto got its first glimpse of auto polo. The ball was placed in the centre of the pitch, and Mayor Horatio C. Hocken fired his pistol into the air to signal the start of play, after which he reportedly ran to safety as both teams sped toward the ball.
Those expecting excitement were not disappointed. On the very first play, both American players were tossed from one car, leaving the driverless vehicle careening toward the lake. Clyde Ferriter, the American captain, made a mad dash for the car and leaped in, grabbing the wheel and frantically turning it back toward the field, to thunderous applause from the crowd. Any doubts as to whether auto polo could follow through on the promised thrills were soon forgotten.
Action in the first match remained frantic, if not maniacal. Although it was permitted to block the ball with the vehicle, the rules required that teams could only use the mallet (the same standard mallet used in traditional polo) to drive the ball forward. Not only did this require expert skill on the part of the driver, but it meant that the mallet-man needed to think and move quickly. According to the Star’s Lou Marsh, the mallet-men “clamber all over the cars as they leap forward, back up, and swerve and twist. Now they are riding astride the motor or clambering around the back gate, and the next instant they are half hanging under the car, nursing the ball between the wheels…”
A particularly tense moment arose when Walter Sterling, the English captain, was pinned under his own car and dragged unconscious from the field of play. Fortunately, according to the News, “a douse of cold water soon revived him and he was ready once again for the dare devil game.”
(Left: Head shot of Walter Sterling. Toronto News, July 2, 1913.)
In the intervals between the periods, the audience was treated to a variety of other amusements. The Ontario Motor League projected films of the most recent Indianapolis 500. The Toronto World reported on the “auto potato race,” in which teams consisted of a driver and “forkman,” the latter of which was tasked with being the first to spear ten potatoes without touching the ground. Other activities included drivers attempting to navigate an obstacle course, the vaguely-described “stopping contest,” whippet races, backwards-running races, and an automobile “blindfold race” that any member of the Ontario Motor League was allowed to enter. Rounding out the program was a fireworks display.
On the heels of the opening afternoon match, a second match was held the same night, with searchlight operators working to keep their lights on the vehicles. It was generally agreed in the newspapers that the night games proved even more exciting than the afternoon matches, with the News writing that “beneath the ghostly glare of the arc lamps the almost human cars disported themselves… The illumination of the evening game was splendid, every move of the men and cars being clearly defined.”
The reviews in the sports pages were wildly positive. The News enthusiastically reported on the first day’s action under the headline “Auto polo is a succession of thrills and narrow escapes from a trip to the morgue.” The Telegram ran with the headline “Undertakers hot for auto polo,” declaring that “anybody with a suspicion of heart disease in his pedigree should keep away from auto polo matches, which contain more thrills to the minute than any sport seen since Ben Hur won that famous chariot race.” Lou Marsh wrote in the Star that “after an afternoon of auto polo, nothing less than a railroad wreck or dynamite would startle you.”
The second round of matches took place the next Monday, giving the players all of Sunday to recover from any injuries. Although some sources reported lower-than-expected attendance figures for the first day, the sensational news reports evidently attracted more spectators on the second day of action. And again, the audience was not disappointed. Clyde Ferriter, evidently acting as mallet-man, had his leg crushed in a collision, and was carried off the field by staff of the St. John’s Ambulance. After being bandaged, it was found that Ferriter could still move his leg, and he was thus able to play again in that night’s evening match. On the English side, Walter Sterling was pinned under a rear wheel as his car’s carburetor caught fire. According to the Mail and Empire, “the gasoline ran out of the tank into the sand, and was soon ablaze. The car was pulled out of the way, but the game had to be stopped for a few minutes.”
The final matches took place on July 5, with the English team hoping to square the series with the Americans. Following the usual fast play and inevitable collisions, the final game ended with a tie score at the end of regulation, necessitating an overtime period in which the Americans managed a lone goal, giving them the victory of the match and of the overall series. The Globe reported that the total attendance over the matches had been 33,000, and that the organizers were “well satisfied with the result of the meet.” The only apparent criticism of the tournament came from the Telegram, which noted that the traditional polo mallet was ill-suited to the automobile version of the game, where the speed and unpredictability of the cars made it difficult to drive the ball with any accuracy. Their reporter suggested that “an abbreviated weapon, something between a hockey stick and a golf club, should answer the purpose both for dribbling, passing, and driving.”
Following the apparent success of the tournament, auto polo returned to the CNE Grandstand one month later, as part of the CNE itself. During this era of the CNE, the Grandstand featured an elaborate program, highlighted by a finale featuring a historical pageant featuring elaborate sets, a variety of pyrotechnics, and a costumed cast of several hundred. Auto polo was granted a 15-minute demonstration in the afternoon program, sandwiched between a Japanese fireworks display and “Withington’s Zouaves,” which was promoted as the “world’s champion drill team and wall scalers.” Other Grandstand attractions listed in the 1913 CNE program include thoroughbred chariot racing, a motorcycle stunt act, and the Paloro Brothers, who were billed as “the Chauffeur and Cop in a side-splitting trick automobile act.”
Despite the considerably abbreviated playing time, auto polo still grabbed some headlines during the 1913 CNE. In one match, Walter Sterling was seriously injured when his car flipped over and the steel hoop crushed his back, causing a severe wound and reportedly displacing one of his vertebrae. After the other players learned that Sterling was recovering at the Gladstone Hotel, the Star reported that they smiled and “intimated that if [Sterling] was on his feet he couldn’t be kept out of the game.”
Auto polo returned to CNE Grandstand in 1914, but was then dropped from the program, perhaps because the First World War took priority for both the young drivers and their vehicles. It returned to the CNE after the war, but failed to capture media attention in the same way it had in 1913. Although auto racing and other stunt driving demonstrations remained part of the CNE’s program for several decades, it appears that auto polo made its last appearance in Toronto in the early 1920s.
Additional material from: Candian National Exhibition programme (1913; 1914); The Globe (June 21, June 28, July 1, July 5, July 7, July 23, September 5, 1913; July 14, 1914; August 23, 1923); Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World (May 3, 1913); A.W. “Bill” Leveridge, Fair Sport: The History of Sport at the Canadian National Exhibition 1879—1977 Inclusive, Canadian National Exhibition, 1978; The Mail and Empire (June 24, June 28, July 1, August 26, 1913); Frank Milburn, Polo: The Emperor of Games (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994: New York); Toronto News (June 24, June 27, June 28, June 30, July 2, July 3, 1913); Once Upon a Century: 100 Year History of the ‘Ex’ J.H. Robinson, 1978: Toronto; Ontario Motor League, Sixty Golden Years 1915—1975: The Story of Motoring in Ontario Ontario Motor League-Nickel Belt Club, 1985: Sudbury; Paterson (New Jersey) Daily Press (July 18, 1902); Toronto Star (August 3, August 8, August 24, November 29, 1912; May 15, June 11, June 17, June 21, June 25, June 28, June 30, July 2, July 4, August 16, September 6, 1913; September 1, September 8, 1914); the Toronto Telegram (November 25, 1912; June 10, June 11, June 12, June 25, June 30, July 2, July 3, July 4, August 16, August 26, August 27, September 4, 1913); J.N.P. Watson, The World of Polo: Past & Present (The Sportsman’s Press, 1986: London); Toronto World (June 28, June 29, June 30, July 2, July 3, July 4, July 6, 1913).
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