CREATIVE THINKING
Bill Ylvisaker continually found
ways to improve the sport.

So many people in polo share ideas about what needs to be done to make polo better. Bill Ylvisaker wasn’t one of those people. Bill didn’t merely talk about what needed to be done, he was a doer. He came up with ideas and immediately got to work to make them happen. Not all of his ideas were great successes, but that didn’t stop him from trying, and he had far more successes than failures. In his prime he was one of the highest rated amateur players of the last 50 years, giving him a remarkable understanding of the sport on and off the field. He knew what it took to play polo, and worked tirelessly to get the sport the respect from the media and general public he felt it so deserved.

William Townsend Ylvisaker was born in St. Paul, Minnesota on February 25, 1924. His family later moved to Shrewsbury, New Jersey, where he grew up. When he was a little boy, the family would take the train to Meadow Brook to watch the Open. He once said, “The whole train was polo.” The town he lived in happened to be the home of professionals and trainers. “ Every year, all the guys from Texas would come in—Cecil [Smith], George Oliver, George Miller. A train would come into town with 1,200 polo ponies—imagine that. We’d all go down to the station and here was boxcar after boxcar filled with horses,” Ylvisaker recalled in one of several interviews he had over the years with this magazine.

He had ridden in shows, did point-topoint, and worked on farms, so when he was invited to stick and ball, he was thrilled. “There would be 80 or 90 horses. I rode from 8:00 a.m. until 12:00. It was great fun for me. After I learned a little bit, they said, ‘C’mon, you’ve got to play.’” He played in his first match at age 14 in Far Hills, New Jersey. There were five polo clubs within six miles of his home. “I can remember going down the road, leading three or four horses—in the dark,” he said.

A lifelong athlete, he captained both the polo and tennis teams at Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. He piloted the polo team to back-to-back Interscholastic Polo Championship victories in 1940 and 1941. After high school, he joined the Navy before enrolling at Yale University. There, while working on his B.S. in Engineering, he played on the university’s polo team. After graduating, he went to work, but continued to play polo.

In 1950 he won the 12-goal Intercircuit Cup, a year later he was on the victorious West side in the East-West Championship, and he won the National Twenty Goal with Arlington Farms. Of the East-West matches, Ylvisaker recounted them fondly some 35 years later as some of the most memorably matches he played. “I played on the West team when we had [Bob] Skene, [Cecil] Smith, Dutch Evinger. I was 5-goals and coming up. We played two out of three at Chicago and two out of three at Meadow Brook. ... I think they had 20-some thousand. It was a big thrill playing in front of those fans. I was just out of school. That was probably the most exciting. That was the last of the best U.S. polo.”

In 1953, he took the title in the Arena Championship Cup and in 1956, as a member of Aurora, was a finalist in the U.S. Open Championship, losing by just a goal to Brandywine. His handicap was raised to an impressive 7-goals at the end of the year.

His career was also taking off. In 1952 he took over as vice president and general manager of Phoell Manufacturing, a position he held until 1958 when he became president of Parker Kalon in Clifton, New Jersey. Later, he became group vice president and director at General American Transportation Corp. for several years before moving on to Chicago-based Gould Inc. where he stayed for nearly two decades.

During his time there he transformed a $100 million battery manufacturer into a $2.2 billion diversified technology company. A 1984 article in Business Week said, “He turned his company, Gould Inc., into a bona fide force in high technology. In just three years he bought nine high-tech companies ranging from a minicomputer maker to a producer of custom integrated circuits, and shed all of Gould’s traditional operations, including bearings and pistons, electrical equipment and finally its giant battery division.”

Despite demanding work responsibilities, he continued to play and generously gave the sport of polo his time. With a sister in the public relations business, in 1959, Ylvisaker founded the Polo Newsletter, which was published by the United States Polo Association until it was replaced in 1975 by Ami Shinitzky’s Polo News, eventually POLO magazine, with Ylvisaker’s blessing. Ylvisaker served as USPA secretary and treasurer from 1960 until 1966 when he became USPA vice chairman, a post he held for four years until he became chairman. At the same time, he was looking for ways to bring more people into the sport.

In 1967, Ylvisaker, along with Northrup Knox and C. Heath Manning, founded the Polo Training Foundation to teach the game of polo by promoting youth clinics, interscholastic and intercollegiate competition, good sportsmanship and good will through friendly competition. Ylvisaker initially served as its vice president, then was PTF chairman from 1966 until 1983.

Ylvisaker continued to excel on the field as well. He won the 20-goal Championship a second time in 1964 and again in 1972, the same year he won the U.S. Open Championship. He went on to win the Butler Cup four times, the Gold Cup, the Coronation Cup in England twice, the Continental Cup twice and the International match pitting a U.S. team against Australia.

In 1975, as Gould’s chairman and CEO, Ylvisaker decided it would be beneficial for the company to invest in real estate, leading to the development of Palm Beach Polo and Country Club. In 1993 he wrote of his decision to start the club, “In my years of exposure to polo, I have seen many clubs come and go. During that time, I have realized that if the club is properly founded in a growing population area, the land values in and surrounding such a facility are ultimately substantially enhanced.” The project allowed Ylvisaker to use his business skills for something he was passionate about—polo. “By my nature I enjoy building things and growing [them]. I really love creating things. I’m a salesman/engineer. I like creating a product and thinking about how it can apply to a market,” said Ylvisaker. “We did a lot of that at Gould.”

More than a few people were questioning his decision when Gould purchased 12,600 acres of Charles Oliver Wellington’s Flying COW ranch in what was basically a Florida swamp. Ylvisaker recalled, “A lot of people thought I was a little bit out of my mind. Initially people I respected would say to me, ‘Bill, do you think you know what you are doing? You think that thing is going to go? Why would people go out there?’” But Ylvisaker didn’t let the questions distract him. He had a vision and was motivated to see it to fruition.

Just a dozen miles from the ocean and eight miles from Palm Beach International airport, Palm Beach Polo was developed on 1600 acres, with the remaining land utilized to build a community around the club. Ylvisaker explained, “Our initial concept was to develop a major polo club in the U.S. with good viewing facilities, ample fields, stables, veterinarian, as well as other equine facilities to complement the sport. Additionally, of course, we wanted to have major U.S. horse shows so we planned an equestrian complex and horse show facility in conjunction with the polo. The overall strategy was to provide something for everyone so we ended up having not only the equestrian activities but 36 holes of golf, 24 tennis courts, many swimming pools and clubhouse facilities for all sports.”

After opening its doors in 1978, Palm Beach Polo saw rapid growth in the first five to 10 years thanks to aggressive public relations and advertising programs. Not only were people buying up condominiums and homesites inside the club, but the village around it was also blossoming. Today, the town of Wellington is home to almost 60,000 people. Each year, approximately 5,000 horses compete in the equestrian competitions, including polo and horse shows.

In the 1980s, with Palm Beach Polo enjoying its heyday, Ylvisaker offered some of the most prestigious polo tournaments, helping to draw the best polo players. This attracted upscale crowds from high society, entertainers, sportsmen, horse enthusiasts and locals. It wasn’t unusual to see Merv Griffin and Zsa Zsa Gabor watching polo in the stadium most Sundays, and Stephanie Seymour, Robert Wagner, William Devane, Jane Seymour, Sylvester Stallone and others enjoyed visiting and sometimes even playing. Prince Charles played at the club twice, and in 1985, brought along his first wife, the late Lady Diana.

These big names also helped attract a lot of media attention, but Ylvisaker was always looking for ways to get polo back on thesports pages. “In the days of Meadow Brook, they had Billy Goodrich with a staff of five people doing PR. That’s why it was all over the papers. ... You’ve got to get out and promote it,” he said. With that in mind, Ylvisaker came up with an idea for a TV friendly version of polo. The National Polo League was three on a side, professionals only, with unlimited substitutions at any time, on a shortened field. “I patterned it after hockey,” he explained. The crowds loved it, but the concept didn’t catch on with the players. “We did surveys in the crowds and the response was amazing—98 percent plus. It was just a little premature. I didn’t do a good job of selling it to the players. ... Polo is a very traditional sport. I remember one time we put a wide stripe down the middle of the field with colors on it like the National Football League. Some of the horses jumped over it. It was really funny. ... The purpose was to jazz it up, but it was a mistake.”

But hosting good polo and drawing the crowds wasn’t enough. Ylvisaker enjoyed playing high-goal polo too and he could keep up with the best of them. “It’s a lot of fun. I really love the thrill of playing high-goal polo. You get great satisfaction being out there. Polo is like no other game. When you are playing good polo, and I’ve played a lot of other sports, nothing gives you the high that you get. When [I am] playing polo I’m totally dedicated out there. Nothing else is on my mind, everything else is wiped out,” Ylvisaker once said. The high-goal polo venue also attracted some of the best Argentine talent, raising the level of competitive polo, but in some ways, even Ylvisaker admits, it may have led to some downsides. “I’ve always been a proponent of having better polo, so [Palm Beach Polo] changed polo for the good. It certainly was much more competitive than it had been, but the competition got a little bit out of hand and the players’ salaries got a little bit out of hand. ... Prior to that time, people would spend a lot of time together after polo. The camaraderie was much better. It was more fun, then it became dog eat dog.”

Amid the fun and excitement, Ylvisaker was deeply saddened and disappointed when his son, Billy, a 5-goal rising star, died of a cocaine overdose in March 1983 at the age of 27. “I don’t like to talk about this too much but my son died and that had a marked effect on my life. ... I was not really happy [at Gould]. I had been there a long time and decided I wanted to get out.” Ylvisaker retired as Gould chairman in September 1986. About that time Gould put Palm Beach Polo on the market.

Ylvisaker went on to run several companies until his retirement in 1998. A year later he purchased Saratoga Polo Club, owning and managing it until a serious leg injury at the age of 78 forced him to give up the sport. After the 2002 season, Ylvisaker announced he would sell the club.

In June of 2004, Ylvisaker fell while playing basketball with his grandkids in Chicago and suffered a severe head injury. He required an extended rehabilitation and the injury tremendously slowed him down. He still enjoyed watching polo and gave out the trophies in the 20-goal Ylvisaker Cup. Sadly, news of his death came during the last week of the Ylvisaker Cup matches, and just weeks before his 86th birthday.

Ylvisaker was a unique individual. Few give to the sport so generously in so many facets as he did. Though actively involved in the business world, he found time not only to play, but to promote the sport and create venues for others to enjoy it. He was inducted into the Polo Hall of Fame in 1996. His induction plaque calls him “a bright meteor in polo’s sky.” That he was and more.

At his memorial, his daughter Laurie said people, horses and polo were central to his life, and competing, victories and losses were the mettle that made him. “He taught us to go beyond what’s enough,” she said.

In addition to his son, Billy, he was predeceased by his daughter Amy Townend Reistrup and his sister Sara Heller. He is survived by his daughters Laurie and Elizabeth; son Jon; and four grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, the family asks donations in his name be made to the Polo Training Foundation or the Polo Hall of Fame.

 
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