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Sue Sally Hale, 65; First Woman of Polo Played 20 Years in Disguise

May 01, 2003|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Sue Sally Hale, who broke the gender barrier in the male-dominated world of polo three decades ago to become an icon of the sport and a highly regarded coach, has died. She was 65.

Hale was found by a riding partner Tuesday at her 10-acre polo ranch in the Coachella Valley. She apparently died of natural causes, but an autopsy was planned, family friend Arshia Radpour said.

Named one of 20 legends of polo by Polo magazine, Hale began to compete in the 1950s when the traditional sport of gentlemen barred women from the playing field. With the support of her male teammates, she disguised herself as a man for 20 years to participate in tournaments, finally dispensing with the ruse in 1972 when the U.S. Polo Assn. bowed to pressure and admitted her to its ranks.

Women now make up the fastest-growing segment of the sport. Nearly 500 of the U.S. Polo Assn.'s 3,600 members are women. Hale's daughter Sunny currently is the No. 1 woman player in the country.

"She has been an icon for women to follow," David Cummings, executive director of the U.S. Polo Assn. in Lexington, Ky., said of the elder Hale, often called the grande dame of polo. "I have played against her in the arena and outdoors and always had the deepest respect for her and her abilities. She was very dedicated to the sport and to teaching and bringing newcomers into the game."

A ruddy and ruggedly built woman who liked to say that the first place she went as a newborn infant was a polo game, Hale challenged many of polo's rules, once even riding a mule in a tournament.

Pushing to open the elite ranks of polo to anyone with a desire to play, she trained scores of players in Southern California and coached teams from USC, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and the Marines, who had a team on the now-closed based at El Toro.

"I can't think of any woman who made as big a mark on polo as Sue Sal," said Randy Russell, who has played in tournaments for 16 years and heads Polo America, a marketing company based in La Quinta that organizes polo events. "She could be a thorn in the side [of polo officials], but anything she did was because she loved the sport so much. She did anything she could to make it better."

Hale grew up in Pacific Palisades, the daughter of Grover Jones, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter in the 1930s, and Susan Avery, a former ballerina. After Jones' death when Hale was 4, her mother married legendary movie stuntman Richard Talmadge.

As a child, she would ride her pony, Blue, in the hills above the polo fields at what is now Will Rogers State Park. One day when she was about 12, the players invited her down to the field and discovered she had a knack for swinging a mallet from a horse.

Polo great Duke Coulter, who was a founding member of the Will Rogers Polo Club, became her mentor. She played on ponies she bought with money she earned giving riding lessons, and trained the horses herself.

She began to play in tournaments, passing as a boy by tucking her ash-colored hair under a helmet, flattening her breasts with tape and wearing loose-fitting men's shirts. She also wore a mustache, concocted with the help of makeup artists who were friends of her stepfather. She entered under the name A. Jones.

With the collusion of her teammates, she succeeded in the charade for two decades. After the games, she would rush back to her trailer, strip off the disguise, then head for the post-game party, where she would often hear others praising a certain sturdily built player who simply vanished after the last round of play.

She married Alex Hale in 1957 and moved to Carmel, where she started a riding school. A few years later, while she was vacationing in Southern California, Coulter invited her to play at the Will Rogers Polo Club. She was forced to leave the field when members of the visiting team refused to play against a woman.

"As we drove back to Carmel, I could see that she was mad. Not just temporarily angry, but permanently mad at the world," Alex Hale wrote in an article in the 1980s called "Breaking Polo Wide Open" for WomenSports magazine.

Hale told her husband that she wanted nothing more than to play tournament polo and that when she became the best woman player in the world, "they'll have to accept me."

She began to invite out-of-town teams to her Carmel Valley Polo Club; they reciprocated with invitations for her team to play "unofficial games" on their fields. But she had to sit on the sidelines during tournaments.

Friends she made on the playing field began to lobby the U.S. Polo Assn. to change its rules and allow women to play, in part by threatening to make public the fact that it had, unknowingly, been allowing one into its tournaments for 20 years.

In early 1972, Hale had what she called "the greatest moment in my sports life" when she opened an envelope from the association that contained a stack of membership cards for the players in her club. On the top of the pile was a card for Hale.

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