by Jim Korkis, contributing writer September 8, 2021
Walt Disney’s daughter Diane Disney Miller told me, “Dad was just as simple and as complicated as you might imagine.” Certainly there were more facets to Walt’s life than most people realize.
While the Disney Studios made many short cartoons especially with Goofy that parodied a variety of sports, Walt himself actively dabbled in various sporting activities.
In fact, Walt’s misadventures trying to learn to surf in Oahu in 1934 ended up being used in Hawaiian Holiday (1937) with Goofy substituted for Walt.
In 1931, Walt was under pressure at work as his studio expanded and stress at home after his wife had suffered two miscarriages. Walt’s doctor suggested he take up exercise or find a hobby.
Walt and his wife were sent on a vacation trip by his doctor, and when the pair returned he tried various forms of athletics including horseback riding in Griffith Park with Lillian, swimming, and boxing. He liked playing badminton both at home and at the studio and was fairly good at it.
Walt tried golf. He would get up at 4:30 a.m. to try to get in a quick few holes of golf at Griffith Park or Lakeside before getting to his studio by 7:30 a.m. However, the game only proved frustrating to him.
Lillian sometimes accompanied him and remembered, “He would fly into such a rage when he missed a stroke that I would get helplessly hysterical watching him.”
“I took up wrestling,” Walt recalled. “but I didn’t like having to stay for 10 minutes in somebody’s crotch with the same smelly sweatshirts and sweat trousers. So I took up boxing, because at least you had a chance to get a little air, you know? Then I took up horseback riding and that led to polo.”
Walt decided to combine his love of horseback riding with his desire to social network with Hollywood society by taking up the then popular celebrity sport of polo. At the time, Walt quipped that to him polo seemed to be just “golf on a horse.”
In the beginning, Walt enlisted Disney Studio personnel, including Jack Cutting, Norm Ferguson, Les Clark, Dick Lundy, Gunther Lessing, Bill Cottrell, and even his brother Roy to participate. They studied the book As To Polo by William Cameron Forbes (1929) and had lessons and lectures by Gil Proctor, a polo expert. Eventually, they did practice in the San Fernando Valley at the DuBrock Riding Academy from 6 a.m. until they had to report to work at the Disney Studio by 8 a.m.
Walt built a polo cage at the studio so that during lunch breaks, the men could sit on a wooden horse and practice hitting the wooden ball into a goal. He even installed a dummy horse in his backyard so he himself could get in early morning practice before heading to the DuBrock Riding Academy.
Finally, the Disney team started participating in matches with similarly inexperienced teams at the stadium on Riverside Drive.
Walt and Roy would play regularly with their employees on Wednesday mornings and Saturday afternoons. In addition, Walt and Roy joined the prestigious Riviera Club where such Hollywood luminaries as Spencer Tracy, Leslie Howard, Darryl Zanuck and others held court on the playing field. During this time, Spencer Tracy became a close friend of Walt’s, and Tracy and his wife were often invited to Walt’s home.
At one point, Walt had 19 polo horses in his stable. Polo players needed several horses because the horses would get hurt or tired and if a player didn’t have a good horse to get him to the ball, he couldn’t hit it. Seven of Walt’s favorite ponies were named June, Slim, Nava, Arrow, Pardner, Tacky, and Tommy. However, purchasing good polo ponies was an expensive situation.
Roy Disney was a fair player but Walt was highly aggressive. Walt was neither athletic nor coordinated. Director David Swift who at the time was an animator stated, “He wasn’t much of an athlete. I don’t know how he played polo. I didn’t see how he could stay on a horse and swing a mallet at the same time.”
Unlike other young boys, Walt never really participated in sports. For most of his childhood, his spare time was filled with a morning and afternoon newspaper delivery route seven days a week that was very demanding of his time and energy. While other young children played sports after school and on the weekends, young Walt worked and never developed some of the sports coordination skills of others.
Walt compensated for this lack of sports experience and coordination by being a focused competitor. Actor Robert Stack, who was a teenager at the time, remembered that Walt would “run right over anybody who crossed the line. Walt was a good polo player—and he loved the game… And I have a couple of trophies at home with Walt’s name on them. We hadn’t won the world’s championships but we had an awful lot of fun.”
Walt’s wife, Lillian, would spend most of her Sundays sitting on the sidelines, munching a bag of popcorn while Walt played. “He would stop and buy me a big package of popcorn and I’d sit and eat popcorn and watch him play polo,” she laughed.
Walt’s enthusiasm for polo inspired a popular Mickey Mouse cartoon. Mickey’s Polo Team was released on January 1936 and was directed by Dave Hand, whose attention was already focused on his directing responsibilities for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The Mickey Mouse team consists of Mickey, Donald Duck, Goofy and the Big Bad Wolf. The Hollywood team of movie stars is composed of Charlie Chaplin, Oliver Hardy, Stan Laurel and Harpo Marx. The referee is a caricature of Jack Holt, who was a popular silent screen star who made the transition to talkies primarily in Westerns. He played at the Riviera alongside Walt Disney
By 1938, Roy Disney was becoming worried that the combination of Walt’s aggressiveness on the filed and the inherent danger of the sport itself might rob the Disney Studio of its visionary leader. In fact, Roy himself had quit the sport that year and was getting rid of his polo ponies and urged Walt to do the same. Walt resisted that suggestion to hang up his mallet even after he had seen matches where fellow horsemen had suffered severe injuries.
During Walt’s time playing the sport, two deaths took place: Gordon Westcott, an actor, in October 1935, and Winslow Felix, an auto dealer, in May 1936. Both men were fatally injured during matches at the Riviera Country Club.
The newspapers said that Gordon Westcott was crushed under his own horse and died of a basal skull injury.
Winslow Felix was playing a Polo match from the Freebooters team against the Riviera Blues at the Riviera Country Club. Minutes into the game, Felix’s horse collided with Reginald ‘Snowy’ Baker’s mount, throwing both riders to the ground. Baker ignored injuries to his head and shoulder to get himself and Felix off the field before they were trampled. Baker went back to the game while Felix was rushed to the hospital, where he died the next day of a head injury.
Always pushing himself, Walt eventually wanted to play with the better players. There was a South American team (known as “The Argentines”) who were practicing on a field at the Riviera and Walt wanted to practice with them. Even then, it was almost impossible to tell Walt “no” so Walt took to the field. One of the players hit the hard wooden ball just as Walt, who was on his horse, was turning around and the ball hit Walt hard enough to knock him from the saddle.
Walt had four of his cervical vertebrae crushed and was in tremendous pain. Instead of seeing a doctor, he went to a chiropractor, who manipulated Walt’s back. Sadly, the injury might have healed if Walt had been placed in a cast. Instead, it resulted in a calcium deposit building up in the back of his neck that resulted in a painful form of arthritis that plagued Walt for the rest of his life.
In his later years, Walt required a couple of shots of scotch and a massage from the studio nurse in order to get home at night. When the neck and back pain flared up, Walt was often unpleasant in his interaction with his staff. When he went into St. Joseph’s Hospital for the final time, no suspicion arose when employees were told Walt was just taking care of an “old polo injury.”
In 1938, Walt sold off his ponies and resigned from the Riviera Polo Club. Walt loved to saddle up and socialize with Hollywood’s elite on the polo fields but it left him with a painful physical injury that influenced his moods for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, it was an unhappy ending to this interesting interlude in his colorful life.
Walt and Lillian had season boxes at both Hollywood Park race track (that he helped finance as a shareholder along with other celebrities in 1938) and Santa Anita race track (where he had his own box). He still owned shares in the Hollywood Park Turf Club, the owner of the Hollywood Park race track, at the time of his death.
Walt did not gamble, but enjoyed the social aspect and watching the horses. “Once he announced he was going to take a week off and we would go to Santa Anita to watch the races every day but he got tired of that very quickly,” said Lillian to writer Bob Thomas in 1973. At least once, he attended the races with Charlie Chaplin where they spent time talking about filmmaking.
Briefly, Walt tried gardening like his brother Roy but quickly tired of it. He felt he had done too much of that kind of work when he was younger and soon hired a gardener.
“One of our first arguments was over the lawn,” Lillian said. “Walt said he was never going to take care of any lawn ever again.”
The Rancheros Visitadores or “Visiting Ranchers” was a men’s social club formed in 1930 that meet on ranch land in Santa Barbara once a year and rode horses over a 60 mile journey through the Santa Ynez Valley. The ride including camping out each night commemorating the traditional rides of ranchers taking cattle to market and stopping to visit neighboring ranches took roughly a week. Walt joined in 1938. According to official records, his horse was named “Minnie Mouse”.
Other members included Art Linkletter, Tom Mix, Bob Hope, Edgar Bergen, Clark Gable, Ronald Reagan and Gene Autry.
In the 1930s, all the Disney brothers would gather in the backyard of Roy O. Disney’s house on Sundays, particularly during the summer, and play highly competitive croquet games.
In January 1935, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner carried coverage of “Hollywood’s favorite cartoonist,” Walt Disney, and his wife, Lillian, on vacation at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park, California.
“Movie producer Walt Disney and his wife found the winter sports in Yosemite decidedly to their liking,” the newspaper reported, “It was the Disney family’s first experience with winter sports, and they were learning to figure skate before they left Yosemite Valley. Ski-joring [a winter sport where a person on skis is pulled by a horse, a dog (or dog team) or a motor vehicle] was another favorite pastime. The Disneys spent the New Year with Dr. and Mrs. Hartley Dewey, Yosemite, and the rest of the week at the Ahwahnee Hotel.”
Walt had a casual interest in skiing, taking lessons in Yosemite from champion Austrian skier Hannes Schroll. When Schroll decided to build his own ski resort near Donner Pass, Walt bought stock in the Sugar Bowl Corporation in 1939. Because of Walt’s enthusiastic support for the project, Schroll named one of the mountains Mount Disney. Walt still owned shares in Sugar Bowl at the time of his death as well as making plans for his own ski resort in Mineral King.
Walt’s experience skiing led to the animated short The Art of Skiing (1941). The famous “Goofy yell” originated with Hannes Schroll. An accomplished yodeler, Schroll was recruited by Walt to record material for the cartoon. On December 19, 1941, a presentation of The Art of Skiing was held at the Fairmont Hotel in nearby San Francisco as part of the California Ski Association’s first annual Skiers Ball. Walt and Lillian attended the event and introduced the cartoon.
In 1926 at the new studio on Hyperion Avenue, a noontime baseball game was started on the vacant lot nearby and Walt would join for an inning or two on some days but proved to be uncoordinated at the sport. Film Archivist Scott MacQueen discovered some footage of such a game from 1929 where Walt clumsily hits the ball and the players hesitate to throw him out at first.
In 1963, Roy O. Disney stated, “Walt worked in the daytime and he worked at night. Walt didn’t play much as a boy. He still can’t catch a ball with any certainty. As a young boy, he was always lanky and skinny as a rail and often looked underfed.”
In the 1940s and 1950s, Walt and Lillian had a box that accommodated four people at Gilmore Field (on Fairfax and Third Street that is now the location of CBS Television City) which was the home of the Hollywood Stars baseball team of the Pacific Coast League. It was right behind the Stars’ dugout, between the first base and home plate. They attended most of the home games.
“When I was about 12 through 14, I went with them to night games during the week and double headers on Sunday afternoons,” recalled Diane Disney Miller. “When the Stars were on the road, we listened to the games on the radio. After I was married, my husband Ron and I attended many games with my parents and friends.”
The Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1957 and the Hollywood Stars ceased to exist as a Los Angeles team. Walt had a box at Dodger Stadium about three rows up behind first base. The Disney Studio had a box nearby, as well. Diane and her husband often met her parents for dinner in the Stadium Club before the game.
“When Gene Autry formed the Los Angeles Angels, He offered to let Dad purchase some stock and credited him as an ‘advisor’. When I noticed this on the game program once, I was really impressed. Dad acknowledged it and said with mock ruefulness, ‘But he hasn’t asked me for any advice yet’,” stated Diane.
In 1966, Walt Disney proposed to buy a minority share in the California Angels but the deal was never completed and Walt passed away shortly afterwards. Gene Autry and Walt belonged to the Lakeside Country Club and often played golf or had lunch together. Walt served on the Angels’ original board of directors.
“Walt loved baseball and thought it was a great asset for Orange County,” stated Jackie Autry, the wife of Gene. “Gene always regretted the deal was never made. Walt thought it would be a natural marriage of baseball and family entertainment. He was a tremendous visionary.”
Walt also thought that a baseball team in Anaheim might help attendance at Disneyland.
Disney executive Jack Lindquist remembered, “I remember the Grand Opening of the Anaheim Stadium, which would become the home of the California Angels baseball team. We were going to put on a spectacular show which would include Walt Disney’s participation. I picked him up at the airport and we headed out to the new stadium. I thought I knew the area well, and took what I thought was a short cut. The problem was that I got lost and we found ourselves somewhere in the back roads of Orange County. We barely made it to the stadium on time. Walt could sense my confusion and embarrassment about the situation, but he didn’t raise hell with me at all. However, he did kid me for quite some time about being the only person he knew who couldn’t find his way out to his very own promotion.”
At his Palm Springs vacation home, Walt became passionate about lawn bowling and even entered the tournaments held at the Smoke Tree Ranch where he occasionally won a cup although, in general, he was not very good at the sport. He was also responsible for building the bowling green there.
He also bowled at Roxbury Memorial Park near his Holmby Hills home and was an early benefactor of the Beverly Hills Lawn Bowling Club that bowled there.
After Walt’s passing, his Beverly Hills bowling buddies teamed with the Walt Disney Company to organize an annual international tournament in Walt’s name that has continued for several decades.
The four-foot tall perpetual trophy made of solid Brazilian redwood has imbeds of Walt’s four personal lawn bowls along the base and is topped by a golden foot-high Mickey Mouse figurine. On the side is a plaque with a three-dimensional image of Walt.
The object of outdoor Lawn bowling, or “bowling on the green,” is to roll grapefruit-sized resin balls, also known as “bowls”, on a flat rectangular grass green and try to get closest to the target ball, better known as the “jack.” The person (team) who rolls their bowl closest to the jack scores a point. The bowls are slightly lopsided and curve when rolled, making it more challenging.
In 1964, Walt participated in the United States Lawn Bowling Championships at Buck Hills Falls, in the Pocono Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania with his Beverly Hills team in the U.S. Doubles Tournament. He was excited that he was able to take the team and their spouses there for the competition. At one point, he discussed going with two of his team members and their wives to the Australian Lawn Bowling Tournament. Although he had a hand-tooled bowling bag, his daughter Diane said he found the idea of bowling tournaments “silly”.
Walt believed in exercise for his artists as well and at the new Burbank Studio he built the Penthouse Club. It was a private, members-only club on the fourth and top floor of the Animation building. It was strictly “men’s only”.
The higher paid artists and animators, who could afford the membership fee, could enjoy a restaurant, gym with exercise equipment, lounge, and other amenities like barber shop, a masseuse and massage table, steam baths, and “sick” beds for members who weren’t feeling well that generally meant they were drunk or suffering a hangover. During World War II, the sick beds became temporary quarters for some of the military officers who were billeting at the studio.
In addition there were billiard tables and card tables for playing poker so it is not surprising that it quickly devolved into just a men’s club rather than a place to exercise and get healthy.
Regular exercise classes were led by Karl Johnson, who for a time was Walt’s personal trainer at the Hollywood Athletic Club. Johnson had been a lightweight wrestler in the 1912 Olympics and strenuously believed vigorous activity was essential for everyone. Once the Penthouse gym was open, he assisted artists with weights and stretches. He used a 16-pound weight-lifting ball that he recommended for the abs and stomach. These classes lasted until 1949, when, at the age of 66, Johnson retired from the company.
Few people realize the aspect that sports played in Walt’s life and it is particularly amazing considering the many health conditions that Walt had during his life including a serious sinus infection and dental problems.