History Detective

Table of Contents

  Peering Into Polo's Past  

Article I

From Player to Leader
in the Sport

Andy Burke

Andy Burke

Ledgens

Photographed on June 5, 2010 at The Olympic Club where the 1957 and 1959
National Championship Teams were honored. Photo Courtesy of Andy Burke.

I was introduced to the sport of water polo in 1945, when I was asked to join the San Francisco Olympic Club as a junior member and a swimmer. I was also swimming at Commerce High School. The coach of the Olympic Club was George Schroth, who was a long-time swimmer and water polo player, having represented the U.S. on the 1924 (Bronze Medal) and 1928 Olympic Teams. He was (is) one of the finest gentlemen I have ever known. In 1948, George moved to the University of California-Berkeley, where he had a successful career as the Golden Bears coach.

The Olympic Club had a very active water polo program in the fall of each year, fielding a senior team that played the local colleges and a junior team that played against the high school teams on the San Francisco Peninsula. Thus began my lifelong love affair with water polo.

As I remember it, the pools were usually 25-yards long, with the restriction that you could not be within the four-yard line from the goal unless the ball was already inside the area. In many cases, the pool had a shallow end, but you were not allowed to use the bottom for assistance. Otherwise, a technical foul was called and the ball turned over.

The attacking was done primarily by the Center Forward, who would struggle with his defender to get off a shot. When fouled, the CF would pass out to one of the other two forwards who were swimming into the attack area, and they would either shoot or pass back to the CF. The defensive backs or guards seldom went into the attack area as it caused too many people to be in the area and the congestion made it difficult to shoot. We worked out in the afternoons, and loved the game as a respite from the grind of swimming laps. Being able to travel to games on the Peninsula against the various high schools was a real adventure.

At that time, whenever you graduated from high school, you went on to play in college and then returned to the Olympic Club. While in college, you could not play for the Club during the school year but only in the summer. The Club’s senior team was made up mainly of athletes who had played in college and wanted to remain involved. In the fall of 1946, I was invited to come down one evening and workout with the senior squad. What a thrill for a young high school athlete.

We didn’t know a lot about what was happening in water polo other than what the senior team was doing whenever they played, plus what was taking place at Berkeley, Stanford and San Jose State. At the 1948 Olympic Games in London, the U.S. Olympic Team was made up primarily of players from the Los Angeles Athletic Club. One of these players, Rutledge “Bob” Bray, moved to our area and joined the Olympic Club’s senior squad. We were all amazed at his ability and skill level. He played the Center Forward position and was truly ambidextrous, able to shoot forehands and backhands with either hand.

At some time during the late 1940’s and/or early 1950’s, a new type of game was introduced. When the whistle blew for a foul, all players had to come to a complete stop and could not move until the ball was again put into play. You tried to get an advantage over your opponent by “drifting” a very short distance. If the referee noticed what you were doing, he would eject you from the game until a goal was scored. It was a short-lived experiment, but an interesting one, and then we returned to the old rules.

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At the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, the U.S. was represented by a group of young athletes from the El Segundo Swim Club of Southern California. Coached by Urho Saari, they won the Olympic Trials and were augmented by players from the New York Athletic Club, Illinois Athletic Club and Whittier Swim Club. At Helsinki, they finished fourth. The AAU Nationals were held in the fall of that year at the Los Alamitos Naval Air Station, which in the early 2000’s became the USA Water Polo National Training Center. Several of the players from our U.S. Olympic Team participated in these championships, and the Olympic Club sent a squad on which I was privileged to play and help finish in second place.

The next few years passed with few changes until the Olympic Trials of 1956, held at the Los Angeles Swim Stadium, site of the 1932 Olympic Games’ swimming competition. Nine teams were entered but the major difference to us (and most others) was that you went from the normal 25-yard pool to the international standard of 30 meters by 20 meters. You also used a leather ball. The ball was similar to a soccer ball, and after two hours of practice, it was waterlogged and very heavy. Each of us on our team had to take care of one ball, and after practice we would bring it home, dry it out and then rub it with Neetsfoot Oil.

The game itself was played in two halves of ten minutes each, with five minutes of halftime. Substitution was allowed only at halftime, and if you were excluded for a major foul, you had to stay out until a score was made by either team. An interesting side note to the time element of the game was that there was no visual clock for the players to see. The time was kept by an official at the desk, and you did not know how much time was left in each half until the gun went off to end the half, or the game. You tried to keep an idea of the amount of time having been played – and how much remained – to assist with your strategy, but it was always a guessing game.

In 1956, the Olympic Trials final game ended as a tie between the Southern California Water Polo Club and the Illinois Athletic Club. The former was declared the winner by comparing goal averages, a method used for breaking ties in the past. Southern Cal placed seven players on the U.S. Olympic Team, with the four alternates, or subs, being selected from the Illinois AC. The team finished fifth at Melbourne, Australia. One of the bright stars of that squad was Bob Hughes, who was entered in both water polo and swimming, where he competed in the 100-meter breaststroke. He would swim the first 50 meters underwater, make the turn, and then resurface. He was 6’-6” and probably about 240 pounds, very strong and extremely hard to guard.

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These Olympics also marked the famous “blood bath game” between Hungary and the Soviet Union. Following the Games, most of the members of the Hungarian and Romanian teams defected and came to the United States. They toured around the country raising funds to assist the players. While in Northern California, they rode around in a Greyhound bus and played our Olympic Club in a series of matches. One game was held at the saltwater Fleishhacker Pool, which at that time was the largest pool in the world, being 1,000-feet long and 33-yards wide. A course was set up across the pool at the deep-end, and we played there.

Butalty   Brutality2

One of the memorable things that amazed all of us was when we lost the ball in our offensive end to Hungarian Ervin Zador, the player who had been cut in the “blood bath.” He took off with the ball, being chased by our fastest player and actually opened up water between them while dribbling with the ball. Most of the Hungarian players returned to Hungary, while many of the Romanian players remained in the U.S. Several of them joined us at the Olympic Club, and two of them were on our 1957 National AAU Championship Team.

The next four years proceeded with the U.S. playing the “American game” in 25-yard pools, but each summer, usually in August, we went to the international course of 20-meters by 30-meters for the AAU Nationals. These were dubbed the “Outdoor Nationals.” The major clubs playing in this event were the New York AC, the Illinois AC, the Olympic Club, El Segundo (located near Los Angeles) and Southern California Water Polo. At that time, the AAU also conducted an “Indoor Nationals,” held primarily in the East in the early spring and attended mostly by local teams. The true championship was considered to be the “Outdoor Nationals.”

From 1957 through 1959, our Olympic Club senior team compiled a record of 63 wins and just six losses, with the losses all coming in national competition. In 1957, and again in 1959, we won the AAU Outdoor Championships, going through the tournament undefeated in 1959. Note: this fall, this group will be inducted into the Olympic Club Hall of Fame.

Although there was great rivalry during the late 1950’s, the players were still part of the “water polo family.” We wanted the top Southern California teams to play against, so if they traveled north, or we south, we would host each other in our homes. The rivalries were intense, but outside the pool we were all friendly.

The “Outdoor Nationals” usually had 16 teams entered and were played over four days. Teams were seeded into four groups of four each for round-robin play. At the conclusion of the first round (two games on Thursday and one on Friday), the bottom two teams in each group were eliminated, and the top two moved forward to a new group with the top two teams from another group – A-with-D and B-with-C. The results of the games between the teams moving forward went with them so you only needed to play the two teams from the new group. These games were played on Saturday, with the bottom two teams from each group eliminated and the top two advancing to the semifinals.

The winner of each group played the runner-up from the other group in the semifinals on Sunday morning. Then in the afternoon, the winners played for the National Championship and the losers for third place. These games were usually over early in the afternoon, and there was a big party afterwards hosted by the tournament committee for all the participants. Those of us who were playing at that time in U.S. water polo history still have many good stories to tell from those “social activities.”

The 1960 Olympic Trials were again played at the Los Angeles Swim Stadium, with 12 teams entered. The major change in the rules was that in the event of a tie in points between teams, it would be decided by goal differential (the numerical difference between goals scored and goals given up) rather than goal average (goals scored divided by goals given up). Editor’s note: yeah, confusing, which is why we have either overtime or a shootout nowadays.

The U.S. Olympic Team consisted entirely of players from Southern California – Lynwood Swim Club (the winner of the Trials) and the Los Angeles Swim Club and El Segundo. In the Games at Rome, Italy, our team finished seventh, winning four games and losing three. The consensus was that the difference between the U.S. and the best European teams was the Euros’ experience in top international play. In leading up to our own Team Trials, our Olympic Club team worked out at Fleishhacker Pool, mentioned previously, and at Searsville Lake, behind Stanford University. At Fleishhacker, if our coach was unhappy with our work ethic, we got to do a three-man ball drill down the pool (1,000 feet), across the width, and back up. Very exhilarating! At Searsville, we built a 20-meters by 30-meters course in the lake, and our coach would stand in a rowboat at the halfway mark and referee our scrimmages. On Sundays, we had a morning work-out, and those with families would join us for a picnic lunch, and then we would have an afternoon practice.

In 1961, I was fortunate to be elected to the U.S. Olympic Committee and its Water Polo Committee, of which I was chosen to serve as Chairman. In early meetings, we realized that just selecting the winning team’s seven players from our Team Trials plus four alternates, or subs, was not sufficient for succeeding against the experience of the Europeans, so we decided to select the winning seven players plus nine alternates for a three-week training camp, where our Olympic coach would select the final eleven players for the Olympic Team.

The 1964 Trials were held in Astoria, New York, in conjunction with the Swimming and Diving Trials and the New York World’s Fair. There were sixteen teams entered, and the Trials ended in a three-way tie that necessitated a round-robin playoff, with El Segundo winning on goal difference. The three-week training camp was held at Los Alamitos Naval Air Station, where Head Coach Urho Saari selected the final eleven players for the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. At the Olympics, I served as Manager of our team. In the preliminary round, we lost to powerful Yugoslavia 2-to-1, beat Brazil 7-to-1, and then lost to Holland 6-to-4, eliminating us from further competition.

US Olympic Team

1964 Tokyo US Olympic Team

One of the highlights of the U.S. versus Holland game occurred when a penalty shot was awarded to the Dutch star, Fred Van Dorp. The U.S. goalie was his brother, Tony Van Dorp. Tony blocked the shot, and his explanation to the press corps later was a real classic. Tony said, “When I was preparing for the shot, I thought that Fred knows that I know that he always shoots to his right, so he will go to his left, and I’ll play it that way. But then I thought that he would also realize this and not shoot to his left, so I went to his right … and there was the ball.”

During our time in Tokyo, I was able to arrange for our team to at least scrimmage against the top teams that we did not meet in the actual competition. It was my feeling, based on the Olympics, we would need to develop a system to select a National Team and National Team Coaches, so that the U.S. players could get as much training as possible together and travel to Europe to gain international experience.

During this time period, in 1962, I was also elected as Chairman of the AAU’s National Men’s Water Polo Committee. Initially just a sub-committee of Swimming, I was able to get water polo established as a separate committee. In 1964, I created a separate Women’s Water Polo Committee and named Dave Rivenes as chair. The next year, Dave became involved with the Junior Olympics program, so I replaced him with Chuck Hines. Chuck served in this capacity through 1976.

US Goalie

I presented a plan to the AAU for the establishment of a National Team, with a National Team Coach. Suffice it to say that this was not warmly greeted by the coaches, who felt they would lose an opportunity to be a Pan-American and/or Olympic Team Coach by virtue of their teams winning the Trials. I also established a fund under the AAU to pay for our team’s travel to Europe.

In 1965, I was approached by the People to People organization with t he opportunity to send coaches to Europe. Seeing that it would be a lot cheaper to send coaches rather than a full team – and we did not have too much money in the fund anyhow – I convi nced Harry Hainsworth at the National AAU Office to use this opportunity, and we sent Bob Horn to Hungary and Art Lambert to Czechoslovakia and East Germany to learn from their coaches. This paid off as both Bob and Art became top club coaches and Olympic Team Coaches - Art as head coach in 1968 and assistant in 1972 and Bob as assistant in 1968.

This article was first posted on the American Water Polo web site
and they graciously allowed the Water Polo Planet to re-post it.