Inducted in 2008
“Who was that old man?,” asked a flippant Pendleton, Oregon boy after seeing a 43-year old cowboy win a bullriding go-round at the 1957 Pendleton Roundup. The answer, according to the Rodeo Sports News reporter who overheard the conversation, was “Dick Griffith, one of the greatest cowboys to ever set foot in a rodeo arena.” Griffith’s ’57 Pendleton win, immediately preceded by day-money and a fourth-place finish in Ellensburg, was just one of several “comeback’s” this flinty roughstock and trick riding athlete made in his impressive 37-year rodeo career.
Dick Griffith (1913-1984) belongs to a five-generation rodeo family which helped found and develop the sport of North American rodeo. Young Dick traveled the rodeo circuit with his dad Curley, an early rodeo trick rider and bronc riding competitor. As he matured, Dick also rode broncs, helped found the Cowboy Turtles Association, and competed in the new event of bullriding. Dick Griffith went on to win five bull riding world titles (’39-’42, ’46) while simultaneously building a career as a trick riding contract performer.
Born on September 13, 1913, young Dick Griffith made his rodeo debut as a contract performer in the 1920 Fort Worth rodeo arena. Alongside his dad Curley, Dick traveled the 1920s rodeo circuit riding “Roman-style,” his feet planted on the backs of two galloping Shetland ponies. When Curly died in a rodeo accident in 1926, Dick’s grandparents tried to steer the youth in a more conventional direction, but by 1931, the adventurous eighteen-year old was back on the North American rodeo circuit as a bronc rider.
Griffith was a founder and bareback bronc representative in the Cowboy Turtles Association, progenitor of the Rodeo Cowboys Association (RCA) and today’s Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA). He also pioneered a newly sanctioned new rodeo event called “bullriding.” In the late 1930s, Griffith dominated the bullriding event, winning dozens of prize buckles in Houston, Cheyenne, Ft. Worth, Calgary, Pendleton, Madison Square Garden, and many other venues. He won four consecutive world-championship bullriding titles from 1939-1942 and a fifth International Rodeo Association (not RCA or PRCA) title in 1946.
Ellensburg Rodeo historian John Ludtka writes that Dick Griffith called Ellensburg his “lucky rodeo.” He won day money here and was two-time Ellensburg bullriding champion (’39, ’40; 1940 was the first “sanctioned” Ellensburg bullriding contest). In addition, Griffith was contracted as an Ellensburg Rodeo trickrider throughout the late 30s and 40s. In 1941, Ludtka notes, Griffith’s “luck” ended when he was thrown and injured in the Ellensburg arena.
Dick Griffith learned early on the surest way to make a living at rodeo was not to rely on prize money alone. Throughout his 30s and 40s roughstock career, he continued to work as a trick riding contract performer, dividing his time between the rodeo track and arena and the bucking chutes. Dick also took showmanship from his trickriding act onto the backs of wild bulls. “Griffith had a flair for color and showmanship in everything he did,” wrote one sports reporter. “On light colored bulls he wore black chaps and hat; on dark ones white.”
Dr. Clifford P. Westermeier, the late University of Colorado professor and rodeo historian, noted in 1947 that Dick Griffith was the “International Champion Trick Rider and has won every major [trickriding] championship of this country.” Griffith’s repertoire, performed on his galloping horse, included vaults, splits, cartwheels, shoulder stands, crupper tricks (performed on the horse’s hips), rollups, and flips and somersaults. For years Griffith’s finale was to “Roman jump” a convertible automobile with the top down, his feet planted astride two horses!
In the course of four decades, Dick Griffith suffered multiple injuries, including eighteen arm fractures, a broken back, a shattered thigh, and several concussions. It was the car jump trick that marked the beginning of the end of Griffith’s rodeo career. Performing in Eureka, Calif. in 1951, one of his horses slipped and he fell between them. “One (horse) fell on top of him and kicked him at the base of his skull,” a newspaperman reported. In characteristic form, Griffith continued to work, but “on the way to Ogden, Utah, he collapsed and was rushed to a hospital.”
Griffith continued on as trainer and manager of a trickriding troupe, but did not perform. After a five-year layoff, the gritty Griffith briefly resumed his trickriding career, performing in Denver and several Colorado rodeos in 1955. And it was in September 1957 that Griffith told Rodeo Sports News “I decided there wasn’t much to do around home and I’d come up to the Northwest and see if I could still ride a bull.” As noted at the beginning of this story, Griffith traveled to Ellensburg and Pendleton and proved that the “old man” still had some life left in him.
Although Dick Griffith soon left the rodeo arena as a competitor and contract performer, he remained in the entertainment industry. Griffith trained and managed other trickriders, and he and his wife and children took their horsemanship and stunt talents to Hollywood, where they found work in the movie industry. There, and in Las Vegas, two subsequent generations of Griffiths have, earned worldwide acclaim for their horsemanship, showmanship, and rodeo skills prowess.
A 1984 issue of ProRodeo Sports News reported that Dick Griffith had died of cancer and of “the old-age after-affects of the many injuries” he received during an illustrious four-decade rodeo career.