A shirt sponsor in 1887?

Shirt advertising is a relatively recent development in big-time professional soccer. The first European first-division team to wear shirt advertising was Eintracht Braunschweig of West Germany in 1973 (“Jagermeister”), and it has grown from there. The last major European team to give in to the seemingly inevitable and put a sponsor’s name on its uniforms was Barcelona in about a dozen years ago. Fans have gotten used to the fact that their favorite team’s shirts don’t say Inter, Portland, etc., they say Pirelli, Alaska Airlines, etc. Still, as traditions go, this is a fairly new one.

So, it comes as something of a surprise to read this in a Newark Evening News story about a game in New Jersey on Feb. 22, 1887, 125 years ago: “The Rovers appeared in yellow shirts, across the front of which were the words Hargreave Manufacturing Company Rovers, navy blue trunks, red stockings, shoes and shin guards.” It’s not just the advertising that’s arresting. It’s also the Colombia-like colors. Thanks to black-and-white photographs, it’s easy to think of early soccer as being strictly in shades of grey, with Roy G. Biv not in attendance.

The team being described in that newspaper story is the Fall River Rovers from Massachusetts, who still were known in Fall River as the County Street Rovers. The game was an early classic of American soccer, a Washington’s Birthday friendly in Kearny, N.J., between the Fall River Rovers and ONT of Kearny, who were named after a consumer product but didn’t wear that name on their shirts. In 1887, these were perhaps the two best teams in American soccer. The Fall River team fell behind early, but rallied to gain a 3-2 victory on two goals in the waning minutes of the game. The game was part of a passing of the torch from Kearny to Fall River. ONT had won the first two American Football Association Cup titles in 1885 and 1886, and won a third six weeks after this game, but Fall River Rovers won the AFA Cup in 1888 and 1889, the first two of seven consecutive triumphs in that tournament by New England teams.

That one newspaper reference is the only indication I’ve ever seen of the idea that shirt advertising existed in American soccer 100 years before it became standard in Europe, so it may have been a one-time thing. It doesn’t seem to have been an indication of a larger trend. True, many American teams, particularly between about 1910 and 1950, have worn on their shirts the names of the companies that owned or sponsored them, but I don’t think that counts as the same thing. Some of those were factory teams. Most of the companies named on those shirts had much greater involvement with the teams than just as a buyer of advertising space.

What was the Hargreave Manufacturing Company? I’m not sure. The Fall River city directory for 1887 doesn’t include a company by that name, but it does show a Hargraves Manufacturing Company, which made soap. A misspelling on the shirts? Unlikely. A misspelling by the newspaper? Quite possibly.

A version of this article first appeared on Roger’s Big Soccer blog on Feb. 22, 2012

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