An Interview with Walter Bahr, US Soccer Legend

Walter Bahr, an American soccer legend, passed away today. May he rest in peace. SASH member Dr. David Kilpatrick traveled to speak with Bahr in 2014. Here is Part 1 of that interview.

DK: It is a tremendous honor to be in your company.

WB: Are you American born?

DK: I am indeed.

WB: With an Irish name, huh?

DK: Scotch-Irish.

WB: Scotch-Irish, good. Go ahead.

DK: I’ve always wondered with the 1950 team to what degree did the prior generation of players have an effect on you?

WB: Before the World War II started, soccer was big time. In the 30s and 40s and so forth. My neighborhood was basically Irish Catholic, but more British people in most places, so soccer was a natural in certain parts of most big cities. The influence at the beginning was tremendous in my neighborhood.

DK: Were you brought up with stories of the Bethlehem Steel teams?

WB: No, I’d never heard of them at that time. Those teams did well. There were a couple of factors. One was industry. SKF, oh, I could name a dozen of them that had soccer teams that played in the cities and so forth, knitting mills, with all the Scots coming over and the Germans coming over. So there was a lot of soccer being played at a fairly good level from people that were here before the war and people that came over after the war whether as just as another place to live or get a job or whatever.

DK: I’m interested say, the 1950 team, were you guys aware of the 1930 team?

WB: No, that was a dead issue, pretty much, so to speak. We were aware of them but it wasn’t any major point of conversation. Each generation came up. There was always an influx from Europe or South America, mostly Europe. That was the foundation. I would say industry, the Catholic Church where St. Louis soccer was played, I’m not sure about Chicago but they had a lot of Europeans, New York had everybody. That’s the way the leagues were formed, at the beginning, by national identity.

DK: How did you break into the professional ranks in Philadelphia?

WB: I was a late-comer to soccer. I didn’t start soccer until I was 11. I was on the fringe of a soccer neighborhood. The Lighthouse Boys Club who had won a couple of junior national championships. It was a very big British neighborhood, British and German. Turned out very good teams. They had as many as, counting their senior teams and old-timers teams, probably as many as thirty teams playing out of the same club, counting from 8-year-olds to old-timers. Again, that was more of a British-German collection than anything. The jobs often dictated where the ethnic groups settled. As soon as they had an opportunity, they started their soccer programs. The team that I played with mostly was the Philadelphia Nationals, and that was a Scottish team. Most of them were either American born or British born and they had good, good teams. Fleishcher Yarn was another in Philadelphia, and Kensignton Bluebell and Housby Local, a textile mill. The textiles, the work opportunities, and the Catholic Church and the ethic group itself were the foundation. They had strong teams in the 20s and 30s. When the war started it sort of tapered off a bit. It picked up a great deal after the war with so many immigrants coming over and soccer had a big growth period at that time. I played with the Lighthouse team starting in 1937 and I played there a little bit at the start of the war and then I went to the Philadelphia Nationals, which used to be the Fairhill Club, Scottish club, and then wound up with the Philadelphia Nationals, which was a collection of people that could put some money back into a professional team. I guess I played the longest with the Nationals, probably 10-12 years. Then the league started to go downhill in the 60s. Leagues started to combine. The German-American League became the Cosmopolitan League.

DK: In terms of team selection for the 1950 World Cup, I understand the federation was trying to strike a balance between east and west.

WB: Right. They had tryouts all over the country. I think the country was divided into five regions: northeast, sort of like the southeast, the Great Lakes area, California (which was mostly a Mexican league), then did I skip one – Pittsburgh, did I mention? – it was coal mining and so forth, they all had teams. The federation, they were always accused of being political. When the selections were made, whoever had the most on the board at the time, got the most of the selections. So they tried to put it into five districts, let them run their own tryouts, and gradually get those groups down to two teams.
We played one game in St. Louis and from that they picked the team, sixteen players, and they were equally divided eight, from what was considered the west, and eight from the east. The west was considered southwest and so forth. The east was considered up in Boston down to Washington. They had five divisions, they played games, but it came down to one final tryout game and eight players were picked from the west and eight players from the east. It had to be decided beforehand that we wanted to get half from the east and half from the west. The west began with Pittsburgh so it was almost entirely an Eastern team, if you want to call it that. I’m sure they did the best they could to give equal representation so that the other groups around the country felt that they were part of the soccer federation. But of the eight, eight were from the east and eight were from the west.

DK: Do you think that that was the best sixteen?

WB: Well, that depends on who you ask. You ask somebody from the West, “No, this person was left off or that person,” and that’s natural. We had a good team. Fortunately, a lot of the players, a number of the players, played together, and they were players that were more or less pairs. Ed McIlvenney and myself were the two midfielders. We played together on the same team in Philadelphia for a number of years. On the right side they had Gino Pariani and Frank Wallace. Frank Wallace was an Italian, name was changed, it was changed from an Italian name to an Anglo-Saxon name. But Gino and Frank were teammates since kids. On the left side the two Sousa brothers, John and Ed, they played together as kids with Ponta del Gota, the Portuguese team up in New England. So we had a pair on the left, we had a pair on the right, we had a pair in the middle. Then, at the time, we played with three backs and they didn’t really have to be teammates, it helped, but two of them were out of the three. And up front we had another three and usually there was a good hook up between the two on the same side. Team selection, they basically did a good job. I can’t say that there was anyone that I was too surprised about.

DK: Now my understanding was that you were the on the field leader and off the field leader.

WB: Well I don’t know about off the field. I was selected captain for about a ten year period. It’s a few little things, not as much as people put into it. I was coaching at the time in a school.
Joe Gaetjens was the one guy they picked up late. I forget what the reason was, but he was picked up late and never took part in the training program because a lot of people weren’t known yet, just coming over from another country. And as long as you declared that you were going to apply for citizenship, signed the papers, you were eligible to play for the States. We had two like that, Eddie McIlvenney and Gaetjens.

DK: So you hadn’t played against Gaetjens for Brookhattan?

WB: No. Yes, I did! I did play with him. I played with him for a little bit with Brookhattan.

DK: Heading into the England game, did you think you had a good fighting chance?

WB: No, we knew we were gonna be competitive. We played one game in New York before we left. We lost to the English All-Star team. It was players that were not on the first National Team. We lost to them 1-0 on a goal in the last couple of minutes. The second game we played as a full team was Spain. And we led them 1-0 with 8 minutes to play. The third game was England, we went for the victory. Last game was Chile, which we were tied 2-2 with 2 minutes left to play.

DK: I was just over in England last week and one thing I was trying to communicate was that the 1930 team was very strong.

WB: Yes.

DK: And the 1950 team was formed by players playing in leagues that were strong, as well, and that it perhaps shouldn’t have been so much of a fluke as people thought.

WB: Well, when they asked questions about that, no one came out and said, “We’re gonna win,” or even close to that. Probably the best answer was the one that said, “England’s no question, the favorite, but we’ll be lucky just to have a decent game and not get blown off the field.” As it turned out, we gave them a pretty good game. I never heard anybody brag about the victory over England. And I never heard England make up any excuses. We were lucky. They hit the post a couple of times. But in the game we had a couple of other opportunities to score that rarely get mentioned, which was better than the head ball that nobody seemed to see. We were a better team than most of us thought we would be. And we hit it off with one another better than most thought.

DK: It wasn’t really amateurs vs. professionals?

WB: That was just because of the league make up. I was a teacher.

DK: But you still did get paid for your games.

WB: When I first started the top figure with the Nationals was $15 and $3 for a win. When I first started, as a teenager, it was $5 plus $3 for a victory. Matt Busby and Manchester United came over here and we played against them a couple of times. We talked about the possibility of going over but it never amounted to anything. I couldn’t afford to go. They were paying £12 a week.

DK: So you were making a better wage here.

WB: A better wage here plus I was teaching. I couldn’t afford to go, even if I was given the opportunity. They never offered me a contract. I talked to Matt Busby a number of times. Do you know that name, Matt Busby? Don’t blow that out of proportion. After the game, at that time, soccer was not as financially sound. For after the dinner it was back to the Fair Hill Club, for a nice sit-down dinner, but not a nice restaurant but back at the club, the club house. I talked to Matt Busby a couple of times, about the possibility of going over. Nothing ever amounted… You could say I had a number of discussions with Matt Busby but it wasn’t feasible for them or for me.

One Comment

  1. Bahr mentions that Ed and John ‘Clarkie’ Souza were brothers but my understanding is that notwithstanding their last name and place of birth (Fall Rivers, MA) they were not related.

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