“Al Jennette of the Brookhattan Soccer Club is one of America’s finest.”
—Allsport Magazine, 1945
“Al Jennette, who learned his soccer over in Harrison, is one of the brainiest players in the game. He is of Italian extraction and a great favorite with the fans because of his untiring efforts.”
—American Soccer League – Game Program, 1949
By Frank Santamassino
I never knew my father’s older cousin played soccer until a Journalism course in college. I had to interview a relative for an assignment, so I asked my father: “Do you want to talk to me about the Korean War?” He shrugged and suggested I talk to his cousin instead.
His cousin, Al Jennette, who everyone called Funze, played professional soccer in New York City in the 1940s, and he is one of the many forgotten stars in American soccer history.
“That’s the guy you should talk to, I mean, he was one of the best soccer players Hudson County (New Jersey) ever had,” my father said. “They signed him at 17. Quick, tricky, always moving the ball. He was like a friggin’ Maradona, a brilliant player! Thick arms, too, like a bull. It was hard to knock him off the ball, you couldn’t do it.”
Mike Dolaghan, Harrison Town Councilman and New Jersey soccer historian, believes Jennette is one of the best American soccer players he has seen in over six decades of following the game.
“Look, there were a lot of great players around here, but one of the best to come out of Hudson County without a doubt was Funze Jennette,” stated Dolaghan. “He played over 12 years in the American Soccer League (ASL). He was a great scorer. Why that Harrison kid is not in the National Soccer Hall of Fame I don’t know.”
An attacking midfielder in the 2-3-5 formation, Funze often played alongside National Hall of Famers George Barr, Bill Gonsalves, and Archie Stark. Whenever the ASL Select teams laced up their boots for international matches contested at Randall’s Island, the Polo Grounds, Newark Bears Stadium, or Yankee Stadium, Funze was in the line-up.
During a sit-down at Funze’s Harrison house one Sunday afternoon in 1991, we talked about soccer and life as we dined on ravioli and meatballs. Funze told me to bring bread.
The visit began when a wide-eyed bony man opened his door with a smile and a welcoming gesture. Funze was watching golf and eating pistachios. The large macaroni pot on the stove bubbled away.
He pulled chairs out for me and my father as we nestled around the kitchen table.
“Philly, I’ll tell you though, I kicked one of these new soccer balls the other day with my grandson,” he said. “I wish I was playin’ now!”
He turned and walked through the carpeted parlor, returning with a crumpled Bamberger’s department store bag. He handed it to me and said, “You look in here.”
We poked through mounds of weathered news clippings and faded black and white photographs. Those artifacts no doubt dredged up memories including one from the American Red Cross Cup in 1945. It was a benefit tournament at Yankee Stadium that challenged the four professional soccer clubs in New York to round-robin style matches. The ticket proceeds were then donated to the Red Cross War Fund.
Jennette’s game didn’t begin in Yankee Stadium, though. It was born years earlier on Cleveland Avenue in Harrison, New Jersey, across the Passaic River from the City of Newark and just south of Kearny, another American soccer hotbed. It was a place where working-class kids played ball in the streets and factory lots, under the trestles and bridges, as well as the dusty fields that men’s teams played on.
While attending Harrison High School, Funze played on Sundays for FC Savoia, the semi-professional team in Hoboken. The ASL’s Brookhattan FC head coach, John Slaven, would often scour the lower leagues for talent and just happened to catch the 17 year-old Jennette in action.
“Well, it all began with Johnny Slaven. He saw me playing over in Hoboken,” Jennette recalled. “While I was in my senior year in high school I was playing over there, makin’ a few extra dollars. So Slaven comes up after a game and asks me if I wanted to join his professional team. And I says sure, what the hell!”
“I was an inside forward, with five guys up front. We had a lot of firepower! I liked hittin’ them with both feet though. I was stronger with my right, so I used to play on the left side.”
Starlight Park, an amusement park and athletic facility at the Bronx’s 177th Street, was home to Brookhattan and several others teams, and it bustled like a racetrack on game days with rampant wagering and chain smoking. Depending on Funze’s performance and productivity up front, a good match could always net him some extra cash.
“I played against all those teams that came over here. I was a fast little bastard! They used to put two guys on me, but that just meant somebody else was loose,” Jeannette reminisced.
“Why I was making more playing on a Sunday than I was working at Worthington Pump all week! Fans up in the Bronx, they bet like hell, they bet like crazy. And before a game, I’d walk across the field to go get dressed and I’d hear them yelling: Hey, Jennette, Jennette! You score today and I’ll give you five! If you score I’ll give you ten! Score today Jennette! So after a game if I scored a goal, two goals, they’d always be there outside the dressing room when I came out. One guy gave me ten dollars, another guy gave me ten, another guy gave me a five, some other guy gave me another five.“
Brookhattan FC “Truckers” kicked their way into the history books for their Triple Championship season of 1944-45, when they captured the ASL Championship title, the National Challenge Cup, and the Lewis Cup, under the skillful tutelage of Slaven and team manager Bill Lowe.
Playing conditions were rough and hearty: fullbacks punished forwards who failed to think and move quickly. Field surfaces were just as inhospitable, mostly dust packed and littered with pebbles, not much more than ash lots with crushed rocks.
“It was pathetic trying to play on some of them fields. It was nothing but stones and everything else. You’d go down for a header and pray that nothing came up and hit you in the face!” Jennette added.
Controlling the heavy leather ball with touch and skill proved challenging, while in the air the heavy ball’s spinning thick laces regularly sliced open foreheads and eyebrows. And if it rained, the soaked muddy ball would triple in weight.
Soccer boots were stiff and sturdy, medieval by today’s innovative standards. Leather bars were often snapped into place on the soles, providing some traction in crumbling soil. Another option was screw-in studs, which often poked through by the end of a hard match, making for agonizing second halves. And for shin pads, one did what most everyone did in those days, slipped a copy of a Readers’ Digest magazine into your socks.
One summer Funze was penciled into the starting lineups for both the New York Select and New Jersey Select Teams scheduled to play England’s Liverpool FC. As a New Jersey boy who plied his trade in New York, he was chosen to represent both teams. He scored a goal in each game, and had a contractual offer from the Reds right after the second match.
Jennette explained decades later: “Then Liverpool came over from the other side and we played them in New York. I scored a goal on them and then a couple days later they came over here to Kearny. So a combination of the Scots and Irish were supposed to play them.”
“And the Jersey team called me up and said, ‘Hey look, you’re a Hudson County boy, why don’t you come over and play with us?’ So I played with them and I scored another goal. Then I was offered to go over. The Liverpool manager and two players came up to me after we were all showered. They wanted me in the worst way. But like I says, I’m making good money here, bettin’ guys are throwing me fins and everything else. What do I want to go over there for?”
Jennette’s thoughts then turned to another big match against Inter Milan: “Oh that was something! We played them over in Bears Stadium in Newark. And we held them, boy! For the first half it was a good game, a close game. But then hey, what the hell? We all worked for a living and everything else. Them, they were kicking the ball around every day running around. And then the goals started going in like crazy. Shoom! shoom! They killed us in the second half!”
Another Select team, this time one based solely on players of Italian extraction, planned a visit to Argentina, but the trip never materialized due to unforeseen events in South America.
“We were supposed to go. An All-Star Select, an all-Italian team of soccer in the United States were going down to Argentina,” said Jennette. “But I don’t know, about 2 or 3 weeks before they had a revolution or something, and so we never went. Every time I was supposed to go out of the country something always came up.”
After years of American Soccer League service coupled with a string of successful appearances in international friendlies, Al said he did not regret being selected into the National Soccer Hall of Fame. A simple shrug of the shoulders suggested indifference to his lack of national recognition.
“Nah, but I had a good time with it, playing soccer. In fact this friend of mine that played with me, Georgie Barr, sent me a letter. Now, he’s in the Soccer Hall of Fame. See I made the New Jersey Soccer Hall of Fame and a few others, but I never made it nationally, to the National Soccer Hall of Fame. So he sent me this letter and he told me to get whatever I can together. He says, ‘I’m gonna see what I can do about getting you into the Soccer Hall of Fame.’ He says, ‘What the hell, every team that I played for you played with me. You were chosen for every All-Star Select, why you’re not in the Hall of Fame I don’t know.’ He says, ‘Get some stuff put together. So I started that, and then I said, ‘Ah, the hell with it. I knew I was a pretty good player, that’s all.’”
He then looked at us, done reminiscing for the time being, and said, “You ready to eat? Who wants more wine?”