Not familiar with the name? You’re not alone in that respect, even though Baker, who played years before John Harkes, Paul Caligiuri and Peter Vermes, holds the title of the first European first-division player ever to play for the United States men’s national team.
Baker was rather an accidental American. He was born in New Rochelle, N.Y., in 1938, while his parents were en route home to England from Brazil. Because he had been born on American soil to British parents, he was a dual British-American citizen from the day he was born.
As an adult, Baker became a professional soccer player, a regular for Motherwell, St. Mirren and Hibernian in Scotland and Manchester City, Ipswich Town and Coventry City in England. By the time he reached his late 20s, he realized that he was never going to be called up to the English national team. So, when the United States national team came calling, Baker knew his answer. The fact that in 1968 the U.S. national team had a British coach, Phil Woosnam, and a British assistant coach, Gordon Jago, can’t have hurt matters.
Baker pioneered the route onto the U.S. team followed by several other dual citizens in later decades, but he was a bit different from them. They mostly were dual citizens by virtue of having one American parent. Baker was a dual citizen because of the location of his birthplace.
Baker ended up playing seven games for the United States in 1968 and 1969. Five of those were World Cup qualifiers, and he was a key participant in the only World Cup qualifying group the United States played in between 1949 and 1989 in which it advanced to the next round. That group was a round-robin among the United States, Canada and Bermuda, with only the winner to advance, held in October and November of 1968. Baker played in all four of the United States’ games. In the home game against Bermuda, a 6-2 victory in Kansas City, he scored his only two goals for the United States, the second of which broke a 2-2 tie in the 57th minute.
The last game that Baker played for the United States was an unfortunate one. It was in the next round of World Cup qualifying, in the spring of 1969, and was one in which a 1-0 loss to Haiti in San Diego resulted in the United States’ elimination from the 1970 World Cup. It also was the last full international that the United States played for three years.
Within the following decade, a few more players with European first-division clubs appeared in the U.S. national team, such as Julie Veee from Standard Liege in Belgium and Peter Dani from Fortuna Dusseldorf in West Germany. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, it had become more than just an occasional drip, and today it is a flood. Forty-two years ago, however, it was just one man, Gerry Baker, Edson Buddle’s predecessor as the pride of New Rochelle.
A version of this article first appeared on Roger’s Big Soccer blog on July 19, 2011