The unusual Edgar Lewis

H Edgar Lewis. Spalding’s Official “Soccer” Football Guide, 1916-17.

The man who was the driving force behind the powerhouse Bethlehem Steel team of 100 years ago was an oddity in American soccer. First, Edgar Lewis was an immigrant but learned soccer in America, long after he came here. Second, unlike the factory workers he played alongside, he was a white-collar office worker, a man who eventually became one of the highest-ranking steel executives in the country.

Lewis, who played for Bethlehem Steel from the team’s start in 1907 up through the 1913-14 season, when he was 31, wasn’t just a figurehead. He was a real player for Bethlehem, an inside forward who was a regular starter for many seasons and was captain of the team for a while. Admittedly, his days of starring for Bethlehem were when it was still primarily an amateur eleven, a company team composed largely of regular Bethlehem employees. What eventually pushed Lewis out of the Bethlehem lineup wasn’t just age, it was also the fact that Bethlehem was starting to become a professional aggregation, with more players being brought over from Scotland and less room for the amateurs.

Lewis probably didn’t mind being squeezed out by the pros. After all, he was one of the people involved in bringing the new players into the team. And by 1914, he had advanced to a situation in which he could do the most good for the team by overseeing it from his position in the Bethlehem Steel offices. The team was extraordinarily lucky to have such a high-powered executive looking out for its interests. The fact that the soccer team was represented within the corporation by a man like Lewis, who became executive vice president of Bethlehem Steel in 1916, was a significant factor in the team’s success.

Lewis hadn’t become involved in the team for corporate reasons, however. When he started playing in the pickup soccer games in South Bethlehem soon after he joined the company in 1904 as head of the accounting department, he was already an active and accomplished athlete. Lewis had been a high school football star in Martins Ferry, Ohio, where his family had moved from Wales in 1896 when he was 14. He had continued playing semipro football, for the Dravosburg, Pa., team, after he began working for the Carnegie Steel Corp. in 1899 as a tool dresser in one of its Pittsburgh mills. Lewis’ status as someone who started his steel-industry career as a worker inside the mill certainly helped him in getting along with his soccer teammates, and it seems to have influenced some of the positions he took decades later as probably the most pro-labor of the nation’s major steel executives.

Lewis got out of the sport when he left Bethlehem Steel in February 1930. None of the possible reasons for his willingness to leave Bethlehem and to sever his ties with soccer fully explains that decision. Differences of opinion with other Bethlehem Steel executives over company policies may have been the main factor in that decision. Other possible factors include the beginnings of the Depression, disillusionment with soccer as a result of the Soccer War, the failure of Lewis’ attempts to buy land in New Jersey for a stadium and the fading from influence of his soccer ally Thomas W. Cahill. Lewis left Bethlehem to become president of a company in Ohio that made equipment for the coal-mining industry, but he was back in the steel industry by 1936, as president of Jones & Laughlin in Pittsburgh.

The Bethlehem Steel team occupied an enviable position in the era when teams from steel mills, shipyards and textile mills played such an large role in American soccer. It was most uncommon for team to have one of its former players among the top leaders of the corporation that sponsored it, but Edgar Lewis was a most unusual man.

A version of this article first appeared on Roger’s Big Soccer blog on April 12, 2011.

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