October 6, 1945  Curse of the Billy Goat

It was game four of the World Series between the Cubbies and the Detroit Tigers, October 6, 1945, with Chicago home at Wrigley Field.  Billy Sianis, owner of the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago, bought tickets for himself and his pet goat “Murphy”.

For a Red Sox fan, there was nothing sweeter than the 2004 World Series victory ending the “Curse of the Bambino”. Babies grew up and had babies of their own during that time. There were grandchildren and great grandchildren and even great-greats, and still the drought wore on.  It was 86 years, one of the longest World Series championship droughts in Major League Baseball history.

Yet the suffering of We who love the Red Sox™ pales in comparison, with the 108-year drought afflicting the Chicago Cubs, since back-to-back championships in 1907/1908.

They say it’s the fault of Billy goat.

billy-goat-curseIt was game four of the World Series between the Cubbies and the Detroit Tigers, October 6, 1945, with Chicago home at Wrigley Field.  Billy Sianis, owner of the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago, bought tickets for himself and his pet goat “Murphy”.   Anyone who’s ever found himself in the company of a goat understands the problem.  Right?

There are different versions of the story, but they all end with Billy and Murphy being thrown out of the game and casting a curse on the team.  “Them Cubs”, he said, “they ain’t gonna win no more”.

Sianis’ family claims that he sent a telegram to team owner Philip Wrigley reading, “You are going to lose this World Series and you are never going to win another World Series again. You are never going to win a World Series again because you insulted my goat.”

cubs-goatBilly Sianis was right.  The Cubs were up two games to one at the time, but they went on to lose the series.  They’ve been losing ever since.

Billy Sianis himself tried to break the curse, prior to his death in 1970, but no dice.  Billy’s nephew Sam brought a goat out onto the field in 1984, 1989, 1994 and again in 1998.  All to no avail

In 2003, the year of the goat on the Chinese calendar, a group of Cubs fans brought a goat named “Virgil Homer” to Houston, during the division championship series.  They couldn’t get him into Minute Maid Park, so they unfurled a scroll outside and proclaimed the End of the Curse.

That got them through the series, but the curse came roaring back in game 6 of the National League championship.  It was Cubbies 3, Florida Marlins 0 in the 8th inning of game 6.  Chicago was ahead in the series, when a lifelong Cubs fan named Steve Bartman deflected what should have been an easy catch for Chicago outfielder Moisés Alou.

Steve BartmanAlou slammed his glove down in anger and frustration.  Pitcher Mark Prior glared at the stands, crying “fan interference”.  The Marlins came back with 8 unanswered runs in the inning.  Steve Bartman required a police escort to get out of the field alive.

For fourteen years, Chicago mothers frightened wayward children into behaving, with the name of Steve Bartman.

In 2008, a Greek Orthodox priest sprinkled holy water around the Cubs dugout. Goat carcasses and parts have appeared at Wrigley Field on multiple occasions, usually draped across a statue of Harry Caray.

The Florida Marlins taunted the Cubs in August 2009, parading a goat in front of the Cub’s dugout between the second and third innings.  Cubs’ manager Lou Piniella was not amused, though the Cubs squeaked by with that one, 9-8.

Five fans and a goat set out on foot from the Cubs’ Spring Training facility in 2012.  Calling it “Crack the Curse”, the group hiked 1,764 miles from Mesa, Arizona to Wrigley Field.  The effort raised a lot of money for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, but did nothing to lift the Curse of the Billy goat.

Red Sox fans are well aware of the infamous choke in game 6 of the ‘86 World Series, resulting in the gag “What does Billy Buckner have in common with Michael Jackson?  They both wear one glove for no apparent reason”.  With due respect to Mr. Buckner, he was better than that story would have you believe, there’s something my fellow Sox fans may not know.  The former Cub 1st Baseman was wearing a Chicago batting glove under his mitt.  For “luck”.

Curse_of_the_Billy_Goat_and_Chicago_Cubs_cookies_2016

In 2011, a philanthropic enterprise sprang up called “Reverse the Curse”, selling goat milk lip balms, soaps and more, and, according to their website, “[C]ollaborating with an institution that provides technical cooperation for agriculture in the U.S., Dominican Republic and Haiti to develop goat breeding centers, vegetable gardens, and chicken farms for small producers”.

2015 was once again the Year of the Goat on the Chinese zodiac.   That September, five “competitive eaters” consumed a 40-pound goat in 13 minutes and 22 seconds at Chicago’s “Taco in a Bag”.  The goat was gone.  Surely that would work.

The Cubs made it all the way to the National League Championships, only to be broomed by the New York Mets.

Mets 2nd baseman Daniel Murphy was NLCS MVP that year, setting a postseason record for consecutive games with a home run.  Mets fans joked that, Murphy may be the Greatest of All Time (G.O.A.T.), but he wasn’t the first.

As the 2017 season draws to a close, the Chicago Cubs find themselves champions of the National League Central division, and defending World Champions.  That’s right.  On October 22, 46 years to the day following the death of Billy Sianis, the Cubbies defeated the LA Dodgers 5–0 to win the 2016 National League pennant.

Steve Bartman ringThe mother of all droughts came to a halt on November 2 in a ten-inning cardiac arrest that had us all up Way past midnight, on a school night.  I even watched that 17-minute rain delay, and I’m a Red Sox guy.

The drought has ended, the curse is broken.  Steve Bartman has emerged from Chicago’s most unforgiving doghouse, his way now lit by the 108 diamonds of his very own World Series ring.  Billy Sianis and Murphy may, at long last, rest in peace.

In reading up for this story, I learned that the 1913/1914 Milwaukee Brewers roster included a nanny goat, named Fatima.  Honest.  I wouldn’t kid you about a thing like that.

1913 Brewers
1913/14 Milwaukee Brewers.  And Fatima.
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September 28, 1920 Chicago Black Sox

According to legend, a young boy approached Shoeless Joe Jackson one day as he came out of the courthouse. “Say it ain’t so, Joe”.  There was no response.

The scandal started with Arnold “Chick” Gandil, the first baseman with ties to Chicago gangsters. Gandil convinced Joseph “Sport” Sullivan, a friend and professional gambler, that he could throw the upcoming World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. A New York gangster named Arnold Rothstein supplied the money through his right-hand man, the former featherweight boxing champion Abe Attell, and the “fix was in”.

blacksoxPitchers Eddie Cicotte and Claude “Lefty” Williams, along with outfielder Oscar “Hap” Felsch, and shortstop Charles “Swede” Risberg were all principally involved with fixing the series. Third baseman George “Buck” Weaver was at a meeting where the fix was discussed, but decided not to participate.  Weaver handed in some of his best statistics of the year during the Series.

Star outfielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson may have been a participant, though his involvement is disputed. It seems that other players may have used his name in order to give themselves credibility. Utility infielder Fred McMullin was not involved in the planning, but he threatened to report the others unless they cut him in on the payoff.

The more “straight arrow” players on the club knew nothing about the fix. Second baseman Eddie Collins, catcher Ray Schalk, and pitcher Red Faber had nothing to do with it, though the conspiracy got an unexpected boost when Faber came down with the flu.

Eight Chicago Black SoxRumors were flying when the series started on October 2. So much money was on Cincinnati that the odds were flat.  Gamblers complained that nothing was left on the table. Williams lost his three games in the best-out-of nine series, which I believe stands as a World Series record to this day. Cicotte became angry, thinking that gamblers were trying to renege, and he bore down, the White Sox winning game 7.

Williams was back on the mound in game 8.  By this time he wanted out, but gangsters threatened to hurt him and his family if he didn’t lose the game. The White Sox lost Game 8 on October 9, ending the series 3 to 5.

Rumors of the thrown series followed the White Sox through the 1920 season and a grand jury was convened that September.  Two players, Eddie Cicotte and Shoeless Joe Jackson, testified on September 28, 1920, both confessing to participating in the scheme. Despite a virtual tie for first place at the time, club owner Chuck Comiskey pulled the seven players then in the majors (Gandil was back in the minors at the time).  The damage to the sport’s reputation prior to the 1921 season was profound.

Franchise owners appointed a man with the best “baseball name” in history to help straighten out the mess. He was Major League Baseball’s first Commissioner, federal judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis.

blacksoxKey evidence went missing from the Cook County courthouse before the trial, including Cicotte’s and Jackson’s signed confessions. Both recanted and, in the end, all players were acquitted. The missing confessions reappeared several years later in the possession of Comiskey’s lawyer. It’s funny how that works.

According to legend, a young boy approached Shoeless Joe Jackson one day as he came out of the courthouse. “Say it ain’t so, Joe”.  There was no response.

The Commissioner was unforgiving, irrespective of the verdict. The day after the acquittal, Landis issued a statement: “Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ball game, no player who undertakes or promises to throw a ball game, no player who sits in confidence with a bunch of crooked ballplayers and gamblers, where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball”.

Jackson, Cicotte, Gandil, Felsch, Weaver, Williams, Risberg, and McMullin are long dead now, but every one remains Banned from Baseball.

black-soxIronically, the 1919 scandal would lead to a White Sox crash in the 1921 season, beginning the “Curse of the Black Sox”. It was a World Series championship drought that lasted 88 years, ending only in 2005, with a sweep of the Houston Astros. Exactly one year after the Boston Red Sox ended their own 86-year drought, the “Curse of the Bambino”.

The Philadelphia Bulletin newspaper published a poem back on opening day for the 1919 series.  They would probably have taken it back, if only they could.

“Still, it really doesn’t matter, After all, who wins the flag.

Good clean sport is what we’re after, And we aim to make our brag.

To each near or distant nation, Whereon shines the sporting sun.

That of all our games gymnastic, Base ball is the cleanest one!”

August 20, 1938 Lucky Man

Lou Gehrig collapsed in 1939 spring training, going into an abrupt decline early in the season. Sports reporter James Kahn wrote: “I think there is something wrong with him. Physically wrong, I mean.  I don’t know what it is, but I am satisfied that it goes far beyond his ball-playing”.

The Lane Tech High school baseball team was at home on June 26, 1920.  10,000 spectators had assembled to watch the game at Cubs Park, now Wrigley Field.  New York’s Commerce High was ahead 8–6 in the top of the 9th, when a left handed batter hit a grand slam out of the park.  No 17-year-old had ever hit a baseball out of a major league park before, and I don’t believe it’s happened, since. It was the first time the country heard the name Lou Gehrig.

GehrigCUGehrig was pitching for Columbia University against Williams College on April 18, 1923, the day that Babe Ruth hit the first home run out of the brand new Yankee Stadium. Though Columbia would lose the game, Gehrig struck out seventeen batters to set a team record. The loss didn’t matter to Paul Krichell, the Yankee scout who had been following Gehrig. Krichell didn’t care about the arm either, as much as he did that powerful left-handed bat. He had seen Gehrig hit some of the longest home runs ever seen on several Eastern campuses, including a 450′ home run at Columbia’s South Field that cleared the stands, landing at 116th Street and Broadway.

NY Giants manager John McGraw persuaded a young Gehrig to play pro ball under a false name, Henry Lewis, despite the fact that it could jeopardize his collegiate sports eligibility. He played only a dozen games for the Hartford Senators before being found out, and suspended for a time from college ball. This period, and a couple of brief stints in the minor leagues in the ’23 and ’24 seasons, were the only times Gehrig didn’t play for a New York team.

Gehrig started as a pinch hitter with the NY Yankees on June 15, 1923. He came into his own in the ‘26 season, in 1927 he batted fourth on “Murderers’ Row”; the first six hitters in the Yankee’s batting order: Earle Combs, Mark Koenig, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel and Tony Lazzeri.

Murderers--Row

He had one of the greatest seasons of any batter in history that year, hitting .373, with 218 hits: 52 doubles, 18 triples, 47 home runs, a then-record 175 RBIs, with a .765 slugging percentage. Gehrig’s bat helped the 1927 Yankees to a 110–44 record, the American League pennant, and a four game World Series sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Gehrig was the “Iron Horse”, playing in more consecutive games than any player in history. It was an “unbreakable” record, standing for 56 years, until surpassed in 1995 by Cal Ripken, Jr. Gehrig hit his 23rd and last major league grand slam on August 20 1938, a record that would stand until fellow Yankee Alex Rodriquez tied it in 2012.

Ruth, Gehrig

Lou Gehrig collapsed in 1939 spring training, going into an abrupt decline early in the season. Sports reporter James Kahn wrote: “I think there is something wrong with him. Physically wrong, I mean.  I don’t know what it is, but I am satisfied that it goes far beyond his ball-playing”.

The team was in Detroit on May 2 when Gehrig told manager Joe McCarthy “I’m benching myself, Joe”.  It’s “for the good of the team”.  McCarthy put Babe Dahlgren in at first and the Yankees won 22-2, but that was it.  The Iron Horse’s streak of 2,130 consecutive games, had come to an end.

Yankees Tigers Gehrig Ends StreakGehrig left the team in June, arriving at the Mayo Clinic on the 13th. The diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) was confirmed six days later, on June 19.  It was his 36th birthday.  It was a cruel prognosis: rapidly increasing paralysis, difficulty in swallowing and speaking, and a life expectancy of fewer than three years.

Gehrig briefly rejoined the Yankees in Washington, D.C. He was greeted by a group of Boy Scouts at Union Station, happily waving and wishing him luck. Gehrig waved back, but he leaned forward to a reporter. “They’re wishing me luck”, he said, “and I’m dying.”

The Iron Horse appeared at Yankee Stadium on “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day”, July 4, 1939.  Gehrig was awarded a series of trophies and other tokens of affection by the New York sports media, fellow players and groundskeepers.  He would place each one on the ground, already too weak to hold them up.   Addressing his fans, Lou Gehrig then described himself as “The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth”.

Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day

Henry Louis Gehrig died on June 2, 1941, at the age 37.

I drove by Yankee Stadium a while back, and thought of Lou Gehrig. It was right after the Boston Marathon bombing. The sign out front said “United we Stand”. With it was a giant Red Sox logo. That night, thousands of Yankees fans interrupted a game with the Arizona Diamondbacks, to belt out Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline, a staple of Red Sox home games since 1997.

I’ve always been a Boston guy myself, I think I’m required by Massachusetts state law to hate the Yankees. But seriously, what a Class Act.

August 11, 1919 America’s Team

No other club in professional football history has won three consecutive championships. The Packers did it twice:  1929–1931, and 1965–1967.

The story begins with a sidewalk conversation sometime back in 1919, between Earl “Curly” Lambeau and George Whitney Calhoun. It went something like this: “Why don’t we start up a football team?” “Ok, what do we need to do”.

Curley LambeauLambeau worked for the Indian Packing Company in those days, making $250 a month as a shipping clerk. The two went to Lambeau’s employer and got a commitment for $500 for team uniforms, provided that the team use the company’s name. Today, “Green Bay Packers” is the oldest team name still in use in the NFL.

The team was founded on August 11, 1921, when Lambeau and Calhoun gathered with a group of young athletes, in the editorial room of the old Green Bay Press-Gazette building.  The team did well that first season, playing on an open field with no fences or bleachers. The money came from spectators “passing the hat”, while watching the team play to a 10-1 record.  You can imagine how that worked out.

The Packers became a professional franchise when they joined the newly formed American Professional Football Association on August 27, 1921. The league revoked their franchise at the end of the season, when the Packers were revealed to have used college players in a game. It turns out that the man who told the league about it was George Halas of the Chicago Staleys, which became “Da Bears” the following year. The incident began one of the most intense sports rivalries in history, one which rivals the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, and lasts to this day.

1919-team
1919 Team

In 1922, Lambeau obtained additional funding from a group of Green Bay businessmen, “The Hungry Five”, and bought the franchise back for $250, including $50 of his own money. Financial troubles continued through 1922. One game was rained out, and the insurance company wouldn’t pay off because the official amount of rain was 1/100″ short of the amount specified in the policy.

The Green Bay Football Corporation was formed to run the team in 1923, and continues to do so to this day. Other teams are owned by publicly traded corporations, such as the Atlanta Braves [Liberty Media, previously Time Warner], New York Rangers [Cablevision], and the Seattle Mariners [Nintendo of America], but the Green Bay Packers are the only franchise in American professional sports, directly owned by the public.Green Bay Uniforms

Financial troubles and micro-management persisted through the war years.  The club posted a dismal 1-10-1 record in 1958, one of the worst in league history. They hired away an assistant coach from the New York Giants that year, to be the new Head Coach.  His name was Vince Lombardi.  The first day on the job, Lombardi said “As of now, I’m in charge”.  The era of the front office running the game, was over.

The 1959 season got off to a good start, shutting out Chicago in the opener, and finishing 7-5 for their first winning record in 12 years. A 21-0 shutout of Washington on November 22 of that year, was the last Packers game to this date that didn’t sell out.

Green Bay has a population of only 105,139 according to the 2016 census, making it less than 1/10th the population of the typical NFL city. The Packers following comes from well beyond Green Bay, drawing crowds from all over Wisconsin and the Midwest. In fact, as late as 1995, the Packers played three home games a year in Milwaukee, one in pre-season, and two regular season.

SportsIllustrated_10jan1966No other club in professional football history has won three consecutive championships. The Packers did it twice:  1929–1931, and 1965–1967.

Green Bay won in 4 out of 5 Super Bowl victories, tied at 3rd with the New York Giants, behind the Pittsburgh Steelers with 6, a three-way tie at 5 each for the New England Patriots, San Francisco 49ers & Dallas Cowboys.  They’ve won 13 championships since the ‘20s, more than any team in professional football history.  Chicago comes in second with only 9.  The last three seasons have been rough on Da Bears, where rumor has it that a recent game was called due to an unknown white substance on the field.  Play was resumed after it was determined that it was only the end zone.  It was unlikely that anyone from Chicago was going to run into it again, anytime soon.

August 6, 2011 NFL Films

Ed Sabol was inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame on August 6, 2011. Steve delivered a tribute to his father, explaining the company’s operating philosophy. “Tell me a fact”, he said, “and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth, and I’ll believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever”.

Edwin Milton “Ed” Sabol came home from WWII and took a job selling topcoats. He was good at it and provided a decent living for his family, but his heart was elsewhere.  What he liked more than anything, was to watch his son Steve play high school football.

Sabol would take a motion picture camera, a wedding gift, and film the games. He found that he had a knack for it, and founded a small film production company called Blair Motion Pictures, named after his daughter, Blair.

Sabol successfully bid for the rights to film the 1962 NFL championship game between the Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants. The game was played in cold so severe that camera operators suffered frostbite, and a wind so strong that it blew the ball off the tee three times before opening kickoff.  Despite all that, Sabol’s work on the game was impressive.

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The league’s 14 owners rejected commissioner Pete Rozelle’s proposal to buy Sabol out, instead giving him $20,000 apiece in seed money to shoot all NFL games and produce a highlight film for each team.

NFL Films production style is unmistakable: the “tight to the spiral” shot of the ball leaving the quarterback’s hand, the on-the-field close-ups and slow motion shots, all of it “mic’d up” in a way that let you hear every hit, every sound, as if you were on the field.

With the orchestral score and the stentorian tones of John Facenda’s narration, “the voice of God”: “They call it pro football. They play it under the autumn moon, in the heat of a Texas afternoon.”  NFL Films became “the greatest in-house P.R. machine in pro sports history” according to Salon.com television critic Matt Zoller Seitz. “An outfit that could make even a tedious stalemate seem as momentous as the battle for the Alamo.”

Sabols, 2004 Sports Emmys
Steve and Ed Sabol at the 2004 Sports Emmys

NFL Films won 112 Sports Emmys. While the company’s $50 million earnings are small relative to the $18 billion in revenue the NFL earns from television alone, the real value of NFL Films is how it promotes the sport. Many credit NFL Films as a key reason that the National Football League has become the most watched professional sports league in the United States.

Ed Sabol was inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame on August 6, 2011. Steve was suffering inoperable brain cancer at the time, a condition which would take his life the following September.   In delivering his tribute to his father, Steve Sabol explained the company’s operating philosophy. “Tell me a fact”, he said, “and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth, and I’ll believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever”.

Sabol_Notes_Quotes

July 17, 1914 Last to First

The Boston Braves were in dead last place in July 1914, with a record of 26 wins and 40 losses, 11½ games behind the first place Giants.  As with the last ten years straight, the view this year was shaping up to be one from the basement.    

Boston was a two-team town in 1914, when the American League Red Sox hired 6’2″, 200lb left handed rookie George Herman “Babe” Ruth from the Baltimore Orioles. The American League hadn’t yet adopted the designated hitter rule, they wouldn’t do that until 1973. The Red Sox started Ruth as pitcher, but it was his bat that made him one of the best. Unlike most power hitters, Babe Ruth maintained his high batting average, ending his career with a .342 lifetime average.

Four years later, Red Sox owner and theatrical producer Harry Frazee sold Ruth to the arch-rival New York Yankees, to finance the production of a Broadway musical. Thus began an 86-year World Series drought, ending only in 2004.  To this day, Boston-area mothers use the “Curse of the Bambino” to scare wayward children into acting right. But that’s a story for another day.1914nl

On the National League side, the Boston Braves were in dead last place in July 1914, with a record of 26 wins and 40 losses, 11½ games behind the first place Giants.  As with the last ten years straight, the view this year was shaping up to be one from the basement.    The Braves didn’t even have a home field advantage for the playoffs that year, they had abandoned their 43-year old home at South End Grounds that August. In post-season the Boston Braves were renting Fenway Park from their cross-town rival Red Sox.

The turnaround started on this day with a three game road trip to Redland Field, in Cincinnati, where the Braves won three consecutive games with 1-0, 6-2 and 3-2 victories over the Reds.

The Braves played 37 games through the end of the regular season, winning all but two.

They must have been underdogs going into the World Series against the Philadelphia Athletics, who had just won their fourth American League pennant in 5 years, 8½ games ahead of second place.

1914 WS card

Game one in Philadelphia was a Boston Romp, ending with a 7-1 victory. Game two had to be a cliff hanger, going into the 9th inning with the score tied at 0. Infielder Charlie Deal found himself on second when A’s center fielder Amos Strunk lost the ball in the sun.  Deal scored the game’s only run on Les Mann’s two-out single to center field.

Game 3 in Boston was the real thriller. The score was tied at two at the end of regulation play, with the Athletics scoring two runs in the top of the 10th. Boston came back with two runs in the bottom of the inning, and won the game in the 12th when A’s second baseman Donnie Bush threw a wild ball past third, with outfielder and pinch runner Les Mann scoring the winning run from second.braves

It was two outs in the 5th inning when Braves shortstop Johnny Evers hit a two-run single to center field, putting Boston ahead 3-1 in game 4. The A’s never responded.

The “Miracle Braves” had emerged from dead-last to defeat the defending World Champion Philadelphia Athletics, in the first four-game sweep in World Series history.

In 2011, a descendant of shortstop Johnny Evers consigned his ancestor’s 1914 World Series ring to auction, raising an intriguing question. Today we take team-issued Championship rings for granted, but the practice is not thought to have begun, until many years later. Prior to that and dating well back to the previous century, World Series winners were rewarded with team-issued pins.

This was the second such ring known t exist, the first issued to shortstop Walter James Vincent “Rabbit” Maranville.  It may be that Evers and Maranville had the rings made for themselves, or maybe players were offered a choice of reward. Perhaps rings were offered to all players, but only at their own expense, causing most of them to pass.

Perhaps these two rings are merely the only two known to have survived.  Be that as it may, at least some players had begun to associate rings with championships, long before their first official issue, in 1922.

June 29, 1950 Miracle on Grass

If you cared to bet on it, book makers posted 3–1 odds on the English winning the Cup.  The American team was 500–1.

In 2016, the British soccer world was cast into the abyss when the mighty English football club went down to defeat at the hands, err feet, of Iceland, a nation whose entire population falls short that of New Orleans.

It’s hard to think of anyone who could have deserved it more.  About 8% of the entire country turned out to watch the finals that year, in France.  CNN reporter James Masters wrote that it was the most humbling defeat for English soccer, since their 1950 defeat by the Americans.

In 1950, the English National Soccer team had a post-war record of 23 wins, 4 losses, and 3 draws. If you asked them, they’d have told you they considered themselves the “Kings of Football”.

hith-1950-world-cup-E

The American team had lost the last seven straight international matches by a combined score of 45–2. If you cared to bet on it, book makers posted 3–1 odds on the English winning the Cup.  The American team was 500–1.

The Americans were semi-professionals, most of the team holding down other jobs to support their families. Defender Walter Bahr was a high school teacher. Port-au-Prince native Joseph Edouard Gaetjens was playing forward while studying accounting at Columbia University on a scholarship from the Haitian government. Goalkeeper Frank Borghi drove a hearse for his uncle’s funeral parlor.  Prudencio “Pete” Garcia worked as a linesman.

The team had been thrown together on short notice, having only one chance to train together before leaving for the FIFA World Cup playoffs. On June 29 they would be in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, playing the self-styled Kings of Football in the first round.  Coach Bill Jeffrey captured what everyone was thinking, when he told the press “We don’t have a chance”.

It was thirty-seven minutes into a 0-0 game when Bahr took a long shot from 25 yards out. The English team had taken 9 clear shots on goal by this time.  This was only the second for the US team. Goaltender Bert Williams moved to his right to intercept, as Gaetjens dived at the ball, heading it to the left of the English goalkeeper. The crowd exploded as the US took the lead, eventually winning the game, 1–0.

Miracle on Grass

It was a double elimination format, and England lost their match with Spain. The Kings of Football had failed to make it to the second round, going home after the first round with a tournament record of 1–0–2.

International headlines trumpeted news of the upset, with the ironic exceptions of the American and English press. A St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter with the unlikely name of Dent McSkimming was the only American reporter at the game.  McSkimming wasn’t about to miss this match, even when his editor refused to pay for the trip.  A true fan of the sport, McSkimming  studied Portuguese for three days to prepare for the trip.

The British press was more interested by the English cricket team’s first-ever loss to the West Indies on the same day.

The US went on to lose their next match 5–2 against Chile, so they didn’t go on to the final round, either. But they had won the most shocking upset ever, until the 1980 US Olympic hockey victory over the Soviet Union.

The United States would not qualify another World Cup soccer team, until 1990.  This time, there were 100 credentialed American reporters, in attendance.