Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Pawtucket's soccer tradition

Ever since the first time my dad drove me past McCoy Stadium (I was five years old), baseball and Pawtucket have gone together like Bert and Ernie. Peanut butter and jelly. Even Hall and Oates.

So you can probably imagine some of the difficulties I've recently had in connecting the city with soccer. It's not so easy to overwrite the very connotations you drew up before you stopped eating crayons. Pawtucket has always equalled baseball to me. Pawtucket and soccer? I'm still working on it.

Luckily, as a free-thinking adult, I've discovered that baseball isn't the only major sport that Pawtucket has a rich history of. Okay, so maybe the city can't say there was a soccer match that continued over three days.* And yeah, maybe the fact that the former hub of the city's soccerscape is now a parking lot doesn't really help. I understand that completely. However, that shouldn't mask the fact that Pawtucket hosted some pretty important matches before the PawSox were even a glint in Ben Mondor's mind.

(*The Pawtucket Red Sox have the distinction of playing the longest game in professional baseball history: a 33-inning marathon with the Rochester Red Wings. The game began at 7pm on April 18, 1981, and continued until a little after 4am with score tied at 2-2 after 32 innings. The umps called it, and the league ruled the game would continue on June 23rd. One inning into Day 3, Dave Koza drove in Marty Barrett for the game-winning RBI. And yes, all of these facts are committed to memory.)

Around the turn of the century, the city had lots of soccer. In fact, a mill league of sorts was organized among teams sponsored by the many local industrial businesses. Before baseball rooted itself on Columbus Ave., Pawtucket could've easily been called Soccer City, USA.

The first notable club of Pawtucket's past was J & P Coats, a side sponsored by a local threading manufacturer. The club was started up in 1914, and finished third in the Southern New England Soccer League table with 19 points. According to the demi-god known as Wikipedia, the club was the Times Cup* in 1919. After 1921, the league folded, but J &P would survive in the newly-formed American Soccer League the following year.

(*The link for "Times Cup" on Wiki explains that "Wikipedia does not have an article with this exact name. " As a lifelong Rhode Islander, I figured it was an Award sponsored by the Pawtucket Times, the city's daily paper. But who competed for it? Well, I asked a buddy of mine - Jack Scott, a member of the New England Soccer Hall of Fame - about this award, and he thinks it was a city-wide challenge among all the clubs in Pawtucket.)

Now, J & P wasn't an especially great team during it ASL days. Sure, the club boasted a top of the table finish during the 1922/23 season, but that was really it's only glorious moment. Mired in the mediocrity otherwise, the club sputtered along until 1929, when it was bought out by a local business. J & P Coats was no more.

Enter the Pawtucket Rangers. New banner, new beginning. And boy, was a fresh start ever needed.

By 1934, Pawtucket, once a hive of industrial buzz, was feeling the effects of the Depression. Factories were abandoned. Companies folded. A trying time for certain. And it was soccer, not baseball, that its citizens turned to. The Rangers were the perfect antidote. That same year, the club entered the National Challenge Cup (what we now call The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup), but had their championship dreams dashed when they lost to St. Louis Stix, Baer & Fuller. The following year saw the Rangers come up short yet again, this time to St. Louis Central Breweries. But for all intents and purposes, Pawtucket was a soccer city.

And what made soccer so popular was its derbies. Providence, Fall River, and New Bedford, all within miles of each other, sent clubs to face the Rangers. When they did, the first thing an opponent had to get used to was the dirt pitch that Pawtucket regularly "manicured" with a raked tractor. Talk about a home field advatage.

These local contests were pretty heated affairs. Riots, pitch crashes, and arrests were not particularly uncommon when an afternoon of soccer transpired. In fact, it was rare when a fight dind't break out, as referees were often intimidated by the boisterous crowd or a particularly hellbent player or two.

Scuffles aside, soccer continued. Despite the soccer wars and the United States Soccer Football Association's continued troubles with professional soccer, fans flocked to Dexter Street by the thousands. They saw players like Billy Gonsalves, Archie Stark, Bert Patenaude, Alex McNab and Buff Donelli. Pawtucket also saw fit to host National Challenge Cup ties even when the Rangers weren't involved. It was an extraordinary time for soccer in the United States, and a lot of it was taking place in the country's smallest state.

Sadly, it wouldn't last. While the Rangers claimed the 1941 U.S. Open Cup, it wouldn't last. The War broke up the team (as well as many other teams across the country), and soccer struggled to organize itself in the wake of the Depression and now the Second World War. Leagues disintigrated into amateur factions. The idea of "Americaness" - one which cast soccer aside as "foreign" - was feverishly promoted after the war. Factories moved down south. Pawtucket's once fertile landscape became barren almost overnight.

The pitches that hosted Pawtucket's greatest matches have since been levelled, only to be replaced by shopping centers and condominiums. Beautifully-manicured baseball diamonds outnumber the downtrodden pitches. Abandoned brick mills and factories are the only reminder of the city's soccer legacy.

However, that legacy has not died. In 2005, the city constructed an impressive, state of the art soccer facility on Industrial Highway where kids, not to mention adults, play nearly year-round. Roger Allaway and David Wangerin have referenced the city's soccerscape in their recent books. And additional efforts continue today. The New England Soccer Hall of Fame has preserved some of the city's soccer-related artifacts, including the 1941 Pawtucket Rangers U.S. Open Cup championship banner.

Although generations have passed since Pawtucket's glory days, its history has not been forgotten. While soccer may never sweep the city the way it once did, it's clear that a transference has been made from its golden days to the present.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great column! Those Stix, Baer & Fuller and Central Breweries teams had a few players from the Fall River side of the early 30s, like Billy Gonsalves and Alex McNab.