An impressive and well-researched early history of association football in the US

Matthew L. McDowell
University of Edinburgh, Moray House School of Education and Sport

Brian D. Bunk
From Football to Soccer: The Early History of the Beautiful Game in the United States
280 pages, paperback, ill
Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press 2021 (Sport and Society)
ISBN 978-0-252-08587-1

Brian Bunk’s new book is one of the few viable attempts at providing a “national” history of “football” in the United States. Ironically enough, then, one of the author’s main aims is to underline the futility of the enterprise. “Football” in the US, as it does in the UK, shares a family tree with many different traditions, and this is hinted at within the title. No doubt to the chagrin of pedants everywhere, Bunk fails to note a particular point at which Americans start calling the sport “soccer” rather than football; and, even into the 1920s and 1930s, “no-hands”, “no-carrying” football is hinted at existing within some footballing continuum with rugby and gridiron. From the outset, then, the author refreshingly admits that this history will not be one of “firsts”. It is, however, one of well-researched vignettes – of moments, of certain individuals, of well-rehearsed traditions, and (quite often) of false starts – which nevertheless add up to some larger truths about the early history of US soccer, whereby readers can draw parallels with developments in the post-1945 period. As academic texts go, it is an enjoyable, informative read.

Bunk’s main arguments are thus. Pre-Second World War soccer/“football” in the US was heavily related to European in-migration, in particular (but not solely) from England and Scotland. “Traditions” of “football” in the US were related to the class system in the auld country, and at least partially replicated within the (white) settler hierarchy. Some traditions of “football” (or games identified as such) significantly predate “soccer”, and for that matter gridiron football, but nevertheless various team sports amongst different indigenous groups – for instance, the Narragansett peoples of New England, and the Washoes of the Sierra Nevada region – were labelled as “football” by incoming European/white settlers. (Here, it is interesting to note historiographical parallels with Australia.1) As in the UK, US schools and universities in the nineteenth century had their own individual “games” – and many of their (male, Protestant) students also loved Tom Brown’s School Days, and saw success in team sport as a validation of their social status. But linked to this, during the mid-nineteenth century, one would have trouble identifying specific “rules” of “football”, and primary research in newspapers of the period detail the existence of countless local traditions (in amongst the copies out-of-date rules from the early years of England’s Football Association). Newspaper accounts also imply that many of these matches happened under the supervision of responsible adults; the idea that “football” was a children’s game was not just a harmful stigma, but indicative of arrested development, at least in comparison to the rapidly professionalising (and broadly understood, at least geographically) baseball.

The British success story within US soccer has limits; Bunk, for instance, notes that California’s own soccer culture owes more to Hungarian-American pioneers than anybody else.

As the author moves onto the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, one begins to see US soccer’s more well-established long-term patterns take shape – at least in terms of its demographical and geographical challenges (if you are a glass-half-full sort of person) and the tendency of its administrators (if you are a glass-half-empty type) to shoot themselves in the foot. A professional soccer league was formed in 1884 known as the American Association of Professional Football. Hardly a national organisation of any kind, it featured four teams – one from Philadelphia, and one each from Trenton, Newark, and Paterson, all heavy-industrial cities in New Jersey – and touted its ability to recruit British professionals. Some were actually scouted from the likes of Glasgow and Accrington, Lancashire, whilst some were already settlers in the soccer hotbeds of Pawtucket, Rhode Island and Fall River, Massachusetts. Either way, the league folded after a year. Worse than the AAPF was the American League of Professional Football, formed ten years later as a front for baseball owners attempting to make a profit in baseball’s winter off-season – only the spectators never showed up, and the owners employed baseball logic towards designing scheduling, expenses, etc. for a very different sport. It, too, collapsed within a year. (Having previously reviewed Dennis Seese’s monograph for this site, this is a theme which routinely comes up in later US soccer history: baseball and gridiron owners believing their model of sport is a sustainable one for soccer – working-class soccer in particular – whose geography, traditions, and thresholds for success are significantly different.) But people who “knew” soccer made big mistakes of their own, and it made little difference whether those administrators were dedicated to amateurism or professionalism. Here, Bunk (perhaps unlike much of the previous historiography on the subject of US soccer history) critiques British dominance. The somewhat successful amateur soccer scene in 1880s-90s Pittsburgh (and surrounding Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia) was nevertheless led overwhelmingly by Scottish and English administrators, who did not interact with the considerable contingent of Eastern European migrants in the region. Meanwhile, in the 1910s in Holyoke, Massachusetts, Farr Alpaca FC, a team supported by a US/Canadian-owned textile factory in the town, attempted to make the jump to (national) professional soccer, but was disappointed when the (Roman Catholic) French Canadian, Irish, and Portuguese migrants who made up the majority of the local workforce decided not to support an organisation viewed as being the embodiment of (Protestant) English factory owners and Scottish skilled workers, the latter of whom were often near the top of the white working-class settler hierarchy in terms of wages and positions. The British success story within US soccer has limits; Bunk, for instance, notes that California’s own soccer culture owes more to Hungarian-American pioneers than anybody else.

J&P Coats Football Club, Pawtucket, early champions of the American Soccer League.

There are welcome surprises in this book. Aside from his thorough discussion of indigenous sporting traditions recognised as “football” by the first European settlers, there are discussions of other episodes in US soccer history. Women’s soccer also reflects many of the same issues with migration and associational control as aspects of the men’s game (with more obvious added issues of its own in terms of diminished and ridiculing media coverage and scientific discourse of “safe” sports for women), but Bunk’s window onto this is interesting, namely in examining the participants, purpose, tone, and reaction of an 1893 novelty “women’s football” match in San Francisco. Women’s soccer, Bunk notes, typically thrived only when women were able to gain significant bureaucratic power – perhaps most obviously displayed by Doris Clark, a future journalist in San Francisco whose years as Sacramento playground supervisor during the 1910s were instrumental in the development of women’s soccer in California. The author also notes the importance of war as an ironic catalyst for sport development. In popular historiography and myth, the Civil War has taken on an outsized importance in the development of US baseball. Bunk argues that America’s involvement in the First World War is similarly crucial to the development of some kind of nationalised soccer culture in the US. The US Army was oversubscribed with white working-class recruits who were not born in the US; and, whilst the Army brass were more keen to use baseball and American football as tools of assimilation, soccer was arguably every bit as familiar to these soldiers. The sport did not require bats, gloves, helmets, and purpose-built pitches, which kept costs lower for the Army, and thus generals grudgingly accepted it as a means of providing leisure and esprit de corps. Soccer also allowed for a common sporting language with UK and French troops, something the likes of baseball did not. Bunk notes a clear uptick in soccer clubs within regional US soccer associations after the War, along with increased stability within them.

Potential detractors of Bunk’s volume will probably approach it from the perspective that it is too reliant on empirical research. Most historians would find this charge ridiculous, of course (and anyway, it is also couched within a significant body of academic work), but it is perhaps worth noting that research in newspapers of the period forms the overwhelming majority of the primary research. Bunk does not use this uncritically – far from it – but in terms of attempting to identify the progress and life journeys of key personnel within organisations, it is far from a perfect means for doing so. The reader thus (as with all historical research) has to settle for the possibility of a certain degree of error. Ultimately, though, this is clutching at straws in an impressive volume which does not claim to be the final word on US soccer history, and gives historians potential new avenues and approaches towards the subject matter.

Copyright © Mathew L. McDowell 2022

1 Roy Hay, “A tale of two footballs: the origins of Australian football and association football revisited,” Sport in Society 13, no. 6 (2010): 952-69.

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