Long before the Adidas “Brazuca” soccer ball captured the imagination of U.S. soccer fans at this year’s World Cup Championship in Brazil there was the “Swiss World Champion” ball used at the 1958 World Cup. Unlike the ultra-streamlined aerodynamic Brazuca ball the soccer balls from earlier vintages did not track as well when launched by players whose sole aim was to place a perfectly arcing pass to a teammate or lace the ball through or past the defending goalie with an exquisitely timed kick. When heading the ball it hurt like hell due to the less than elegant leather seams that held the thing together. While watching the flight of the Brazuca ball during the 2014 World Cup matches my mind flashed back to the games I remember from my childhood days in the Kensington neighborhood of Philly. As rough-and-tumble as those games appear in my memory, they far outshine those of today’s international soccer matches without the theatrical dives that beg for a referee’s penalty call.
In the 1950’s soccer was about as popular with the sports going public as, say handball was in Philadelphia. It was primarily played by first generation Americans whose parents regaled them with stories from their European, South American and Caribbean lives. Pick-up games were played in the streets of North and South Philly, sometimes migrating to the city-managed neighborhood recreation centers. The ball would take an awful beating as it bounced along the asphalt streets, cement pavements or stone laden fields. Kids learned to navigate the ball around manhole covers and other urban detritus, dribbling until an opportunity arose to slam it past the goaltender. (The goal line was marked by two wooden sticks secured by a couple pieces of cinder blocks left over from someone’s backyard construction project. In those days there was usually no top bar to the goal.) In addition to these raw street games there was a professional league that flourished, setting the foundation for the emergent Major League Soccer in the U.S. It was named the American Soccer League.
Consisting primarily of teams from cities in the Northeastern U.S. (the Brooklyn Italians, Newark Portuguese, Elizabeth Falcons among other) the league operated from 1933 – 1976 and included not one but two teams from Philadelphia: the Philadelphia Ukrainian Nationals and the Uhrik Truckers. The Uhrik Truckers was the dominant team for several years running led by Philadelphia-born Walter Bahr considered one of the best – if not the best – American born soccer player of his time. During his playing days he coached soccer at one of Philadelphia’s storied high schools, Frankford High School. After retiring he coached at Temple University and Penn State where his legacy spanned 14 successful years and earned multiple NCAA Coach of the Year awards. (He was my coach at Frankford High.) I was introduced to the world of professional soccer through my father’s connection to The Uhrik Truckers and to its owner, Tony Uhrik.
My father’s family was from Wolverhampton, a gritty city smack in the middle of the U.K.’s Western Midlands. He arrived in Philadelphia via New York City somewhere around the age of minus 3. He was born in NYC and resided there until his early teens when his large family moved to Philadelphia. Even though American by birth, he carried with him the legacy of the storied Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club. Although a talented boxer, he nevertheless devoted much time to kicking around a soccer ball with his friends in Kensington. During the 1950’s my dad drove for the Uhrik Trucking Company, one of many such over-the-road hauling outfits that were then based in the Tacony section of Philadelphia. And he worked for and with the Uhrik Truckers Soccer Club.
To this day I have no idea how my truck-driving father wound up working with the Uhrik Truckers. My hunch is that Tony Uhrik – a North Philly-born hustler – needed other second tier hustlers like my dad around him so he could appear to be a cut above them and not dirty his manicured hands with the seamy work of keeping a soccer team on the field; just a hunch, mind you. My father brought me and my younger brother to practice sessions and Sunday afternoon games that were played at the old Lighthouse Field at Front & Luzerne Streets not far from our house in Kensington. Those games were often played on cold, steel-grey days. In addition to the lingering images of Walt Bahr and the Scot, Jackie Ferris doing battle with other young ethnic guys on the field I remember the taste of the steaming hot chocolate that my mother bought for us to combat the cold temperatures. I vividly remember Tony Uhrik giving us new soccer balls to hone our skills, partial payment most likely for some deed my dad had done for him. Mr. Uhrik gave us lots of new soccer balls in those days.
We cradled those new soccer balls in our arms on the way home feeling their seductive leather sheen until the time came to actually use them in battle; they eventually became rough to the touch but not to the boot, the sound of foot on ball was almost as musical to me as the sounds I was coaxing from my stubborn clarinet. As a fledgling goalie playing in the newly-formed recreation center leagues, I heard that distinctive “thud” before the ball slammed against my defending hands or whacked me in more sensitive areas of my young body. The pain didn’t matter, though as long as I kept the damn thing out of the goal, which I eventually learned to do with some authority. As I grew into late adolescence my father’s tuberculosis forced him to become a dispatcher, a desk job that he never got used to. And his role with the Uhrik Truckers Soccer Club petered out. I don’t remember seeing much of Tony Uhrik during those days but my dad would from time-to-time hand me a new soccer ball, a gift from the man himself. I also lost touch with the team even as I played in games on their home turf at Lighthouse Field.
Like the unreliable balls that somehow found great resonance at the feet of those pioneering American soccer players, the Uhrik Truckers thrived until 1964, failing to keep up with the other teams in the American Soccer League. The Uhrik Trucking Company tumbled too, failing to sustain its position as a strong member of Philly’s rugged Teamster-led trucking community. Before their demise the Uhrik Truckers was a terrific team; a true legend in Philly sports history. Some of their players spun some serious magic with the ball as they tore up and down and in and out of the reach of opposing players. If they were playing today, imagine what some of those guys would do with the high-tech Brazuca ball as they feinted, juked and dribbled their way to glory, cheered on by the cheers and chants of their adoring fans?