Soccer, brought to you by Bethlehem Steel

We continue our look at 100 years of the Welsh and their influence on 100 years of US Soccer by going right back to the start. Welsh emigrant Horace Edgar Lewis was there right at the start and played an important role in the early years of soccer in the US. This piece is an updated version of the one originally posted in November 2012.

Bethlehem Steel at the Open Cup Final

Bethlehem Steel at the Open Cup Final

In Episode 4 of the first series of Mad Men, the creatives at Sterling Cooper pitch their ideas to Bethlehem Steel head Walter Veith. Don (Draper, for those unfamiliar) offers up a series of posters depicting the great American cities along with the tagline, ‘brought to you by Bethlehem Steel.’ Veith is unimpressed and plans to return the following day in the hope Don will come up with something more to his liking.

That evening, Veith is taken on a sleazy night out with ambitious young account executive Pete Campbell and his female ‘cousins.’ Campbell has his own ideas for Bethlehem Steel; ‘The Backbone of America.’ Veith is impressed and the next day Draper, furious at Campbell’s intervention, is unable to sway Veith and is forced to go along with the young exec’s idea.

Bethlehem Steel was at at a time the United States’ second largest steel manufacturer, and its steel would indeed have been used to build many of the great American cities. As well as being at the heart of those cities, for a period of around 20 years in the early 20th Century, it could also have been said that Bethlehem Steel was the backbone of American soccer. A large part of the corporation’s inclusion and success in the newly-imported sport was down to one man: Horace Edgar Lewis.

Lewis was born in Pontarddulais, West Wales in 1882 and went on to become an influential steel magnate in the US. He also played amateur league football, had a football tournament named in his honour, and was an original inductee to the US Soccer Hall of Fame.

Lewis’ family emigrated to the US in 1896, initially setting up home in the Welsh-immigrant stronghold of Pennsylvania, then settling in Ohio. At the age of 17, Lewis got his first job in the steel industry, working as a steelworker at Carnegie Steel. At 24, Lewis first joined the Bethlehem Steel company and remained there until 1930.

Bethlehem Steel

Bethlehem Steel

While living in the States, Lewis discovered a love for soccer. As he worked his way from steelworker to executive, Lewis was a regular in the company’s amateur soccer team, appearing and scoring for several years as an inside forward.

The excellent Bethlehem Steel FC website provides plenty of links to the Bethlehem Globe newspaper that covered the team at the time. Lewis, it appears was a regular scorer in the club’s amateur days and a valuable member of the team. A business trip forced team captain Lewis to miss a 1909 match against state champions Hibernian and his absence, the Globe informs us, would “handicap the team considerably.” (His replacement for this match was his brother Albert.)

As well as the goals, the Globe also teaches us more of Lewis the player and also perhaps of US soccer at the time. In a 1912 match against Schuylkill Falls, Lewis was among the scorers in a 4-2 win. However, “Lewis in making this goal was tackled in a questionable manner by Wise…but pluckily resumed play.” The story goes on to say that Lewis needed help getting home. On another occasion, in a rough 1913 game against Braddock, it was Lewis dishing out some heavy treatment when the opposition goalkeeper was “bustled off sans ceremony.”

As his own playing days were coming to an end, Lewis was instrumental in helping the team to turn professional. The team’s- and it seems to have been the same for many teams of the era- policy of recruiting English and, particularly, Scottish players from the UK was controversial with officials in British football and at FIFA, but would help Bethlehem Steel to become a major powerhouse in the early years of US soccer.

In their first full professional season, Bethlehem went undefeated on their way to the Allied American Foot Ball Association of Philadelphia. The following year, in 1915, they won the prestigious National Challenge Cup, a competition that is still in existence today in the guise of the US Open Cup, by defeating the previous year’s champions Brooklyn Celts 3-1 in the final. In 1916, they defended their crown and went on to win the competition further three times.

In 1919, Bethlehem Steel became the first US club side to tour Europe, taking a 23-man party to Scandinavia (Lewis was not among them). Then, in 1921, Bethlehem were among the founding members of the American Soccer League (ASL), the first national league system, but still largely based in the country’s north-western regions, and with Lewis’ brother as the league’s first president. In 1925 the ASL calendar added the Lewis Cup, a two-legged league cup competition, named after Edgar had provided the trophy. The competition, won only once by Bethlehem Steel in 1928, ran until the early-1960s and the trophy now sits in a museum in Kiev after the last final was played between two sides consisting largely of Ukrainian immigrants.

Then, in 1930 and just twenty-or-so years after company employees had first gathered together for a kickaround, Bethlehem Steel FC were no more. Their record was,and continues to be, among the most enviable in the land. Among a host of regional and national titles, their five US Open Cup triumphs stand out as the club’s greatest achievement. Even today, they still share the record for most wins in that competition with Maccabi Los Angeles.

Lewis was integral to Bethlehem’s success throughout the club’s existence, but, just as with the team, his involvement in the sport seems to have ended in 1930. No one reason can be found for this sudden severing of ties with the footballing world. Some suggest it was the fallout of the US Soccer War- a stand-off between the ASL and the US Football Association over the involvement of the former’s members in the US National Challenge Cup that led to many ASL teams boycotting the competition; Bethlehem Steel was not among them. Others suggest it may have just been the harsh realities of some dark economic times that kept Lewis away from the sport he had grown to love.

Lewis later left Bethlehem Steel altogether and moved first to Jeffrey Manufacturing Company and then another steel company, Jones & Laughlin where he served as company president. He died of pneumonia in 1948 at the age of 66. According to one obituary, his rise to prominence had been “in the greatest American Tradition.”

Two years after his death, Lewis’ importance in the history of US soccer by the US Soccer Hall of Fame. Established that year (1950) by the Philadelphia Old-Timers Associations, Lewis was among the 15 inaugural inductees. The Hall is split into ‘Players’ and ‘Builders.’ Lewis was voted in as a ‘Builder,’ someone described by the US Soccer Federation as “an individual must have made his/her mark in soccer in a non-playing capacity and had a major, sustained and positive impact on US soccer on a national or first division professional level.”

And now the story of Bethlehem Steel is being told again. In the current MLS season, Philadelphia Union are paying tribute to their region’s soccer history with an embroidered tribute to Bethlehem Steel on their latest third kit. The club are remembered on both the shirt’s collar and sleeve with dates and logos, the sleeve featuring the large ‘B’ that featured on the original Bethlehem shirts. The story of Lewis’ old team lives on.

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