Turning Back the Clock: Ben Millers – the all-American heroes

One hundred years ago this month, an all-American team from the Midwest made history by becoming champions of the USA, breaking the stranglehold of the immigrant-based clubs from the industrial northeast.

In February this year, a month before the coronavirus sent America into lockdown, work began on a new 22,500 seat soccer-specific stadium in downtown St Louis, Missouri. When completed, it will be the home of the new MLS franchise awarded to the city in April 2019. Sitting in the shadow of the city’s famous Gateway arch next to the Mississippi, the stadium will herald the appearance of a second team on the banks of the great river, following in the wake of the Minnesota United club a thousand kilometres to the north which joined MLS in 2017.

Work on the stadium started just three months short of the centenary of one of the most significant achievements in the history of soccer in St Louis – the victory of local club Ben Millers over Fore River on 9 May 1920 which saw them crowned national champions. It was a moment that also changed the trajectory of soccer in the United States. St Louis is often referred to as the “Gateway to the West” but in this case, St Louis proved to be the gateway that opened up soccer to the whole of America.

Soccer in St Louis
Soccer was not new to St Louis in 1920. The first local association had been formed there in the mid 1880s. Teams like the Blue Bells and St Theresa blazed an early local trail, but few outside of St Louis took much notice. Even when the Olympics came to St Louis in 1904, soccer was relegated to a side show without any official status. The Catholic Church with its roots in the Irish community had been a strong presence with the creation of the Sodiality League in 1893, and of the three teams at the 1904 Games, two were local clubs from the religious community – St Rose along with Christian Brothers College.

As with many other towns and cities across the country, soccer lived in the shadows of the powerful associations, leagues and teams of the industrial north-eastern seaboard stretching from New York to Boston. A body called the American Football Association had been formed in 1884 and had organised the oldest Cup competition in the country - the American Cup from 1885. Affiliated to the Football Association in England, the AFA never reached beyond the confines of Massachusetts and New Jersey. That proved to be its undoing in the long-term.

A true national championship at last
A rival American Amateur Football Association was formed in 1911 with the aim of becoming a nationwide organisation and in April 1913 was reconstituted as the United States Football Association. Four months later it won the battle with the AFA to affiliate with FIFA and its supremacy was ensured. The AFA lingered on until 1924 but when the USFA launched the new National Challenge Cup competition, commonly referred to at the time as the United States Soccer Football Championship, it quickly gained in importance over its older rival.

Now known as the US Open Cup, it is by far and away the longest running tournament in the country. It has been played every year since its inception in 1913-14 season with Atlanta United winning the 106th edition in 2019. A hundred years ago in 1920, there were 99 entrants in what was a straight knockout tournament. The teams were drawn into Eastern and Western Divisions to limit the amount of travel. Despite the rapid growth of the railways across the country, the vast distances between the cities meant that regular league competition was still very much confined to local encounters. But the railways did mean that one-off games were a possibility and that was the key to the success of the National Challenge Cup.

The Midwest versus the Northeast
St Louis entered teams for the first time in 1920 with hopes resting on its two most powerful clubs. Ben Millers, a team taking their name from a St Louis hat manufacturer and known as the ‘Hatters’, had just secured their fourth local League title. Their biggest rivals were Scullin Steel, a new works team that had won the League title in its first season the year before. Ben Millers emerged as the sole representative from the city after beating both Innisfails (6-1) and Scullin Steel (2-1) and they followed those with victories over McKeesport from Pennsylvania (3-2), Olympia of Chicago (2-1) and Packards of Detroit (4-2) to win the Western Division and secure a place in the Final.

The defending champions were Bethlehem Steel, a works team in the Eastern Division based on the Pennsylvania/New Jersey border. They were the dominant force in US soccer at the time having won four of the first six National Challenge Cups, but in 1920 they lost in the quarter-finals to the Brooklyn-based Robins Dry Dock. Like so many other teams in the USA, the Robins were short-lived, but during their three eventful years, their star shone brightly. Twelve months later they would emerge as champions, but against Fore River they were unexpectedly defeated 2-1 in neutral Pawtucket. Harry Ratican gave the Robins the lead just before half-time, but a stirring second half comeback, inspired by the 17-year old James Farquhar saw Fore River win the Eastern Division and secure their place in the Final.

Five days later Fore River and the Robins met again, this time in the semi-final of the AFA’s American Cup and the tables were turned. The Robins won 2-0 and then on 3 May beat Bethlehem Steel in the Final to secure that trophy. The Robins star player was Harry Ratican, known as the Ty Cobb of soccer in America. He was a native of St Louis who had started out with Ben Millers, and as soon as the Robins had secured the American Cup, Ratican headed off to St Louis to take charge of the Hatters for the Final of the National Challenge Cup the following weekend.

60-minute games
Ratican’s first job on arriving in St Louis was to try and prepare his team for the rigours of a 90-minute match. League games in St Louis were played over 60 minutes and there was a fear that Ben Millers would tire in the last half-an-hour, especially against a Fore River team that had scored both their goals in the semi-final in the second half and who were used to playing 90-minute games. Fore River were based in the port town of Quincy to the south of Boston. They took their name from the Weymouth Fore River (as opposed to the Weymouth Back River) where the Fore River Shipbuilding Company was based. As was common with many industries in the northeast at the time, immigrants were a valuable source of labour and if you could find skilful footballers to play in your works team, all the better. All of the players who departed for St Louis from Quincy’s South Station on 5 May were immigrants from Britain – eight from Scotland and three from Lancashire in the northwest of England. As such, their style reflected the close combination short and long passing game that was so prominent in Britain. Ben Millers, on the other hand, were an all-American team with every player born and bred in St Louis. Their style of play was described in the local press as a “more aggressive, dash and shoot, long-driving game.”

Filling the federation’s coffers
It was to prove to be an interesting clash of styles, the prospect of which looked set to ensure a record attendance. St Louis had been chosen for the Final because matches played in the city during the tournament had helped fill the pockets of the organisers more than any other town or city. At the annual general meeting of the USFA it was revealed that “receipts for the final championship game, as well as for all previous rounds played in St Louis, exceeded the receipts taken in at all other games in the respective rounds played.”

More seating was quickly erected at the south end of the Federal Park ground, an old baseball arena, which had been chosen to host the Final. Entrance was set $1.10, including a ten-cent war tax, while children paid 55 cents. A record crowd for the Final of 12,000 duly turned up to cheer on Ben Millers, a team making two notable firsts. Never before had a club from outside of the northeast made it to the Final, and never before had the Final witnessed a team consisting of all-American born players.

The Hatters become champions of America
The Boston Globe opened its account of the Final by stating that “playing before their own supporters, the Millers were naturally favourites, but the great record of their opponents, who defeated the famous Robins Dry Dock team in the Eastern semi-final, was not to be overlooked.” And it was Ben Millers who took the lead after 27 minutes when, as the Fall River Evening News reported, “a clever pass (from Potee) put Marre in possession of the ball with only the goal-keeper in front of the net. Marre picked his spot and shot the ball past Lambie, the latter not coming close to touching the leather.” But the lead lasted just eight minutes. Fore River equalised after “pretty play by Kershaw, who took a pass almost off Lancaster’s boot, spun clear around and away from the Millers back and then reeled the ball gently into the net.”

9 May 1920, 14:30

Federal Park, St Louis, Missouri

BEN MILLERS 2-1 FORE RIVER

Goals: Marre 27, Dunn 62; Kershaw 35
Referees: Alex McKenzie (Chicago); Phil Kavanaugh (St Louis) & Paul McSweeney (St Louis)
Attendance: 12,000

Ben Millers
Charles McGarry - Joe Lancaster, Jimmy Johnston - Johnny Redden, Billy Quinn, Tommy O'Hanlon - Al McHenry, Lawrence Riley, Jimmy Dunn, Hap Marre, Rube Potee.
Manager: Harry Ratican

Fore River
James Lambie - William Parkinson, Thomas Littlejohn - William Daly (c), George Green, Joe Black - James Farquhar, David Page, John Kershaw, Thomas Underwood, James Daly|

The first half finished even at 1-1 and as they were used to the longer games, Fore River may have scented an opportunity in the second half. They had been the better team in the first half, controlling the ball better, playing “a fine long passing game”, but the Millers started to force the play in the early stages, sensing that it was make or break time for them. And it paid off. “Seventeen minutes after the start of play” the Evening Post wrote, “McHenry made a beautiful pass across the front of the goal to Potee, who promptly shot it back to Dunn standing 10 feet from the mouth of the goal, Dunn wheeled and left-footed the ball into the net.”

The expected Fore River onslaught saw the Millers forced back into their own half for a valiant rearguard action for much of the rest of the game. But according to the Fall River Daily Globe “the wing men of the Fore River forward line shot wretchedly, and the visiting team appeared so weak in the booting department that the Millers were constantly shouting ‘Don’t mind the wings, Kershaw’s the only dangerous one!’” It finished 2-1 to Ben Millers and history had been made.

In the wake of Ben Millers historic triumph, Scullin Steel made it to three successive Finals, winning the title in 1922 against Brooklyn’s Todd Shipyards. There was a second Final for Ben Millers in 1926 in what was without doubt a golden age for football in St Louis. As the city’s new MLS team prepares to take the field once the new stadium is completed, they could do worse than take inspiration from those early pioneers of a hundred years ago.

 

Next in our series looking back 100 years, we tell the story of how fierce rivals 1.FC Nürnberg and SpVgg Fürth battled it out in the Final of the 1920 national championship in Germany.