D-Day at the Polo Grounds
Posted on March 23, 2011 12:28 am
Nearly every professional sports event in the United States was canceled or postponed on June 6, 1944, while the nation held its breath over the fate of the invasion of France.
One of the few events that was not called off was a one-day pro soccer tournament at the Polo Grounds in New York. It was allowed to go on, after consultation with the Army and Navy, because the event was a benefit for the Red Cross supporting the American war effort.
In 1944 in New York, benefits for war-related causes, particularly the sale of War Bonds, were frequent. They included such varied events as a three-cornered baseball game at Yankee Stadium among the three New York teams and a concert at Carnegie Hall by classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz.
One of soccer’s contributions was the June 6 tournament, from which all proceeds went to the Greater New York Red Cross 1944 War Fund. With millions of Americans clinging to their radios that evening for news coming from across the Atlantic, the crowd was only about 2,500 (the invasion had landed on the beaches of Normandy 19 hours before the soccer games at the Polo Grounds began). However, perhaps no one in New York that evening was more concerned about the invasion news than the British Consul-General, and he was at the Polo Grounds.
The field for this tournament consisted of the four New York teams in the American Soccer League, Brookhattan, the New York Americans, the Brooklyn Wanderers and Brooklyn Hispano. Three of them had completed their seasons. Brooklyn Wanderers still had one game to go in the ASL’s Lewis Cup playoffs. The ASL was a very patriotic sounding league that year, as was much of wartime America. The 10-team league included the New York Americans, Kearny Americans, Philadelphia Americans and Baltimore Americans. In the semifinals early in the evening, Brookhattan played Wanderers and New York Americans played Hispano. After a game between all-star teams from two New York amateur leagues, the winners of the two semifinals played for the championship. All the games were 50 minutes long. The final went to a 15-minute overtime period, so the fans at the Polo Grounds that night saw 215 minutes of soccer.
Three future Hall of Famers played that night, Billy Gonsalves of Hispano, Rudy Kuntner of New York Americans and Alex Weir of Wanderers. Three other future Hall of Famers, stars of their teams, would have played but they were unavailable that night. Gene Olaff of Hispano was in the Navy ready to embark on a diving/rescue ship for duty in the Atlantic, John Boulos of Hispano was in the Army and stationed in India, and Jackie Hynes of the New York Americans was in the Army getting ready to ship out to Europe. Six months later, on Christmas Day 1944, Hynes was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge.
The outcome on the field didn’t matter a whole lot. The outcome in Normandy and the raising of money in New York were what counted. For the record, Brookhattan won, but in less than overwhelming fashion. After a 0-0 tie in its semifinal against Wanderers, the Bronx team was declared the winner on the basis of corner kicks. In the final against Hispano, both the score (1-1) and the corner kicks were still tied after overtime, so Brookhattan got the trophy after a coin toss.
The quality of the soccer played at the Polo Grounds that evening was probably less than inspiring, but the spectators may not have noticed. Their eyes were on the field, but their minds were on Normandy.
I originally wrote this in 2006 for the newsletter of the National Soccer Hall of Fame. I might never had known about this tournament if I hadn’t been told about it by Frank Santamassino of Verona, N.J.