A boost for Bethlehem
Posted on June 6, 2012 12:14 am
It was no coincidence that the Bethlehem Steel soccer team, one of the greatest in American soccer history, was at its peak at the same time that World War I was raging in Europe.
Bethlehem Steel had gotten its start as a maker of iron rails for the railroads of the mid-19th century. It gained its greatest fame from heavy construction work in the 1930s, like the building of the Golden Gate Bridge. But over the years, the work that kept Bethlehem’s mills busiest and its coffers fullest was the making of armaments. At the time of the soccer team’s peak, war production had turned Bethlehem Steel from a merely thriving company into one of the world’s industrial giants, a company with tons of money to spend on things like sports teams for employees.
The Bethlehem Steel soccer team’s record in those war years is impressive. Between the 1913-14 season and the 1918-19 season, it won the National Challenge Cup four times, the American Football Association Cup five times and its league championship four times. During those six seasons, the steelworkers won 171 games, tied 15 and lost only eight (they also won seven by forfeit).
That record owed a great deal to the fact that during those years, the Bethlehem Steel Corp. was making money at a fantastic rate. The boost that the war gave to the corporation’s prosperity is obvious in its revenue figures during the early years of the 20th century. From $14.7 million in 1905, the year after the company became a corporation, those revenues grew steadily during the years before World War I. They were $22.3 million in 1909 (the first full year of production of Bethlehem’s revolutionary “Grey beam”), and $47.7 million in 1914 (the year the war started in August). They then skyrocketed, to $147.6 million in 1915 (the year the corporation gave its first grant to the soccer team), $217.9 million in 1916, $301.9 million in 1917 and $452.2 million in 1918.
A U.S. government report after the war summarizing Bethlehem Steel’s war production included 11,000 gun barrels, 18 million artillery shells and 34,000 tons of armor plate.
Also benefiting the Bethlehem Steel soccer team was the question of the draft, which went into effect two months after the United States entered the war in April 1917. Workers involved in armaments making, of whom there were many at Bethlehem Steel, were exempted from the draft and safe from being sent to the trenches in France. The draft had considerable effect on American soccer. At one point in 1918, the Bethlehem Globe estimated that of 45,000 registered soccer players in the United States, more than 18,000 were in uniform and more than 1,000 American soccer teams had been forced to disband for lack of players.
By 1918, soccer teams were cropping up among many shipyards in New York, Philadelphia and elsewhere. These afforded players excellent protection against the draft, because nearly all of the work going on in those shipyards at that time was war related. In the summer of 1918, Bethlehem Steel officials felt it necessary to deny that any Bethlehem players were among the many soccer players flocking to shipyard teams. The Bethlehem Globe cited Billy Sheridan, Bethlehem Steel’s manager of athletics, as the source of its information when it said that “the team will remain intact….there is little likelihood of any of the players being induced to leave Bethlehem to take up work in any of the shipbuilding plants, especially as all of the players are working in munitions and having been classified as such prevents them from being drafted.” The fact that every single one of the soccer players was working in munitions was quite a coincidence–or maybe not.
Many events in sports over the years have been closely related to happenings far beyond the athletic fields, and the glory years of the Bethlehem Steel soccer team are no exception.