Battle before the Games

Walter Bahr, 81, was a midfielder on the 1948 United States Olympic soccer team which competed in London, England.  CDT/Nabil K. Mark August 18, 2008
Walter Bahr, 81, was a midfielder on the 1948 United States Olympic soccer team which competed in London, England. CDT/Nabil K. Mark August 18, 2008

To be an Olympian or not to be: That was the question.

Walter Bahr, a midfielder from Philadelphia, sought a spot on the U.S. soccer team for the 1948 Summer Olympics. But hometown soccer officials snubbed him because of his professional experience with the Philadelphia Nationals in the American Soccer League.

So Bahr and another player went to the New York tryouts, which took a different view of their status. Because they had played under “amateur contracts” — covering expenses only — they were still eligible for the Games in London.

As they tried to make the team, the U.S. Soccer Football Association and the International Olympic Committee hashed out their future.

“It was touch and go whether we were going to be OK’d,” Bahr said.

Ultimately, the ruling came down: Bahr was not a pro. He could represent the U.S. in the first Olympics after a 12-year hiatus caused by World War II.Bahr is 81 now, a Harris Township resident and American soccer titan. During his career, he captained the U.S. national team, playing in three World Cups and 19 international matches. In 1950, he assisted the lone goal of a monumental upset of England that inspired the 2005 movie “The Game of Their Lives.”

After retiring, he became a professional and collegiate coach, including at Penn State from 1974 to 1988. The National Soccer Coaches Association of America, which made him its Coach of the Year in 1979, elected him into its Hall of Fame.

But 60 years ago, Bahr was just another talented player from a soccer hotbed.

“Soccer basically was an eastern sport,” he said.

He played at Temple for one season, then made $15 a game for the Philadelphia Nationals while teaching school. One day, his chance for the Olympics arrived in the mail.

“No one really prepared themselves to go on an Olympic team,” he said. “It was something that happened as a matter of timing, age, notoriety. You were invited to try out.”

At the time, the soccer world considered the Olympics small potatoes. Unlike today, when teams must qualify to reach the Games, any nation could send a squad. Some, however, couldn’t afford the expense. Others with professional leagues abstained.

But the London Games were big — the dawn of a new era for the ravaged host and the rest of Europe.

“The last (Olympics) was in 1936, when I was nine years old, so I certainly didn’t have much knowledge of the Olympics,” Bahr said. “It was built up as a very special thing, and the closer we got to it, the more it became a special honor to go over on an Olympic team.”

Bahr’s pregnant wife bade him farewell as the S.S. America left New York. On board, the 15 U.S. players passed the time by exercising twice a day and doing drills on the deck.

They arrived to an England slowly emerging from the war.

“London was still on rationing, and the Olympic Village was in a (Royal Air Force) base in Uxbridge,” Bahr said. “We slept in the barracks, and we ate in the regular dining room they had for the air force.”

There was nothing plain, though, about the English soccer pitches — trimmed emerald expanses Bahr rarely saw at home.

“We normally played on cinders and dirt,” Bahr said. “The only time we had good fields was when we played in Yankee Stadium, Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds, Connie Mack Stadium.”

For practice, the U.S. team played several warm-up matches, tying Luxembourg, losing to China by a goal and then notching morale-boosting shutouts of Korean and RAF squads.

In the opening ceremony at venerable Wembley Stadium, the thrilled Americans met the king and queen of England and watched thousands of pigeons soar upward to start the Games.

Soon after, the team’s Olympic dreams crashed with a thud.

A tough Italian side routed the U.S., 9-0, in a steady rain. The floodgates truly opened in the second half after the Americans lost a forward to injury. Not allowed to substitute, they gave up five goals in the last eight minutes and departed after the first round.

Bahr prefers to dwell on the brighter times — socializing with locals in a Uxbridge dance hall, seeing track and field events at Wembley, befriending basketball players and other U.S. athletes, coming home in swank quarters on the liner S.S. Britannic.

That was it for him, though he would see two of his sons, Casey and Chris, follow in his footsteps on U.S. Olympic teams. The rules changed, and Bahr lost his eligibility forever. He went on to help win five pro championships — none topping his stay in England.

“I’m fortunate to have made the squad and have that experience, going over and meeting those top athletes and people from other countries,” he said.

“It’s one of the highlights of my playing days.”

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620.

(One in a series, Olympians among us.)