Celtic’s 1931 North American Tour

The 1920s were a promising time for football in America. The game may have been only modestly popular, yet crowds of 10,000 or more were turning out for big matches, and most of the major cities could lay claim to a semi-professional league. The country had even sent a reasonable team to the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Most significantly of all, the ambitious American Soccer League had sprung up in the north-eastern corner of the country, and started to attract players from overseas – and in particular Scotland. Several recruits had even turned out for Celtic, none of them more frequently than winger Andrew McAtee, whose fourteen years at Parkhead preceded his departure to New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1925.

This league wasn’t the only connection with what American newspapers commonly referred to as the “land of the heather”. Sensing an opportunity to cash in on the game’s emerging popularity, soccer entrepreneurs began seeking out Scottish and other foreign clubs for close-season tours. Third Lanark were the first to arrive in 1921, augmented by enough guest players for some promoters to bill to them as “Scotland.” Rangers followed in 1928 and returned two years later, sharing the summer spoils with Kilmarnock.

Unfortunately, by this time the American League was entering its terminal decline, suffering from weak leadership, a crippling two-year “war” with the US Football Association, and the economic hardship of the Great Depression. The second leg of the 1930 National Challenge Cup final, the country’s equivalent of the Scottish Cup, was played out in front of just 3,500. Even the soccer-crazed town of Fall River, Massachusetts, whose Marksmen had been the country’s premier club for much of the 1920s, filed for bankruptcy in 1931, leaving the team’s owner to move the team to New York City in the hope of attracting interest.

All of which makes the popularity of Celtic’s thirteen-match, six-week tour in 1931 rather remarkable. Playing before crowds as large as 30,000, the Scottish Cup-holders and League runners-up proved a much more popular attraction than anything the domestic game could muster that year, and their visit marked something of a swan-song in terms of the game’s popularity in the United States. Although the 1930s and 40s would yield occasional visits from unofficial ‘Scotland’ XIs, it would be two decades before a bona fide Scottish League club again set foot in the country.

In his 2002 book Willie Maley: The Man Who Made Celtic, David Potter attributes the success of the tour to the number of Scottish and Irish exiles in the country. “There were, for example, survivors of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin who would never be able to come back to Ireland or any other part of the United Kingdom.” he notes. “There were those who were proscribed from Glasgow society because of their part in the ‘Red Clydeside’ disturbances of the latter years of the war and immediately afterwards. To them, the visit of Celtic meant absolutely everything.”

That seems to have been true in the case of the 30,000 that turned up for the second match of the tour, one of the largest crowds ever to see a match in the US at the time. Celtic claimed a narrow 3-2 win over the New York Giants, who were only a week away from clinching the American League championship. The Giants led 2-1 at half-time, but Jimmy McGrory’s winning goal two minutes from the end appears to have sent most of the crowd home happy. The New York Times, claiming the result “was a scant triumph in every sense of the term,” noted that after the final whistle “the crowd rushed on the field and carried McGrory, the hero of the match, on its shoulders to the clubhouse.”

Six days earlier, having docked in the country a day late on due to bad weather, Celtic had engaged in a more straightforward exhibition against an Eastern Pennsylvania amateur XI in Philadelphia. The comfortable 6-1 victory (“we did not feel that we had to extend ourselves to the full” captain Jimmy McStay later admitted) attracted a gate of 12,000 to Yellow Jacket Field, home of a popular professional gridiron team. The third game, played only a day after the frenzied encounter with the Giants, was an altogether different proposition. Celtic’s opponents, known as the New York Yankees (though they had no connection to the baseball entity), were the relocated Fall River team, but the match was played on a sweltering early evening in Boston, on a tiny pitch marked out on the baseball diamond of the local Red Sox. The Yankees took a 4-3 win, inspired by a hat-trick from Billy Gonsalves, probably the greatest American player of his generation (and “one of the best insides I have ever seen” according to McStay). Maley may have agreed, although the comments sometimes ascribed to him by proud Americans that the Fall River-born striker was the greatest player he’d ever laid eyes on need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Playing with a badly-swollen ankle, Gonsalves scored two long-range goals, one from a free kick in the third minute, and another with seven minutes left to play which proved to be the winner. “The American eleven forced the Celtic to extend themselves at all times,” one report claimed, “but the almost tropical heat slowed the game down to a speed which did not compare at all to the furious tempo of the Giant game.”

The next day in North Tiverton, Rhode Island, on the rock-hard pitch of Marks Stadium, Celtic were beaten 1-0 by Fall River FC, a defeat which would prove more significant to the club than the loss in Boston. The home side took the lead three minutes from the end when, according to the Times, “McConigle fouled Scott just outside the penalty area. Billy Wilson took the kick and planted the ball right under the cross bar, and J Thomson in attempting to clear pulled it into his own net.” It was, though, the performance of Fall River’s Canadian-born goalkeeper, Joe Kennaway, which attracted most of the attention. “I think that Kennaway gave about the best exhibition of goalkeeping I have seen here,” McStay later observed. “He did not lag behind Thomson and Thomson is the greatest goalie on earth.” Maley was similarly impressed. “The player who stood out was Kennaway, the Fall River goalie,” he said later. “I think he would go great in Scotland.”

The losing streak climbed to three a week later at the Cyclodrome in Providence, Rhode Island, another narrow pitch, encircled by a banked racing track. Maley’s comments that the local accommodation ‘would have disgraced a junior club’ may have put his players at a slight disadvantage, but American teams of this era were better than many give them credit for – and their fans were as unruly as any. That the opposition in Providence were an American League team from Pawtucket nicknamed the Rangers may have been coincidental, but according to the New York Herald-Tribune, police “were called to clear the field in the second half when [Sam] Kennedy, of Pawtucket, and Willie Cook, of Celtic, engaged in a fight after Kennedy had been fouled. Hundreds of the 4,000 spectators rushed upon the field, delaying the game.” Inspired by an early goal, the Rangers claimed a 3-1 win, the last defeat the tourists would suffer.

McStay’s comments to the American press were diplomatically tactful. “If we had lost against inferior teams, we would have something to worry about,” he told one US publication. “But a defeat at the hands of a worthy opponent is northing to cry over. Those American elevens played superb soccer. They were out to win as we were. I want to congratulate them. It is not a small matter to beat the Glasgow Celtic.” The publication reciprocated the civility. “Neither management nor players uttered a single complaint,” it claimed. “They offered no alibi. They congratulated the winning American teams, they spoke highly of American soccer … it is quite likely our teams are better than we imagined.” Maley’s views would prove rather less charitable.

Celtic rebounded with a 5-0 win in Brooklyn over the local American League team in front of 10,000 at baseball’s Ebbets Field. The local Wanderers featured in their side the ex-Celtic forward “Wee Willie” Crilley Crilly, better known for his single-season goalscoring record for Alloa Athletic, but who had emigrated not long afterward and played for a number of American clubs. Two goals from McGrory led the way, but the victory had carried a high cost: the centre-forward broke his jaw and sat out the last twenty minutes.

After travelling to Montreal and handing a 7-0 defeat to the local Carsteel club (Peter Scarff scoring five times), Celtic took an overnight train to New York for a match with the American League’s Hakoah All-Stars the next day. Hakoah, a team laced with Hungarian ex-internationals, held them to a 1-1 draw, but the crowd of 20,000 witnessed probably the most ill-tempered contest of the tour. “The game was rough throughout, two players of each team being ordered off the field in the second half,” one report noted. “Trouble broke out soon after the half. [Bela] Guttman and Napier came to blows and were ejected and [Rudi] Nickolsberger and Scarff got their marching orders for fouling. Before going to the dressing room Napier had equalized with a long shot from twenty yards out, which sailed into the net far out of [Lajos] Fischer’s reach.”

After that the waters proved less troubled, and the scorelines more lopsided. At the home of baseball’s Chicago Cubs, around 11,000 saw a 6-3 win over the Bricklayers of Chicago, a team which had reached the National Challenge Cup final only a few months earlier. “The visitors played one of the best soccer games ever seen in Chicago,” the Chicago British-American conceded, but it also insisted that three Celtic goals “were of a very flukey nature” and that “Vic Neate, Brickie’s goalkeeper, was obviously very nervous when he let three of them beat him. But for this the score would have been much closer, and the result possibly a tie game.”

No such claims were made in Detroit four days later, a match played under floodlights at the University of Detroit Stadium – Celtic’s first-ever night game. Over 5,000 saw the tourists canter to a 5-0 win over an apparently awe-struck Michigan XI. According to the Detroit News: “It was apparent that Michigan was half beaten 15 minutes before the kickoff. Plainly impressed by Celtics’ record the Michigan players started far in excess of their normal speed, but all their physical energy was no match for [the] clean-cut exhibition given by Celtics.”

After winning 3-1 in Toronto, Celtic returned to New York for a rematch with the Yankees, this time in Yankee Stadium. “Playing at top form and giving a gilt-edged exhibition” according to the New York Times, they took a 1-0 halftime lead through Charlie Napier and this time kept Gonsalves at bay, winning 4-1 in front of 10,000. It was, according to one report, “quite a rough game, but Referee [Charles] Creighton kept the players well under control.”

Maley might have begged to differ. The quality of match officials – an issue which would plague American soccer for generations to come – left him far from impressed. The Scotsman reported that he thought the refereeing “terrible” (“They had rules of their own, he said, and football would not make much progress there until they had better control of the game”), a sentiment which the manager had also made clear to newspapers in the US. “It took the Glasgow Celtics nearly half a century to visit our shores,” one paper wrote, “and if William Maley’s parting words aboard the Transylvania yesterday mean anything, it will be just as long before another visit is made by a green and white Celtic team. Roughness of play and poor officiating are his plaint.”

The paper, though, took issue with the brutality assertion. “Maley may have been right about certain facts,” it conceded, “but as to the roughness of play here Napier, Bert Thompson and McGonigle of the Celtics were far from shrinking violets. The way Napier kicked [Hakoah’s] little Leo Greenfield’s legs from under him in the good will game gives the Celtic player the undisputed title of ‘a real shin-buster’”.

A 4-1 win over the Canton club of Baltimore meant Celtic sailed back into Yorkhill Quay with eight wins, three defeats and a draw. Maley brushed off the losses with references to the tiny pitches, claming that “if any of the three [victorious] elevens … came to Glasgow and played on our turf with my team, we would concede five goals to them and still win coming away.” He had, though, been mightily impressed by Kennaway (“Our people at home fancy John Thomson but they have his equal in Fall River”) and in a matter of months would draft him in to replace the tragic figure of John Thomson, who died while playing in goal for Celtic on 5th September 1931.)

As it turned out, it wasn’t another half-century before the club returned, but few would have imagined that twenty years would pass before another Scottish League club visited the United States. Ironically, Celtic proved to be that club, in 1951. By then, though, football in America had fallen into greater obscurity, and interest in foreign visitors – Scottish or otherwise – had fallen along with it.