The Whalers were one of the most successful teams of the original American Soccer League, which was the first division 1 professional soccer league in the United States. The Whalers were also one half of the most heated rivalry in the ASL, between them and the Marksmen of Fall River. Although their tenure was brief, the team did provide some of the most exciting soccer of the 1920s.
The Whalers joined the ASL in 1924-25, a season of expansion for the league. Besides New Bedford, Indiana Flooring, Providence Clamdiggers and Boston Wonder Workers made their debut. This season marked the full bloom of the first golden age of American Soccer. This was the season that Archie Stark set the world record for most goals in a single season of a 1st division league, a record which stands to this day (Some would say Pele holds the record, but Brazilian soccer did not achieve 1st division status until 1969, near the end of his career). New Bedford did not have a roster laden with high profile stars, although they did have Billy Adair, Johnny McGuire and Bill Cochrane. Billy Westwater led the Whalers in scoring with 12 goals that season, as the Whalers finished 6th in a 12 team league, just behind the Wonder Workers. Late in the season, the Whalers acquired prolific striker Andy Stevens, and he would play a prominent role the following season.
The Whalers hit their stride in 1925-26, as they came in second place, although well behind the Fall River Marksmen who took their third consecutive regular season championship. But they did better in the Lewis Cup, defeating the New York Giants on goal aggregate, 5-1 and 0-3. Andy Stevens found his true form, winning the league scoring title with 44 goals, and an amazing 1.00 Goals per game average. Mike McLeavey also contributed 21 net-hitters. But Stevens was the lynchpin, with four-goal nights against Indiana Flooring on December 12 and against Newark Skeeters on March 14.
In 1926-27, the Whalers fell to fourth place, but the Marksmen fell as well, as Bethlehem Steel rose to the top. The ASL introduced substitutions this season, with teams allowed to substitute two players up to 15 minutes before the end of the game. They also added goal judges, whose function was to assist the referee in deciding when the ball had passed over the line into the goal. Another controversial innovation was the brief introduction of penalty boxes. A player receiving a penalty would have to stand behind the goal with the goal judges for a specified period of time, and goalkeepers were not exempt. Despite their 4th place finish, the Whalers led the league in scoring and added Bill Paterson, the Fall River star, to their roster late in the season.
The following season, the ASL adopted a split season format, which worked to the advantage of the Whalers. Finishing third in the opening half, they won the league title in the closer, setting up a playoff series with the Boston Wonder Workers, and an exciting series with rival New Bedford in the semi finals, won by the Whalers 3-2 on aggregate. Unfortunately, the luck didn’t hold, and the Whalers fell to Boston 4-2 in the final. But Andy Stevens again led the league in goal scoring.
Late 1928 marked the outbreak of the “soccer war”, a tumultuous jurisdictional turf battle whose stresses would ultimately contribute to the downfall of the league. Initially it was a dispute over whether league teams could be forced to play in the US Open Cup, then called the National Challenge Cup. The USSF (Then the USFA) refused to exempt ASL teams from their Cup obligations. The ASL responded by unilaterally withdrawing from the competition. However, three teams who did want to compete, did so in defiance of the ASL, and were suspended from the league. The USFA responded by suspending the ASL. The ASL defied the USFA again and operated in 1928-29 as an outlaw league. Meanwhile, the USFA formed a new league with the three suspended ASL teams and several others from the New York amateur circuits.
Amid much confusion, two leagues took to the field in 1928-29. The New Bedford Whalers struggled in the reduced ASL, struggling into the second half mired in fifth place. They surprised everybody by bolting to the other league, the Eastern Professional Soccer League. Although complete standings for that league are incomplete, the Whalers did not do well, despite a high winning percentage; their late entry into the schedule worked against them. The Whalers, having enough of this experience, rejoined the ASL in the fall of 1929. But by this time, the team was hurting, finishing with 7 wins and 12 losses, deep in the standings. The USFA and ASL, exhausted by their fruitless war decided to make peace, with lots of face saving and concessions on all sides.
Once peace was reached, the ASL abandoned their fall season, and the best ESL teams joined the ASL, known for the next season as the Atlantic Coast League. The new 1929-30 season actually consisted of spring 1930 and fall 1930 halves, which were affected by the loss of players to the national team for World Cup 1930, and overseas tours undertaken by Fall river and New York Hakoah. The storied Bethlehem Steel squad folded after the first half, with its parent company struggling through the Depression. Nevertheless, Fall River and New Bedford finished first and second in both halves. With Fall River winning both halves, they were declared outright champions. Unfortunate, since a Fall River-New Bedford clash would be a promoter’s dream for a playoff series. Jerry Best of the Whalers led the league in scoring.
By 1931, the ASL was having serious financial struggles and there was considerable turnover in teams. Even the vaunted Fall River Marksmen were not immune. This led to a flurry of franchise shifts that defied even the convoluted history of other soccer franchise evolutions. With declining attendance, Marksmen owner Sam Mark decided to take a gamble by moving his franchise to New York (shades of Henry Frazee, although at least he only sold Babe Ruth), where he merged the club with the New York Soccer Club and renamed them the Yankees. He made Mark’s Stadium available to anyone who wanted to field a team in Fall River. A group of local businessmen including future Hall of Famer Harold Brittan bought the Providence Gold Bugs and moved them to Fall River, as Fall River FC. Meanwhile, the New Bedford Whalers, no longer able to operate financially, were merged with Fall River, with owner Ike Dawson becoming part owner of the new franchise.
The season was not kind to any of the teams. The Yankees did not fare any better financially in New York, although they did win the US Open Cup that year. Ironically, since they were still in Fall River when the Cup competition started, they won the championship as the Marksmen, even though they were wearing Yankee uniforms at the time. Fall River finished the first half deep in the pack, and folded at the end of the first half. Meanwhile, Sam Mark, frustrated with the low attendance in New York, moved his team back to New England, this time to New Bedford! For good measure, he acquired the rights to the failed Fall River FC players, making his new Whalers a combination of the old Marksmen, FC, Providence, Yankees and Whalers players!
The Whalers won the fall 1931 regular season, but were defeated by the spring champions, the New York Giants. The Whalers had won the first leg 8-3, but in a surprising turnaround for a team lacking many top stars, the Giants rallied to win the 2nd leg 6-0 to take the title. However, the Whalers had a final triumph, as they went on to win the US Open Cup at long last.
Unfortunately, records are sketchy after that. The ASL continued to sink, and arranged spring and fall 1932 seasons. It is not known if the spring season was abandoned early, but the Whalers had at least gotten off to a good start. They did not do well in the fall session, and folded by the end of 1932. The league followed six months later.
This was an unfortunate and abrupt end to a team which had done so well during soccer’s first “golden Age”. Although amateur teams continued to win national championships in Fall River through the late 1940s, New Bedford has yet to enjoy the presence of a major soccer club with which this famous rivalry could be revived.