Heron the forgotten pioneer of U.S. soccer
If he were playing soccer today, Giles Heron might be preparing for Champions League games with Celtic FC. And, once his European career concluded, Heron would be recruited by the Chicago Fire to return to the city where his son was born and where his career was launched.
But when Heron became the first black player to perform for Celtic in 1951, there was no Champions League competition. Heron was accepted by Celtic supporters but, apparently, not the media. When Heron returned to the U.S., there was no demand he be included in World Cup preparations. As soccer's profile lowered, Heron also faded away.
Heron, Haiti-born Joe Gaetjens and Cuban Pito Villanon were among the top scorers in U.S. soccer in the 1940s and '50s. There is almost no written material available regarding the integration of black players into soccer in the U.S. during this time, but there must have been other black players involved in the many semi-professional leagues throughout the country.
In the early years of soccer, administrators and players of direct Northern European descent dominated the game in most countries, including the U.S. By the 1920s, many U.S.-born players were advancing into the professional ranks, Italian and Portuguese names beginning to appear on top teams in the late '20s. An African player, Egyptian inside forward Tewfik Abdallah, starred in the American Soccer League from 1924-28. But the professional game in the U.S. essentially mirrored the British for decades and players of sub-Saharan origins were mostly excluded.
The first native-born superstar soccer player in the U.S. was Adelino "Billy" Gonsalves, whose parents immigrated from the Madeira Islands, a Portuguese possession off the North Africa coast. Gonsalves began playing alongside the mill workers in Fall River, Mass., and emerged as one of the country's best players as a teenager with teams in Boston and Cambridge. At 21, Gonsalves was a key player for the U.S. in the first World Cup in Uruguay and by 1934 had performed in two World Cups and been offered contracts by top clubs in Brazil (Botafogo) and Italy (Lazio), as well as a chance to play for the New York Yankees as a first baseman and pitcher.
Black players of Caribbean descent began to emerge on top U.S. teams in the 1940s. Heron, a Jamaica-born forward, joined the Detroit Wolverines in 1946 and led the North American Soccer Football League with 15 goals in eight games. In 1951, a Celtic scout spotted Heron and the club brought him to Glasgow.
But if Heron broke a color line in the U.S., there does not appear to have been as much conscious resistance to the inclusion of blacks in soccer as in baseball or basketball. Gene Olaff, a U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame goalkeeper who retired after the 1953 season, said he does not even remember Heron. Olaff does recall Villanon, a forward who was among the leading scorers in New York-area leagues, as "one of the top players."
Heron's life does warrant at least a chapter in someone's book, though that would take some concentrated researching. Much of the available information on Heron comes from British sources, and there is nothing current, the trail ending with Heron becoming a referee from 1956-68, according to National Soccer Hall of Fame historian Colin Jose.
Heron served in the Royal Canadian Air Force in World War II, then joined the Detroit team in the startup NASFL. While Heron was playing in Chicago in 1949, he fathered Gil Scott Heron, who would be raised by a grandmother in Tennessee and go on to become an innovative musician. Heron was also an amateur boxer, played cricket and ice hockey, and was a professional photographer. "An Alphabet of the Celts" describes Heron as "a great and supremely interesting human being," which sounds like an understatement.
The book notes Heron's debut with Celtic:
"He has ball control, magnificent headwork and can trap like a veteran took his goal with camera-shutter speed."
But Heron's speed also worked against him -- he was often called offside because linesmen did not believe anyone could be so fast off the mark. Celtic fans supported Heron vocally, but most of his activity was with the reserve team, where he scored 15 times in 15 matches. Heron then played for Third Lanark in Scotland and Kidderminster Harriers in England before returning to Detroit Corinthians in 1954.
Another description of Heron noted he was "lacking resource when challenged" and was "unable to transfer his pugilistic tenacity," according to author Phil Vasili.
"Similar judgments made on the basis of racial stereotypes became commonplace and, as a consequence, black players playing in Britain became dogged with a purely negative image in the eyes of many top coaches and administrators over a number of decades," according to a study by Leicester University's Sir Norman Chester Centre for Football Research.
Certainly, black players would have been regarded in a similar way in the U.S. As in other sports, blacks had to confront preconceptions, though the international nature of soccer would mitigate -- U.S. teams had been facing competition from the Caribbean and Latin America since the '20s, both away and home; those players who would be the opposition one day might become a teammate the next.
Gaetjens grew up in Haiti and played against a touring National Soccer League team from the U.S. in 1941. A few years later, Gaetjens joined the New York Brookhattan club, and by 1950 had scored for the U.S. in a 1-0 win over England in the World Cup match which inspired the movie "The Game of Their Lives."
Like the Jimmy Jean-Louis character in the film, Gaetjens was Haiti-born and was working as a dishwasher in Manhattan, on a part-time basis while attending Columbia University on a scholarship. Gaetjens was well-known in the New York area soccer community and had become the leading scorer on the Brookhattan club, which also featured Villanon. But the film character did not resemble Gaetjens in most other ways; Gaetjens is described as a darting player, an opportunist near the goal, much shorter than the 6-foot-1-inch Jean-Louis. Gaetjens was of Belgian and Frisian Islands heritage on his father's side.
After scoring for the U.S. in Belo Horizonte, Gaetjens went to play in France; but he was so disappointed in his performance with Racing Club he returned part of his salary. Then, after going to Troyes, he returned to Haiti and played for the Haitian national team and became a spokesman for Colgate Palmolive.
Though Gaetjens scored one of the most remarkable goals in U.S. soccer history, his ties to the country ended abruptly. Gaetjens still was playing in Haiti in the early '50s, when a U.S. team went there on tour. Many of his World Cup teammates were on the team and they would later recall that would be the last time they saw Gaetjens. In 1964, Gaetjens was taken by the Tontons Macoute and disappeared. The New York Cosmos toured Haiti in the '70s, enlisting Henry Kissinger to help in bringing Gaetjens' story to light, but without much success; they could not produce a death certificate. I went to Port-au-Prince to write about Gaetjens in 1991 (while also covering the U.S. 2-0 win over Haiti, goals by Dante Washington and Joe-Max Moore, in an Olympic qualifier). I was taken to Fort Dimanche, where Gaetjens had been imprisoned. The prison was deserted, but my "guides'' displayed the cell in which Gaetjens likely was killed.
Afro-Caribbean communities have long kept soccer alive in the U.S. Their players historically have been accepted in the top leagues, and they have excelled. Randy Horton, Bermuda's Minister of Home Affairs, and Trinidadians Warren Archibald, Steve David and Stern John became leading scorers in the NASL and MLS. Many have become successful collegiate coaches but no black head coaches have been hired in the MLS. In fact, who could have predicted that a predominantly black ownership group (D.C. United) would emerge before a black head coach in the MLS?
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.
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