WHAT with all the talk about the record-smashing Baltimore Orioles and the white-knuckle business of waiting for a football franchise, many think that Baltimore is a baseball or football town. "No way," says Eugene Ringsdorf. "Going way back, Baltimore always was, and still is, a soccer town."
By that Mr. Ringsdorf means that in his view more Baltimore kids play soccer than play either baseball or football -- always have, probably always will. It's hard to know for sure, of course, but Mr. Ringsdorf makes a case.
As far back as 1918 and into the 1950s, Baltimore enjoyed the national reputation as the largest municipal center for soccer in America. The young men who brought Baltimore that reputation came off the playing fields of East Baltimore. They were the sons and grandsons of the Italians, Germans, Poles and Ukrainians who settled those communities. "Those kids start out life kicking a can down Baltimore Street no later than age 6! Pretty soon they graduate to the real thing and get better and better from there!" says Mr. Ringsdorf.
He ought to know. He is 80 years old and played soccer well into his 40s. He's also past president of the U.S. Soccer League. Some of the guys he played soccer with are still around, in their 70s and 80s and still talking soccer -- Nick Ringsdorf, George Kautsch, Eddie O'Brien, John Hart, Tommy Amhrein, Joe Karl, Nick Kropfelder. They are the veterans of the Lake Soccer Club and the Collington Avenue Soccer Club and the Clifton Soccer Club, among others.
But back to the 1920s.
Responding to the widespread interest in the game, especially in East Baltimore, the old Playground Athletic League (forerunner of today's Department of Recreation and Parks) organized soccer leagues throughout the area. The force behind it was Harold Callowhill, then Playground Athletic League director. At one time there were more than 14 leagues of eight teams each in Baltimore, making 112 competing soccer teams.
Into the 1950s there was so much interest in soccer in Baltimore that The Evening Sun hired Johnny Neun to cover soccer exclusively -- and he stayed busy.
"Soccer then," recalls Bernard Reif, who played in East Baltimore from 1936 through 1958, was all outdoor soccer. We had no indoor soccer, which is what the Blast and the Spirits play. We played in rain and snow and ice. Often snow concealed the lines on the field. There were no continuous re-substitutions. You were allowed only one. When a player was injured and could not be substituted for, he stayed in the game until he couldn't go on. I remember a team that won with only seven players."
The teams were not public or private school teams playing on public or private school fields. They were organized across school types and across neighborhoods. There were soccer games going on in just about every city park -- Patterson, Carroll, Clifton -- and on a popular field no longer in existence, Canton Oval, on O'Donnell Street.
Old-timers say the game today is not as rough as it used to be. Mr. Ringsdorf says, "Many a game today is called because of bad weather. But in the old days of Baltimore soccer, the game went on no matter what."
Today, if you listen to the Ringsdorfs and the Reifs and all of the guys in the Old-Timers Soccer Club, it's still the same in East Baltimore: Soccer is the name of the game. Today, as they see it, most every 6-year-old kid in Highlandtown is kicking a can down the street, dreaming it's a soccer ball -- and that he's about to deposit it in the net for the winning score.