James and George Brown: the men who changed the face of US soccer

James and George Brown: the men who changed the face of US soccer

WHO IS THE ONLY SCOTSMAN TO SCORE IN A WORLD CUP SEMI-FINAL? It wasn’t Kenny Dalglish, who despite his God-given talent could never take his country past the group stages. Nor was it Jimmy Johnstone; for all his jinking majesty, the Celtic legend fell at the very same hurdle. 

James Brown was born in Kilmarnock in 1908, the eldest son of 10 children. His father, like thousands of others in Scotland, served in the trenches of the First World War. When the conflict ended, he returned home to a series of odd jobs and the crushing responsibilities of family life. Overcome by his surroundings, he deserted his family to join his brother in Westfield, New Jersey. 

Whilst the family struggled without their father, James coped the only way he could, combining his love of football and golf with a trade as an apprentice riveter in Troon shipyard. In 1927, however, he decided that he needed answers. He travelled to America to find his father and reconcile their relationship. 

He would find him that November. They reconciled, but too much had happened to ever fully smooth over the relationship. While staying with his uncle in Westfield, he found a job in a metal shop factory, putting his riveting skills to good use and helping revamp and reorganise the production line. It was there, in Plainfield, New Jersey, that he would finish long shifts by going to watch the local football club play. A tall teenager with deceptively good pace, it was only a matter of time before he was asked to join the team. 

Plainfield were ensconced in the local amateur league and would incorporate staff from cruise liners who had time to kill before heading back over the pond. Those who were lucky enough to see Brown make his debut would witness him score four, and another on his second appearance. Even the most uneducated of observers realised that Plainfield had a unique talent on their hands. 

It wasn’t long before Brown was signed by another local outfit, Bayonne Rovers, as a replacement for Henry ‘Razzo’ Carroll who had just been selected for the USA at the Amsterdam Olympics. His outstanding form continued, prompting Newark Steelers to take a punt. 

Brown was featured for the Giants in a local magazine

Unfortunately for the young Scotsman, his signing would coincide with the 1927 ‘Soccer Wars’. The American Soccer League (ASL) was facing a mass mutiny of its teams, who had grown exasperated at the congested fixture lists and gerrymandering between it and its competitor, the United States Football Association (USFA). In 1928, the Newark Steelers, alongside Bethlehem Steel and the New York Giants, defied an ASL ban to participate in the National Challenge Cup, a USFA competition. In response, they were banned from the league, being forced to play in local semi-professional championships.   

If the chaos off the pitch was affecting Brown, he didn’t show it. In 1929, his goals prompted one of the biggest teams on the East Coast, the New York Giants, into signing him. There, he would form a prolific partnership with namesake Davey Brown. Together they could become known as the ‘Brown Bombers’, tearing the Eastern Seaboard asunder with their repertoire of goals and tricks. 

Thirteen goals in 26 Giants appearances prompted the interest of the selectors for the 1930 World Cup. Brown, alongside fellow all-stars Seamus O’Brien and Archie Stark, was invited to try out. He played well, but his case was helped when his two colleagues failed to secure the months’ leave from their employers necessary to attend the tournament. He scored two goals during the tryouts and, on 13 June 1930, he joined the rest of the USA squad as they set sail from Hoboken for the first ever World Cup in Uruguay. 

It was a calculated move by coach Robert Millar. Brown, despite living in the country for close to three years, wasn’t yet a citizen. Two days after the team had set sail, however, he received the news he’d been hoping for. The Bronx Court had ratified his citizenship. 

After travelling to America for the gravest of reasons, Brown had found himself enjoying his new life. At the time, football in America was subsidised by large corporations, who saw value in promoting the sport so enjoyed by the armies of immigrants populating their factories. Brown was an eligible bachelor, well-off in the world’s greatest city, making $50 a match. As he headed to Montevideo, he couldn’t have envisaged his life being any better. 

The USA was drawn into a group alongside Paraguay and Belgium. The latter outfit had been one of the few European teams to make the prohibitive journey across the Atlantic. But as they faced the American squad, they might wish they hadn’t of bothered. 

The 1930 World Cup team

Bert Patenaude scored four – including the first hat-trick in World Cup history – as Paraguay and Belgium were blown apart 2-0 and 3-0 respectively. In the Belgium game, Brown had starred on the right-hand side, assisting one of Patenaude’s goals. His dominant wing play earned him the praise of the American journalists, but it was the semi-final that would make all the headlines back home. 

The US were paired against Argentina, who had already garnered a reputation as one of South America’s most uncompromising teams. What followed was 90 minutes of pure skulduggery from La Albiceleste, as they resolved to throw clumps of dirt into the faces of the American players. Goalkeeper Jimmy Douglas was taken out by Argentine forwards early on, left effectively playing on one leg for the entire match. Half-back Andy Auld had several of his teeth knocked out, whilst Ralph Tracey had his leg broken. In a game where no substitutions were allowed, Tracey even continued on the pitch, hobbling around gamefully as the Argentines poked and prodded.    

Despite their Machiavellian tactics, the South Americans went in at half time just a goal ahead. But with a lame-duck defender and goalkeeper on the pitch, Guillermo Stábile and Carlos Peucelle soon ran riot after break, scoring five more. With the Americans about to pack their bags, James Brown popped up in the 92nd minute to become the first – and to date, the only – Scotsman/American to score in a World Cup semi-final. It was just reward for a tournament in which he had shown the range of his ability, but the Americans weren’t the only ones who had awakened to his talents. 

As the US departed South America, Brown was linked with several European clubs. Brown, however, was happy in New York, but after playing and scoring for another year with the Giants, the league started to crumble. The Wall Street crash of 1929 put paid to the glitz and profligacy of the corporate-funded league. As clubs folded and fixtures went unfulfilled, Brown joined the rising exodus of talent. 

The secretary of the US federation, Mr Hollywood, would help grease the wheels, recommending Brown to the board of Manchester United. Brown’s uncle by marriage, meanwhile, happened to be the Partick Thistle captain Alex Lambie. Hearing that his nephew was returning home, Lambie put in a good word to his coach about the World Cup bronze-medallist who would soon be a free agent. 

As Brown boarded the Caledonia Cruiser, a number of British clubs had made their interest known. Scott Duncan, the newly appointed secretary-manager of United, was just one of a number of coaches waiting on the dockside to sign him up as soon as he disembarked. 

Newspapers welcomed Brown to Manchester

Duncan, dismayed by the army of coaches waiting eagerly at the jetty, displayed the kind of cunning tactics that United would eventually be renowned for. Whilst the crowd waited on the pier, he rented a local tugboat, going out to meet the ship while it was still at sea. Brown had just gone in to a steward’s cabin with the manager of Partick Thistle to discuss terms when Duncan had boarded. Two minutes later, he was walking into the captain’s cabin with the manager of Manchester United. When the boat eventually docked, he walked down the gangplank as a signed and sealed Red Devil. 

United fans wouldn’t have to wait long to be convinced by their new signing, with Brown scoring direct from a corner against Grimsby on his debut. It wasn’t a fluke. For years he had stayed behind in training, perfecting the skill in the wind, snow and rain of the East Coast. Fans and the media were wowed alike, with cries of “Give it to Jim!” ringing out every time a free-kick or corner was given in the opposition half. 

Despite a glorious start, it wouldn’t be long before Brown’s dream faded. He had been a devoted advocate of worker’s rights ever since his days as an apprentice in Troon, and had continued his union activities in the States. Like any player, he was paid a meagre wage whilst club owners profited handsomely from his talents. When he finished his first season as second top scorer, he voiced his opinion about the contract and wage conditions players were subjected to. 

The request was greeted disdainfully by management. Brown was placed in the reserves almost immediately, a troublemaker forced to learn a hard lesson. Despite his obvious talent, he would never regain his regular place in the starting line-up. He resolved to leave the club, but not before he had scored the winning goal against City in the Manchester Cup final of 1934. 

Brentford were only too happy to snap up a man who had performed so ably on the grandest stage. Despite playing more regularly, however, he failed to settle in London, alternating between glorious and indifferent displays with unnerving consistency. Unable to secure a place in the first team, he was relegated to the reserves once more, where he scored an astonishing 53 goals in just 74 games as his team won the 1934/35 Challenge Cup. By September 1936, however, his union tendencies let themselves known once more, and he was dispatched to Tottenham for a hefty sum of £1,200.   

Brown would manage just four games for the first team before finding himself in the reserves at a third club. He was prolific again, scoring 21 goals in 30 games. By now, his reputation as a laconic genius was iron-cast. His talent was unquestionable, but too often he went missing in games and often lacked the fitness required to contribute effectively. In 1937, he was again placed on the transfer list. 

Brown at Tottenham

Guildford City took him to the Southern Football League for £750. Brown would repay their faith almost immediately. Over his two seasons there, Brown scored 148 goals in 150 games and helped the club win the Southern League title in 1938. The following year, he recorded five hat-tricks, and seven goals (six of them headers) in one game against Exeter City – a record that still stands today at Guildford. 

Brown would celebrate his victory with his younger brother Tom, who had just signed with league rivals Ipswich. Despite top-scoring again the next year, Guildford would be locked in another title race with their rivals Colchester. The U’s had faced Tom Brown’s Ipswich in one of their penultimate fixtures, but unfortunately he couldn’t do his elder sibling any favours as Colchester secured victory and the Championship by just one point. 

In 1939, the Second World War put a halt on competitive football. By then, Brown’s litany of injuries had begun to catch up with him, and he was advised by his doctors to retire on medical grounds. In 1940, with his football career finished, he returned to the Troon shipyard to help the war effort.    

Brown, alongside two of his brothers, was given a deferment by the government, who felt that his riveting skills would be a more productive way to contribute to the worsening conflict. As he worked long hours in the yard, however, the brothers still found time to play football and golf, with Brown lining out for local outfit Clyde FC. He played two games for the side, scoring direct from a corner after just 90 seconds on his debut. 

Before he left London, Brown had placed all of his belongings into storage, including most of his memorabilia from the 1930 World Cup. As London buckled under the Blitz, however, all of it was destroyed, except for a few choice items. His 1930 World Cup shorts, his manager’s Report, and his medal were miraculously salvaged, as well as a team photo. 

As the Brown brothers continued their work in the shipyards, James’ union proclivities would once again prove his downfall. Hearing that workers at a different shipyard were getting twice the pay, Brown confronted the foreman – who just happened to be his uncle by marriage – and was told in no uncertain times that a pay rise would not be forthcoming. Brown left the yard immediately, convincing his brothers to down tools as they pitched a tent outside the factory. 

Brown in later years, pictured as Brunswick coach

If they thought that the shipyard would cave to their demands, they were wrong. The Brown brothers’ war exemptions were torn up. One of them enlisted into the merchant navy, while another was assigned to the commandos to help the resistance against the Japanese in China. James, in a cruel twist of fate, was given a further exemption from conflict, courtesy of two busted eardrums that he had sustained whilst working in the deafening noise of the shipyard. 

After struggling to find work, further tragedy awaited the Brown family. After his eldest son passed away from tuberculosis in 1947, James decided his family needed a clean break. They resolved to start a new life in America, taking their young son George and daughter Marilyn, who celebrated her one-year birthday on the day of the funeral, with them. 

After settling in Connecticut, Brown secured a job as the coach of the Greenwich High School football team, but it wasn’t before he made one last attempt at a playing comeback. By the time he made his only appearance for the Brooklyn Hispano, Brown’s heavy smoking habit was developing into emphysema.

Despite skinning his opponent on countless occasions, his inability to run or breathe meant he struggled to get away from the defender marking him. At half-time, as he made his way to the bench, a league official tapped him on the shoulder. “I’ve been watching you,” said the old man who’d asked for his name. “You keep it up, you’ve a great career ahead of you.” It was at that moment, aged 40 and lungs on fire, that Brown decided to retire. 

As he got to grips with his new career, Brown resolved to improve the standard of football in Connecticut. Forming a new team called Greenport United, he revitalised the local league, helping his team qualify for regional and national cup competitions as player-coach. He even filled in as goalkeeper, and the reward for his work would arrive when he managed to share the same pitch with his young son. 

George Brown was a short, stocky teenager, whose low centre of gravity combined well with a ferocious shot. He became Greenwich High’s top scorer, joining his father at Greenport United, where his ability attracted the attention of league outfit the New York Americans. After three matches with the Americans however, George would be released, the myopic coaches deeming him too small to compete at the highest level. Undeterred, and showing the same determination so espoused by his father, Brown joined the NY German-Hungarians.   

James and a young George

By now, James Brown’s sterling work had landed him a job as varsity soccer coach in Greenwich, Connecticut for the prestigious Brunswick Academy – Peter Fonda and the Winklevoss twins are just some of its glittering alumni. But he still found time to watch his son take his first steps in the professional league, watching him win three league titles and an MVP award.

George, discarded in New York the previous year, became top scorer in two of his first three seasons, becoming the creative hub of the German Hungarians team. With his father offering tactical instructions from the sidelines, the sky was the limit for the latest, unmistakable Brown talent. 

In 1957, George would have his first taste of celebrity. Drafted to appear in the All-Star game against Israel’s Hapoel Tel Aviv at Ebbets Field, the teams were led out by Marilyn Monroe, who waved seductively at the crowds as the players travelled behind her agog. At half-time, the crowds would be entertained by none other than Sammy Davis Jr. 

It would be as good as it got for George, however, in a year he’d also trained with Celtic whilst on vacation. He returned just in time for a 1958 World Cup qualifier against Mexico at the Azteca, only to be knocked out cold as his teammates suffered a 6-0 rout. The headline ‘Knockout Brown’ made most of the front pages, with a picture of him unconscious as he was attended to by medical staff. 

Nevertheless, in 1959 he was selected for the US squad for the Pan-American Games in Chicago, but a longstanding cartilage problem meant he could only watch as his teammates secured the bronze medal. By the time he was drafted into the army in Indiana in 1959, his injuries had worsened. Despite combining his active services with intermittent appearances for the Chicago Red Lions, his career was effectively over. 

Still, when one door closes, another opens. At first, Brown followed his father into coaching, taking the reins at his former high school team for a season before accepting a scholarship at Bridgeport University. There, he pursued a degree in Psychology, eventually gaining a Masters from Columbia before going to work for Exxon Mobil in Houston. 

George Brown

Whilst deployed in Texas, Brown continued to pursue his love of football, forming a ‘Dad’s Club’ where the children of his colleagues could get together to play pick-up games with his own two sons, James and David, and daughter Sharon. His work with the global oil giant took him to far-flung corners of the globe, but wherever he went, a football followed. 

After retiring from Exxon, George and his wife moved to Nova Scotia to run a bed and breakfast. He still found time for the game, though, taking charge of the local high school team and securing a deal with TV giants Eurosport to supply balls, kits and nets. Unsurprisingly, they won the State Championship under his tutelage. 

In the 1980s, George joined the New Jersey refereeing committee, working with youth referees to help mould and train a generation of American match officials. He became an influential member of the US soccer community, working closely with Al Colone at the US Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta, New York. 

James Brown had already been inducted into the Hall Fame in 1986, but it was his son who, after his own induction in 1995, would become a driving force of the organisation. Working alongside another Hall of Famer and dear friend in Gene Olaff, Brown was elected to the board in 2001, where he created and chaired the Selection Policy Committee. Here, George recalibrated the selection criteria for the Hall, making selection possible for players who had hitherto been denied a place. Using a lifetime of business and organisational acumen, George helped build a new headquarters. But the work of his wife Margaret was equally crucial. 

‘Peg’, as she was known to her family and friends, had known nothing about soccer until 1962. She had been a nurse before retiring with her husband to Canada, but in 1999 she joined George at the Hall of Fame to become the volunteer archive manager. Peg overhauled the organisation’s storage and retention practices, taking sole responsibility for the archival and maintenance of its 80,000 pieces of memorabilia, indexing the contents of all 900 boxes one by one. Working full-time at the hall between 2003 and 2008, she collaborated with historians and authors to research and catalogue the history of American soccer, securing a treasure trove of knowledge for future generations. Together, George and Peg worked tirelessly to promote American soccer’s heritage, and all without recompense. 

George Brown joined the Hall of Fame

It was the ‘Liars’ Retreat’ for which George would become best-loved. As new inductees were welcomed to into the Hall of Fame every year, George convened parties at his home, where past hall-of-famers and new recruits could meet and exchange stories. For George’s young son, it was an eye-opening experience, with the likes of Franz Beckenbauer, Ricky Davis and Bogie Bogećević idling contentedly in his kitchen. Shep Messing, Charlie Chastain, Julie Foudy and Mia Hamm would all be inducted under George’s stewardship as interim president, before he himself was honoured with entry in 1995. 

It was an extremely proud moment as Jim and George became the first and only father-son inductees in the player category. George was most proud, however, of the work he did to open up the selection criteria. In doing so, he allowed US soccer to provide recognition for those individuals who had made significant contributions to the game in his country.

In 2010, he was welcomed onto the field at half-time during a friendly game between the US and Brazil at Meadowlands. Alongside his fellow inductees, he was given a resounding wave of applause by 80,000 grateful spectators. 

As it did with so many, the 2008 Wall Street crash decimated the Hall of Fame business. All of its items and memorabilia have been placed in storage, but there are plans afoot to have it put on display in a new 40,000-square-foot exhibit at Dallas FC. The new, multi-sensory exhibition is being well thought out, with a combination of interactive and physical exhibit space. George’s son, James, is working alongside Hall of Fame historians and others passionate about the history of soccer by devoting himself to creating an exhibition that honours his family’s contribution to the American game.

And what a contribution it was. Three generations of the Brown family are now woven into their country’s footballing heritage, and it all started with a teenager travelling across an ocean in search of his father. Instead, he found destiny, and a legacy that deserves to be celebrated across the United States and beyond 

By Christopher Weir  

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