In early 1932, a 73-year-old Detroiter called F.J. Deall partnered with Free Press writer Arthur Sale to bring a forgotten piece of Detroit sports history to light. The focus of the story was this 1909 photograph of Club Secretary F.J. Deall, and Detroit’s “First Organized Soccer Team”, Sons of St. George Football Club. To both F.J. Deal and Arthur Sale, the Michigan soccer community owes a great deal of gratitude. Were it not for their encounter in 1932, the fate of the Sons of St. George might have been lost to history.
Contemporary sources tell us the Sons of St. George Football Club was first organized for the 1908 spring season by the Sons of St. George Society of Detroit. Despite Sale’s claim in his 1932 article on the Saints, the Sons of St. George were not, in fact, the first organized team in Detroit. The truth is that association football had a long history in Southeast Michigan dating back at least to the 1870s. Moreover, several teams and leagues had been organized in the decades preceding the Saints founding, like Caledonia & Diamonds F.C. (c. 1895), Detroit A.C. (c. 1889), and the Detroit College of Medicine (c. 1898).
These teams were generally composed of English, Scots, and Irish immigrants who flocked to the cosmopolitan offerings of Detroit and Southwestern Ontario. Like British diaspora all over the world, these immigrants were extremely fond of football and swiftly took to organizing clubs, individual matches, and eventually whole leagues in their new home.
In the early Detroit leagues, the top clubs were organized primarily around nationality and occupation. This was not always strictly enforced and many clubs fielded players of different nationalities including Sons of St. George. Three clubs in Detroit did strictly enforce nationality requirements; Caledonians and All-Scots fielded only Scots, and Celtic F.C. fielded only Irish. The Saints, if you couldn’t guess, were organized around English identity. The group that founded the club, The Sons of St. George Society, was a fraternal order named after the patron saint of England, St. George. The Society was formed to aid, advise, and entertain English immigrants in Detroit. Mutual aid societies, like the Sons of St. George Society, were and still are, an invaluable resource for immigrants arriving in the United States. If you’re familiar with the music venue St. Andrews Hall on Congress Street, you might be surprised to know that it was originally home to a similar body for Scottish immigrants called the St. Andrew’s Society of Detroit.
Following minimal success in three seasons in the Detroit & District Football League, the Saints jumped ship for the upstart Michigan State Soccer League at the beginning of the 1911-1912 season. They struggled in their first two seasons in the State League, and eventually bottomed out at eleventh in a twelve team table at the end of the 1912-1913 campaign. The following year, the MSSL split into two divisions with promotion and relegation instituted. Based on their dismal performance the year prior, the Saints found themselves in the newly created second division of the MSSL. They seized on this opportunity, finishing top of the second division in the 1913-14 season and gaining promotion to the first division. The following year the Saints rode the promotion momentum all the way to the top of the MSSL’s first division and lifted the first piece of silverware in their history. As a result of this finish, the Sons of St. George would even advance to the second round of the 1915 U.S. Challenge Cup, what is now known as the U.S. Open Cup.
Sadly, this would prove to be the clubs first and only major success. In the years that followed, both the Sons of St. George and the Michigan State Soccer League itself struggled to stay afloat. The Saints would struggle through two more mid-table seasons in the MSSL before falling off the historical record in late 1917 along with many of their peers.
So what became of the Sons of St. George and the other lost clubs of the State League? I think it’s best described by the most notable alumnus of the Sons of St. George, United States Soccer Hall of Fame inductee George Healey. Healey was the President of the United States Football Association, the predecessor to the United States Soccer Federation, for four terms from 1919 to 1923. Before that, Healey served as president from 1913 to 1919 of the Michigan State Soccer Association, which he helped to found. In his report on Michigan to Spalding’s 1917-1918 Soccer Guide, Healey says:
“Most of Michigan’s soccer centers are so close to the border that the game here suffered greatly through loss of men who joined the Canadian ranks before the United States entered the European fracas. Voluntary enlistment and the national draft have made great inroads on our playing material and have taken hundreds of the keen supporters of the game from our cities. Among those who went with the Canadian forces, many have heard the final whistle: many others are back with us, no longer able to play, but no less interested in the grand old game.“
If you’re a history buff you’ll know that in June 1914, a fellow named Gavrilo Princip killed the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne in Sarajevo, and set in motion the conflict that escalated into the First World War. In August 1914, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland entered the war and brought with it the power of the Empire. British Dominions, like Canada, were automatically drawn into the conflict and immediately began recruiting young men to bolster their armed forces. Although the Sons of St. George and many of their contemporaries would manage to struggle on for years, this action was the death knell for their club. In a cruel bit of irony, the very Britishness that was so beneficial to early Detroit leagues and their clubs would prove to be its undoing.
At the outbreak of the war the Sons of St. George's Club was disbanded, and a majority of the players crossed to Canada and went overseas with the Canadian contingent. The club was eventually able to reorganize and operate for several more years thanks to reserve players and openness to non-English players. Other clubs, like the All-Scots, were almost immediately forced to relax their nationality requirements. In September 1914, the Free Press wrote about the raising of the ban:
”War is certainly what General Sherman said it was for the All-Scots. The soccer combination which has been several times champion of the Michigan State Soccer league Is now sadly depleted through the unpleasantness now racing across the water...Manager Whigham has decided to raise the ban during the present crisis and extend an invitation to soccer players of all nationalities to join the All-Scots.“
The Michigan State Soccer League really began to feel the negative side effects in the 1915-1916 season. George Healey’s annual report on Michigan soccer to Spalding’s 1916-1917 Soccer Guide sheds some light on the leagues decline. He writes:
“As player after player answered the call to duty, our teams had to be reconstructed several times. The Detroit League schedule was unfinished, although National F.C. and Caledonia F.C. were tied for first place at the premature wind-up... In the semi-finals, one team, the Rising Star F.C., included nine men who had received special leave from the Canadian army to participate, that number from the one club having enlisted after the first round was played. To some degree, this same condition is obtained with all of our clubs. Gates naturally suffered likewise.”
Their resolve was valiant, but the Sons of St. George would not be able to weather all that was coming at them. Struggles to field full squads, attract spectators and find a permanent ground crippled the club. When the United States entered the War in 1917, many of those who hadn’t already enlisted with the Canadian forces, volunteered or were drafted into the American forces, and the nation's collective attention turned away from the sport and towards the greatest conflict then known to man.
In the years that followed the Great War, enthusiasm for association football would again build to a fever pitch only to be cut down once more by the Great Depression. When F.J. Deal and Arthur Sale first published their piece in 1932, they couldn’t have known that the football in the United States was on the precipice of its greatest dark age, and the sport would slip into obscurity amongst the American masses for the better part of a century. Nor could they have known that their story would survive that dark age, be digitized by some blessed archivist, and then reemerge 87 years later in the midst of a Detroit soccer renaissance.
And although George Healey, Arthur Sale, and F.J. Deal couldn’t have predicted the future of the game in America, they were decidedly optimistic about it.One of the things that struck me most when researching this piece was the seemingly universal optimism about the future of the beautiful game from those who love it. Healey always expressed a bright outlook on football’s ability to bring people together, even in the face of declining gates and folding teams. Deall and his peers who suffered the loss of their friends, their club, and their league, remained active and supportive of the Detroit football community well into old age. These guys truly believed in the power of the football, and in the end I think they were right to be optimistic. After only about 150 years of ups and downs, today is absolutely the greatest time in history to be a fan of the beautiful game in Michigan. The state is home to some of the most inclusive and innovative soccer communities in America, and several clubs at the forefront of the grassroots movement call Michigan home. I think it’s safe to say that the future of football in the Great Lakes State looks brighter than ever, but maybe I’m just being optimistic.
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Sons of St. George Photo
Detroit Free Press
Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, United States of America
Sun, Jan 17, 1932 · Page 46
Detroit College of Medicine Photo
Detroit Free Press
Detroit, Wayne, Michigan, United States of America
Sun, Dec 18, 1898 · Page 34
1915 Michigan State Soccer League Table
Spalding's Foot Ball Guide 1914-1915 edition
George Healey Portrait
Spalding's Foot Ball Guide 1921-1922 edition
British Recruitment Poster
Myers, Lloyd, Artist. Britishers, you're needed--Come across now / Lloyd Myers. United States, 1917. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2001700113/.
1916 Michigan State Soccer League Table
Spalding's Foot Ball Guide 1915-1916 edition
If you're interested in seeing a full-text version of the original Arthur Sale article, you can read it here.