“Communist Football” tells the story of Communist, workers, and leftist soccer competition in Chicago during the 1920s and 1930s. The essay is part of Gabe Logan’s 2019 history, The Early Years of Chicago Soccer, 1887-1939, a comprehensive and deeply researched history of amateur and professional soccer in Chicago during the early days of the sport.
Worker initiated sport movements developed in Europe during the nineteenth century. By the 1920s several European countries had massive memberships that fostered worker organized championships and worker Olympics. As immigration waves carried these worker athletes to Chicago, they sought to reconstruct this recreation pattern. Consequently, worker led athletics took their place alongside track and field, gymnastics, soccer, and other sports.1
The earliest Chicago worker soccer teams emerged from the Czech, Hungarian and German clubs. The long-lived Czech-organized team, Olympia F. C., began as a worker team. In 1914, Czech laborers from the Kosatka Tailor Firm organized a neighborhood side in conjunction with a labor-athletic union located in “Czech California,” or the Lawndale neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. Its members initially ascribed to strict amateurism as a tenant of worker empowerment and only played in the Checo League.
Olympia F. C. attributed “labor solidarity” as a major reason for its longevity. In 1924, a second soccer club, the Karl Liebknecht Workers team organized from the city’s German and Hungarian Branch. This team, named in honor of the German communist, demonstrated a call back to the founding immigrants’ political vision. They informally referred to themselves as the Workers and competed for over a decade in the Chicago soccer leagues.
In 1927, other left wing athletic clubs comprised of Socialist, Communist, and Wobblies organized the national Labor Sport Union (LSU), which sought to emulate worker sport confederacies in Europe. Shortly after the LSU’s founding, the CPUSA (Communist Party USA) gained control of the organization, expelled the other groups, and affiliated it with Moscow’s Red Sport International (RSI). The CPUSA envisioned the LSU as an athletic tool to recruit and train new members for the Communist Party. It also vigorously condemned the religious and class structure elements of the YMCA, CYO, NCAA, and AAU. By contrast, the CPUSA considered sport an activity for the masses rather than only for the financial elite or overly skilled players. Further, and in keeping with the party line, the LSU condemned the athletic discrimination of minority athletes. The LSU’s solution called for the promotion of physical and intellectual development and inclusion for all. 2
The LSU endorsed many sports that reflected the ethnic makeup of their membership. The Finnish-American athletic clubs, Turnvereins, and Sokols contributed the largest athletic contingencies and facilities, but soccer proved to be an athletic flagship. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, LSU communist soccer leagues organized in New York, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Detroit. These collective bodies became the Workers’ Soccer Association (WSA). The Chicago WSA commenced play in 1928.3
Joseph Sauser was Chicago’s WSA secretary. He immigrated to the city in 1924 and kicked for the Chicago Workers. He organized the league along political lines, procured playing facilities in the parks, and established a referee school for the teams. Two years later, the league expanded to thirteen teams and divided into A and B divisions, including the out-of-town Rockford team. The team names, reflect its immigrant sponsors. There was the Swedish club’s Linnea team, Fichte Rams emerged from the Germans, Chicago’s Mexican community organized Necaxa S.C., and the Italian workers played for Roma. Other teams’ names, such as the Workers All, Free Players, Red Sparks, and Workers’ Sport, further attested to the political ideology of the league.4
The LSU’s most ambitious athletic endeavor was the 1932 Chicago counter-Olympics. These games protested the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, which the LSU considered exclusionary toward minority and poor athletes. The LSU also condemned the Olympic Committee’s refusal to invite Soviet athletes and to protest the continuing incarceration of San Francisco labor activist Tom Mooney, who the LSU characterized as a “labor martyr,” imprisoned on a “universally acknowledged” frame-up.5
The counter-Olympic committee selected Chicago as the host site, to honor the city’s founding of the CPUSA. After securing Loyola’s athletic facilities, then losing them because of donor protest, the counter-Olympics moved to the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field. Due to poor coordination and limited publication, attendance and athletic participation was meagre. Newspaper reports placed the number of spectators between 2,000-5,000, while the athletes numbered around 200-400. The athletic contests mostly featured track and field events that prominently included minority and women athletes. However, soccer also played an important role at the games.6
During the counter-Olympics early planning stages, the WSA recognized that the Los Angeles organizers for the Xth Olympiad would not include soccer due to the economic depression and questions of amateurism. This Olympic omission inspired FIFA President, Jules Rimet, to organize the World Cup, an international soccer tournament, which took place in 1930. It served as a stand-alone soccer competition that circumvented the amateur question by inviting each country to field a national team. The WSA saw the Olympic soccer omission as an excellent opportunity.7
The WSA organized a counter-Olympic Soccer Committee. They arranged for a knockout tournament in New York where the top team represented the region at the counter-Olympics. Chicago’s WSA organized the Midwest and urged that the counter-Olympics reach out to non-communist soccer teams in Chicago and beyond. Chicago’s Secretary Joseph Sauser, believed that the United States Football Association (USFA) was on the verge of bankruptcy and the upcoming tournament would be an excellent opportunity to garner additional teams and fans for the WSA.8
Two months before the Los Angeles and Chicago games, the WSA heeded Sauser’s advice and issued an invitation to all amateur soccer leagues and clubs. It denounced the USFA’s decision to promote professional rather than amateur soccer and scolded the USFA for accepting the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) decision to drop soccer from the Xth Olympiad. The WSA welcomed and encouraged all amateur clubs and players to participate at the counter-Olympics Soccer Championship. The committee set the entry fee at $3.00 per team, arranged for officials free of charge, provided an on-site medical physician, and offered to pay for the championship teams’ travel to the Chicago final.9
Much like the counter-Olympics in general, the soccer tournament proved to be a scaled down affair. It is doubtful how many of the communist broadsides that announced the tournament went beyond the WSA’s readership. Nonetheless, New York’s Red Sparks earned the right to represent the East, while Chicago’s Englewood team represented the West. The prize was the Tom Mooney Trophy. The final proved to be a well-contested match that ended in a 3-3 draw. This necessitated a “play off” game that the Red Sparks won 2-0.10
The counter-Olympics soccer tournament emboldened WSA officials to continue a national communist soccer championship in 1934 and 1935, the final years of the WSA’s existence. These latter matches were often raucous affairs complete with political speeches, messages, music, spectators, and exciting soccer. Each region’s teams contested for the Tom Mooney Open Cup Championship, which carried over from the Chicago games. Unfortunately, for the Chicago WSA its regional champion Linnea, only advanced to the semis before losing both years to the stronger Detroit side.11
The WSA ceased operations in late 1935 when the RSI instructed its athletic clubs to form a “popular front” alliance with other left wing sporting bodies. Moscow hoped this collective voice would stem the growing influence of Mussolini’s Fascism, Hitler’s Nazism, and engender an athletic protest against the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Consequently, the LSU became part of the Workers Sport League of America. Many of Chicago’s WSA teams such as Fichte, the Workers, Linnea, and Necaxa simply joined the steady International Soccer League (ISL), a local Chicago league of ethnic clubs that had been around since 1920.12 Here they became one of many ethnic soccer clubs, albeit with a political bent, that carried Chicago soccer through the waning years of the decade.13
1. Mark Naison, “Lefties and Righties: The Communist Party and Sports During the Great Depression,” in Sport in America: New Historical Perspectives, ed. Donald Spivey (Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1985), 129-135. Arnd Kruger, “The German Way of Worker Sport,” in The Story of Worker Sport, Arnd Kruger and James Riordan, eds. (Champaign, IL.: Human Kinetics, 1996), 17-18. Reinhard Krammer, “Austria: ‘New Times Are With Us,’” in The Story of Worker Sport, 91-93. Robert F. Wheeler, “Organized Sport and Organized Labour: The Workers’ Sports Movement,” Journal of Contemporary History, 13:2 (1978): 200-201.
2. Twenty Years of Olympia F.C., “From Memories,” 12, 14, 35. Young Worker, “Communist Youth Beat Intern’l Soccer Champs,” January 1, 1924, 2;
3. William J. Baker, “Muscular Marxism and the Chicago Counter-Olympics of 1932,” in Stephen Pope, ed., The New American Sport History (Urbana, University of Illinois, 1997), 285-288. Naison, “Lefties and Righties,” 131-135. Young Worker, “Sports and Working Class Youth, part one,” April 18, 1925, 4; “American Workers Must Fight for Sport Organization of their Class, part two,” April 25, 1925, 2; “Manifest of the Red Sport International,” May 9, 1925,
4. Naison, “Lefties and Righties,” 131. Young Worker, “Workers Soccer League Formed in New York,” October 1, 1927, 3; “Sport Union is Launched in N.Y.” February 15, 1928, 3; “Metro Worker Soccer League Played 250 Games this Season,” April 1, 1928, 5; “Strong Section of Labor Sports Union in Detroit,” May 1, 1928, 2; “Pittsburgh Organizes Soccer League,” September 28, 1931, sports page; “Chi Athletes Wake Up Record Shows Activity,” December 31, 1931, sports page; “New Soccer League Formed in Detroit,” and “Philly Reorganizes Soccer League,” November 21, 1933, 8; “Nat’l Labor Soccer Assn Formed,” July 17, 1934, 12; Hatfield, History of Soccer in Greater Cleveland, 186. Chicago Tribune, “Plan New Soccer League,” August 11, 1928, 16.
5. See, Files of the Communist Party of the USA in the Comintern Library, Russian State Archive of Social and Political History (RGSPAI), Communist Party of the United States of America, collection(fond 515), sub-collection (opis 1), folder (delo 3053), page (listok) The New Sport and Play: An Illustrated Labor Sports Magazine, “Chicago Workers Soccer League,” 9. This archive is accessible through the Library of Congress’ INCOMKA Project, housed in the European Reading Room. The collection includes over 4,000 files of CPUSA records, dating from 1919 to the late 1930s. Hereafter abbreviated as RGSPAI, fond (f.), opis (o.), delo (d.) and listok (l). Joseph Sauser, Year: 1930; Census Place: Chicago, Cook, Illinois; Roll: 485; Page: 14A; Enumeration District: 1633; Image: 1049.0; FHL microfilm: 2340220. Young Worker, “Chi. Wake Up; Record Shows Activity,” December 28, 1931, 6; “Linnea A.C. Leads Windy City Booters,” November 21, 1933, 8.
6. Baker “Muscular Marxism,” 284-291. RGSPAI, f. 515, o.1, d. 3053, Sport and Play, “Plan of Work for the Counter Olympics Campaign” l. 38
7. Baker, “Muscular Marxism,” 289-295. Randi Storch, Red Chicago: American Communism at its Grassroots, 1928-1935 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 18-20, 200-203.
8. David Litterer, “The Year in American Soccer 1932,” The American Soccer History Archives, accessed November 22, 2018, http://homepages.sover.net/~spectrum/FIFA.Com, “Julius Remit, the Father of the World Cup,” accessed November 22, 2018, http://www.fifa.com/news/y=1998/m=6/news=jules-rimet-the-father-the-world-cup-71489.html Goldblatt, The Ball is Round, 247-250. Markovits and Hellerman, Offside, 119-121. Barbara J. Keys, Globalizing Sport: National Rivalry and International Community in the 1930s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 96.
9. RGSPAI, f. 515, o.1, d. 3053, The New Sport and Play, “Counter Olympic Soccer Tournament,” Eastern Counter Olympic Soccer Committee Formed, New York;” “Chicago Soccer,” l. 15, 37.
10. RGSPAI, f. 515, o.1, d. 3053, “Join the International Counter Olympic Open Soccer Championship Tournament,” l. 65-67. Young Worker, “Call For Nat’l Workers Soccer Tourney,” April 25, 1932, 8.’
11. Young Worker, “Red Sparks Beat Juventus 3 to 1,” July 4, 1932, 6; “Old Records of LSU Smashed at Sportfest,” August 22, 1932, 6.
12. The acronym for ISL as well as earlier acronyms in this essay have been given explanations and fully spelled out names that were not in the book. These changes were made to help the reader.
13. Young Worker, “Teams Grooming for Mooney Soccer Play,” April 24, 1934, 16; “Soccer Games for Mooney Cup to be held on May 27th,” May 22, 1934, 12; “Detroit 11 Takes T. Mooney Trophy,” July 17, 1934, 12; “Spartacus to Meet Prospect A.C. for Eastern Soccer Cup,” May 14, 1935, 11; “Prospect Club Soccer Champs,” June 18, 1935, 11.