The Ghosts of Fall River
My theory on ghosts is that that they are lingering echoes from time gone by. Not necessarily spirits or spectral beings, but just regular people, like you and I, who are somehow reflecting across time, connected to a place in the world. Maybe that’s less spooky than imagining a haunting spirit in the mood for vengeance, but I’ve always seen it as slightly more scientific. Because the past certainly influences us in the present, from our genetics to our heritage to our national history. They are all aspects that have been shaped and molded by eras that are long gone and by thousands of people long dead. We may pretend that those who came before have no bearing on the here and now, but that doesn’t make them any less significant.
In Tiverton, Rhode Island, there’s a haunted house in the soccer neighborhood. A place where once there was a mighty force that dominated the soccer landscape for a decade. A mighty force that, ghostlike, haunts the dreams of all soccer fans in this country. Mostly in echoes, old fashioned names and grainy black and white images, dancing on the edges of our consciousness like a memory wanting to be remembered, but just out of reach. That place is now an overgrown field, an empty lot, really. Much like the memory of the club that once played there, nearly forgotten by the town that contains it. That place is Mark’s Stadium and the club that played there was the Fall River Marksmen.
The Fall River Marksmen began their storied life in 1922. Fall River United was purchased by Sam Mark and he renamed the club after himself (Mark’s Men = Marksmen). At that time, Fall River and neighboring Tiverton were full of fresh immigrant families, most of whom came to work in the booming textile industry in the area. In 1920, Fall River had over 100 textile factories in operation, making the city the largest textile producer in the United States.
All those mills required a tremendous amount of human labor and European immigrants flooded the market to take those jobs. They brought with them their love of soccer and the American Soccer League and clubs like Fall River United sprouted up to fill that need. Those ghostly clubs from that past era that we’ve heard of but never understood were, for the most part, rooted in these immigrant factory-based communities. The people in these cities supported the sport, filled the stands, and often produced the players. This was truly local soccer.
Prior to Sam Mark purchasing the club, Fall River United was a crap club. Its first year it finished sixth out of eight clubs in the inaugural ASL season. The club leader in goals only had six (Jack Corrigan), and the club tripled that number in the loss category. It was a rough season and the club seemed destined to collapse as many of these start up clubs did that first year (three others disbanded). With the club in a perilous situation, Sam Mark stepped in to save the day. A local businessman who was born in Fall River, he felt that investing in the club could yield some results and he did just that.
Other soccer clubs in that era were drawing 10,000 a match. That might seem like a small number but consider that in 1921 the Boston Red Sox were drawing less than 2,000 fans a game in their new home, Fenway Park. In terms of attendance, soccer was the best attended sport in the United States. Mark knew that if he could turn the club around, he could draw a crowd and, of course, make money.
His first move was renaming the club; shake the dust off and move forward. Next he began building a stadium for his new club. It might be a surprise to some that the stadium site was across the river in Rhode Island, in Tiverton, but Sam had a plan. Massachusetts at the time (some still exist) had strict “blue laws” which restricted business operations on Sundays. Those laws included soccer matches, so Mark, like any businessman, found a better option that would allow him to run his business on whatever day he chose. To do that, he built his new stadium in Tiverton, RI, close enough to draw crowds from Fall River, but just clear of those pesky blue laws. He named his new 15,000 seat stadium Mark’s Stadium.
Now that the club had been rebranded and moved into a new home, it was time to restructure the play on the field. The first move was to bring on multiple players from the Scottish Leagues (this would cause problems later on). The big signing, however, came from another ASL club: Bethlehem Steel. Mark signed Harold Brittan, a former Chelsea player who had scored 24 goals for Bethlehem the year before. His offense was sure to bring change to the 18 loss club.
The 1923 season showed instant improvement for Fall River. Brittan delivered on his promise, scoring 19 goals and pushing the club to third in the league. The next season Mark invested in the roster again and the club improved- winning the double -both the ASL and the National Challenge Cup (what’s now called the U.S. Open Cup). The semifinal match of the Challenge Cup, where Fall River would face league rivals Bethlehem Steel, drew an estimated 20,000. That 1924 season would be the beginning of a decade of dominance for the Fall River Marksmen. The club won six league titles and four National Challenge Cup competitions. But all ghost stories contain tragedy and the story of Fall River is no exception.
While the American Soccer League had done well for most of the 1920s, the next decade would bring trouble for the league. The Great Depression greatly reduced the amount of disposable income in the country and most leagues struggled. To magnify the financial problems, the ASL had placed most of its clubs in manufacturing centers. Much of that manufacturing slowed or died during the economic downturn, creating mass unemployment. Even worse, there was a wave of anti-immigrant hysteria in the country and soccer was seen as a foreign sport. These outside pressures sparked infighting between the league clubs. The final nail was FIFA pressuring the USFA (now USSF) to sanction the ASL, due to its raiding of European leagues and ignoring existing club contracts. In 1933, the greatest American soccer league- one that had dominated the national soccer culture, crushed visiting foreign clubs, gobbled up players from around the world, and won the battle for sports fans in the country -collapsed.
Fall River Marksmen disbanded and the players were absorbed into the few surviving clubs that remained. Sam Mark moved to California to pursue other business opportunities. Mark’s Stadium was used by other clubs over the next couple of decades, before being turned into a drive-in theater. That theater was eventually torn down in the 1970s. Now there’s nothing but an empty field, overgrown with weeds and scrub trees; a ghostly symbol of what once was.
For the most part, the ghosts of Fall River barely touch the awareness of modern American soccer fans. Most fans began their awareness in the 1990s with the emergence of MLS. Some older groups may remember the 1970s and the NASL, Pele and the Cosmos, but almost no one goes back to the old American Soccer League. The Marksmen were the greatest of a generation, maybe the greatest American soccer team of all-time in their brief heyday. Their memory has become the thing of legends and myths, almost unbelievable. But their ghosts linger, begging to be remembered.