Celtic’s First Transatlantic Excursion


Celtic left these shores for their first ever visit to the United States and Canada in the summer of 1931. Although a request for a visit had been made to Tom Maley some forty years previous in 1891, the stars had now aligned.  America had competed at football in the Olympics in Paris in 1924 and had reached the semi- final of the inaugural world cup in Uruguay the year before Celtic arrived on tour.  Although at this time “Soccer” in America was in decline, partly because of the depression and the Wall St. Crash in 1929, there was a decent standard of player, although as will be illustrated that cannot be said of the facilities and of the officials.

Jack Coll, a Scot of Irish descent who had immigrated to America from Scotland was a friend of Jimmy McGrory the legendary Celtic centre forward from his Glasgow days.  Coll had previous experience as a coach with Parkhead F.C. who played at Helenslea Park nearby Celtics home ground.  As a coach to the U.S. team in the 1930 World Cup finals, Coll trained a hotch potch of nationalities including 3 Scots and 2 Irish/Scots, (Gallagher and McGhee).  Other players from his squad would feature prominently as opponents during the tour.

Coll’s involvement in American football with Brooklyn Hispana – among others – and the national team together with his Celtic connections meant that he was a prominent attendee at many of the official hospitality events during the Celtic summer tour of the North American Continent.  He rekindled his friendship with Jimmy McGrory and played a part in welcoming Celtic to America before eventually retiring to Glasgow in the post war era.

The SS Caledonia left its berth at Yorkhill Quay on 13th May 1931 after a celebratory Scottish Cup winning dinner at Willie Maley’s Bank Restaurant in Queen St. a few days previously.  A life size replica cake of the Scottish Cup made by the ship’s Chef was on display to the 3,000 plus cheering fans as team Manager Maley addressed them by megaphone.GW802H724

“Thronging crowds cheered on from various vantage points all the way down the River Clyde embankments waving Celtic farewell.”

Despite the rain at Greenock, “There was a big crowd with Pipers and Sirens with a Cannon salute. In the morning they awoke anchored of Bangor, a tug alongside early with representatives from Belfast Celtic joining in the welcome.”

Maley had wired home that headwinds, high seas and overnight fog had delayed the Caledonia which eventually docked in New York a day behind schedule.  They arrived in brilliant sunshine. “What a crowd and what a reception.  Tremendous enthusiasm”, opined Celtic director Tom White.

The Celtic squad were berthed in the 8000 capacity private membership Knights of St Columba Club with several hundred bedrooms in Prospect Park Brooklyn. For the duration of the tour they would use this 10 storey well-appointed accommodation – with a swimming pool on the 3rd floor- between jaunts to other locations.

Willie Maley the team manager enthused, “At the front of our hotel there is a street crossing, something like the seven dials in London, but this crossing has nine roads leading in and out of it.  It is a wonderful sight to see the car traffic working and it is all controlled by the automatic machines.”

With one game already under our belts the first big challenge was against the New York Giants who were to lift the American league title 1 week later. The Celts came from behind to win 3-2 in windy conditions playing with the lighter and smaller American ball.  Two goals in as many minutes at the finish from McGrory toppled the Giants.  The Celtic spearhead commented,” I was carried shoulder high (to the dressing room) and everybody seemed to want souvenirs, because I was only left with half of my football shirt.”

The match receipts exceeded the previous record by $2000 and were then record takings for the Polo Grounds stadium.  David Wangerin, American football historian alludes to this remarkable attendance for this match and indeed throughout the tour.

All of which makes the popularity of Celtic’s thirteen-match, six-week tour in 1931 rather remarkable. Playing before crowds as large as 30,000, the Scottish Cup-holders and League runners-up proved a much more popular attraction than anything the domestic game could muster that year, and their visit marked something of a swan-song in terms of the game’s popularity in the United States.”

Maley reflecting on the game versus The Giants wrote “They scored two good goals through two good Celtic names viz., Gallagher and O’Brien.  We had a good reception at the finish and had to be taken out a side way………To old ones like James Kelly and myself it was a great reward for the spadework of the 43 years of the clubs existence.  To earn for the old colours such a place in the memory of these good friends now across the seas. Two Glasgow boys are happy here in the great honour done to them by letting them drive the Scottish Cup through the New York streets in their own motor car on our arrival, and Messrs. Ranagher and McManus should have their names go down in history for this!”GW611H730

In a warm up contest Celtic had dined at the sumptuous Penn Athletic Club in Philadelphia prior to running out victors in their first game 6-1, including a Jimmy McGrory hat-trick versus an amateur handpicked East Penn and District select.

The route taken in the ninety two mile drive under the Hudson through the Holland tunnel, Jersey, Newark, Kearney, Elizabeth, New Brunswick and Trenton before crossing the Delaware River would have been an eye opener for the tourists on their first excursion on the continent.

Willie Maley’s tour diary for this game tells us, “Our party left for Philly in a Charabanc at 9a.m. on Saturday morning.  A deputation met us with two outriders who steered us through all traffic, by horn, whistle or wave of the hand pushing all traffic to the side……A Scots Pipe Band marched Celtic round the field with the Scottish Cup before the game.  Jimmy McGrory scored three and was mobbed by the fans at the end.”

McGrory remarked, “Every time a goal was scored twenty or thirty frenzied spectators rushed on to the field, and in spite of the referee, insisted on kissing the poor scorer.”  The much kissed McGrory said, “It was terrible!”

Willie Maley brought home the ball from the first game at Yellow Jacket Field, and “a lovely banner that I hope will adorn the Celtic boardroom.”

“It was back home to New York and out for a reception from the Brooklyn Celtic in the council club hall. It beat all I had ever seen.  There were 2000 gentlemen and ladies…….the folk were frenzied and we couldn’t get quietness to speak to them,” said Maley.

Celtic then suffered 3 defeats in a row with the 2nd of these games playing its part in the ongoing history of Celtic Football Club.

The journey to Boston was done by a four decker steamer up the Hudson, “Where we had a wonderful view of the Empire State Building, the biggest building in the world and also the famous Statue of Liberty.”  On arrival they had a reception from the Mayor, and an excursion to Revere Beach together with a daytime trip to Bunker Hill, the famous battle site of the American War of Independence.

New York Yankees were victorious with a 4-3 scoreline at the world famous Fenway Park in Boston MA, despite John Thomson saving a penalty kick.  A tiny pitch marked out on the baseball diamond in sweltering heat on a baked playing surface saw Billy Gonsalves scoring a hat trick for the Yankees.  Celtic were three down in twenty minutes and level with twenty minutes to go, Scarff scoring with a header from Beith internationalist Peter Wilson’s free kick.  Gonsalves along with Bert Patenaude (the other scorer) were the 2 most renowned players of their era being part of the U.S.A team that had reached the World Cup semi–final the preceding year.  The match was played in “tropical heat” in a temperature of “99 in the shade.”

These humid conditions and poor surfaces alien to football were common of Maley’s descriptive narrative throughout the duration of the tour.  Coupled with the poor performance of inexperienced officials and the long travelling distances between matches it was a recurring complaint of the manager and players.

In the second defeat Celtic went down to the only goal of the game against a Fall River side at Mark’s Stadium, Tiverton, Rhode Island on the return journey from Boston.

In conditions again alien to Celtic “Heat the same as Boston but the ground like concrete”, a man of the match display from Keeper Joe Kennaway ensured Fall River’s goal 3 minutes from time was enough to secure victory for the home side.

Celtic Captain Jimmy McStay commented, “I think that Kennaway gave about the best exhibition of goalkeeping I have seen here. He did not lag behind Thomson and Thomson is the greatest goalie on earth.”  Maley was similarly impressed. “The player who stood out was Kennaway, the Fall River goalie. Our people at home fancy John Thomson but they have his equal in Fall River.”  He said later, “I think he would go great in Scotland.”

A very prophetic a comment that was to be!

Joe Kennaway replaced John Thomson as Celtic goalkeeper three months later after the Celtic legend tragically died from the injuries he received on the pitch at Ibrox on the 5th September that year. Canadian born Kennaway would remain the club goaltender for the rest of the decade.

Back to their base they went in New York at Prospect Park Brooklyn for some rest, general sightseeing and the chance to meet up with friends.

Celtics last defeat of the tour came again in Rhode Island at the Providence Cycledrome on a narrow pitch with a banked cycle racing track encircling the arena. The pitch was 2/3 of the regulation size. Maley was of the opinion “that the accommodation would have disgraced a Junior Club.” “The ball was bad and the referee was worse,” McGrory gruffed.  It was a 3-1 reverse with The New York Herald-Tribune reporting,” The police were called to clear the field of hundreds of fans after Willie Cook of Celtic was entangled in a fight with Kennedy of Pawtucket Rangers.” GW545H710

McGrory wrote, “I won’t forget this.  This was easily the worst place we have been yet….The worst crowd…….The game was played on a field that was no bigger than a boy’s field on Glasgow Green.  The Referee was hapless and again the heat had a big say.”

Pawtucket Rangers, renamed in 1929 were originally the works team of J&P Coats thread manufacturers, who had manufacturing mills in Paisley.

Returning to New York and Ebbets Field, the home of the Brooklyn Dodgers saw the Celts emerging as 5-0 winners operating without Cook and Geatons, casualties from Pawtucket. Jimmy McGrory scored 2 goals before being removed to the Swedish hospital in Brooklyn with a broken jaw.  McGrory leapt high to head goal ward and brought his jaw down on the head of the opposition goalkeeper.  In less acrid heat a notable opponent was former Celt Willie Crilly who had immigrated to America after his season record goal scoring stint with Alloa.

The injured centre forward McGrory was unable to attend a presentation and dance held in his honour at the Pride of Erin Ballroom that evening courtesy of the “The James McGrory Celtic Brake Club, Brooklyn, New York.”  Tom Maley kindly accepted an inscribed white gold wristwatch on his behalf.

The absence of Jimmy McGrory gave young Linwood bhoy Peter Scarff the opportunity to shine in the next match in Montreal against Carsteels. Occupying the traditional number 9 position from his more natural inside left berth he smashed home 5 goals in a one sided 7-0 win, wearing a blue / green dress shirt because an overzealous hoops fan had snaffled some kit causing a shortage of jerseys!

The Celts again enjoyed hospitality in Montreal with a reception from the Mayor and Alderman, and a banquet laid on under the auspices of the Knights of St. Columba at the Windsor Hotel with 300 attending. “All Scottish and Irish friends were present.”  Director Tom White exclaimed his thanks, “Our welcome to this Canadian city from a band of Scots and Irish numbering two to three thousand was surely the kindest gesture extended to us thus far……….”

On arrival the party were marched from the station by a pipe band and were accorded the freedom of Montreal.

Some of the bhoys had a dip in Lake St. Louis and also visited some popular sights including The Church of Notre Dame and St. Josephs Oratory on Mount Royal, before returning after the match in a gruelling overnight train journey to their New York headquarters. The “Leather Belts” got scant preparation for their second game in 2 days, again without the human torpedo McGrory.

Competing for a cup donated by New York Mayor Walker, the local press reported, “A coterie of Celtic well wishers dashed onto the field bearing a wreath of Roses inscribed,-“Good Luck To The Celtics!”

Historian of American Soccer David Wangerin, author of “Soccer in a Football World: The Story of America’s Forgotten Game” wrote of Celtic’s return from Montreal;

Celtic took an overnight train to New York for a match with the American League’s Hakoah All-Stars the next day. Hakoah, a team laced with Hungarian ex-internationals, held them to a 1-1 draw, but the crowd of 20,000 witnessed probably the most ill-tempered contest of the tour. The game was rough throughout, two players of each team being ordered off the field in the second half.” One report noted, “Trouble broke out soon after the half. (Bela) Guttman and Napier came to blows and were ejected and (Rudi) Nickolsberger and Scarff got their marching orders for fouling. Before going to the dressing room Napier had equalized with a long shot from twenty yards out, which sailed into the net far out of [Lajos] Fischer’s reach.”

Wilson, Cook and Alex Thomson were brilliant” said Maley, “And Celtic got three fourths of the game with scant ceremony.”

McGrory noted after this match,” Crowds of Celtic supporters in private cars coming from the game were a real scream, waving green and white banners, flags and all sorts of things.  People in the famous Broadway stood amazed as they passed in front of our charabanc singing and shouting, ‘Good old Celtic’!”

The following day the party left New York’s Pennsylvania Station bound for Chicago travelling with the High Railroad Co. in searing heat, requiring a change of shirt before arrival.  A travel mix up made it necessary to catch a special train at Buffalo to catch up with the Chicago mail train at Hamilton or they would never have made kick off!

The match took place at Wrigley’s Field against Bricklayers with Celts victorious by six goals to three, at the home of the Chicago Cubs Baseball team.

Again free time allowed them a small tour where they passed Soldiers Field where Dempsey had fought Tunney for the world heavyweight title. The party then took in the sights of Lake Michigan.  Unusually they visited the sprawling slaughterhouse and stockyard of Swift and company where Maley remembered, “They (cattle) are nudged along with what looked like sticks with which we used to see the cattle drovers driving the Irish cattle along to Bellegrove.”

On to Detroit where a visit to the Ford Motor Works at Belleisle was undertaken before a stop at American socialist Father Coughlin’s Shrine of the little Flower. There was also time to head down Jefferson Avenue to the yachting haven at Grosse Point.  They sampled the sights of the “Millionaire’s mansions where Ford and Edison stay.”

Celtic rolled another victory off the production line winning by a 5-0 margin in the process against The Michigan Allstars XI at Detroit University Stadium. The match itself is significant because it was Celtics first proper competitive game under floodlights. “We had the unusual experience of playing football under magnificent electric light,” Maley expressed in his journal about the occasion.

The Detroit News had this account. “It was apparent that Michigan were half beaten 15 minutes before the kick off. Plainly impressed by Celtic’s record the Michigan players started far in excess of their normal speed, but all their physical energy was no match for the clean-cut exhibition given by Celtics.”

Travelling on to Toronto for a match two days later the team sGW788H711topped over at Niagara to sample the sensation of the waterfalls.  All the bhoys were clad in oilskins taking the elevator down to the ‘Cave of Winds’ at water level where they were photographed by Tom Maley.

Again it was a victory for The Celts (3-1) at the Toronto Stadium against Ulster United who had the son of Celtic great Peter Somers in their line up.  Somers, known as “The Powder Monkey”, was provider to marksman Jimmy Quinn, so named because of a naval term for sailors who fetched the ammo for the shooters!  Jimmy McGrory reappeared for duty for the first time since his Jaw injury in Brooklyn. “The Ulster Team is managed by a number of ‘sports’ whose brogue and other little things spoke of ‘Sandy Row’ in Belfast,” Maley recalled.

Amazingly, James Kelly, a member of the party who had played in Celtic’s first ever match in May 1888 met a former team mate.  Not from Celtic.  It was “an old Rentonian who he had displaced in the famous ‘World Champion’ Renton team in the early 1880’s” before he joined Celtic! Naturally he was quite elated.

The now obligatory long overnight train back to the St Columba’s club in New York waited.

Around this time back home the Glasgow Evening Times reported on the 27th June,” W. Maley (and two others) were absent from the league management committee on Wednesday.  Had they been present we fancy that there would have been quite a number of names removed from the referees list.”

Nothing has changed over the term of almost a century supporting Celtic!

On the day of their return to New York a re-match against the first team to beat them on tour was next on the schedule. The N.Y Yankees had imported the services of Hausler of Hakoah to beef up their team.  This was an important game for Celtic in the sense of redeeming themselves and illustrating to the natives that Celtic were indeed a footballing team of note.

A victorious Celtic scored 4 to a reply of 1 and played their best football of the entire tour with “Nearly every Celt being carried shoulder high from the field!  Playing at top form and giving a gilt-edged exhibition” was how The New York Times proclaimed Celtic’s performance.

Again reported as “quite a rough game,” Maley had his own view of the officiating.  “They had rules of their own, and football would not make much progress there until they had better control of the game.”

Tom White, Celtic Director had announced that they may play an extra match on the night before they headed home on behalf of a big Irish settlement. “In Brooklyn’s good 2 and a half million there are a million Jews and quite as many Irish.” It transpired this was to be against the mainly Jewish Hakoah in a deciding game but “The board decided not to risk it.”

The city of Baltimore was Celtics last tour appearance where the Celts brought down the curtain with a 4-1 win against Canton, again under floodlight.  The Brooklyn Paramount picture house curtain entertained McGrory, Scarff, Wilson and Alec Thomson instead as they were rested after the rigours of the tour.  The party had previously visited the other big two cinemas in the city, the famous Roxy Paramount and Capitol.

The next day a farewell dance was held in the in the council club courtesy of the Brooklyn Celtic Football Club where “nearly the whole night was taken up signing autographs.”

Dockside, preparing for the voyage home McGrory remarked on the wonderful crowd to see them off.  “Nearly everybody had a message to give to some member of our party to take back to Scotland.  Most of the crowd would have done anything to stay aboard that ship with us. It was very sad for them.”

Maley fired a broadside to the assembled press before ship’s Captain Bone weighed anchor for the sailing to Glasgow.

“It took the Glasgow Celtics nearly half a century to visit our shores,” one newspaper had noted, “And if William Maley’s parting words aboard the Transylvania yesterday mean anything, it will be just as long before another visit is made by a green and white Celtic team. Roughness of play and poor officiating are his plaint.”

Of course Celtic being used to the hurly burly of the Scottish game were capable of reciprocating whenever required.  Whilst appearing to agree with the criticism of the officials the New York press also stated;

“Maley may have been right about certain facts, but as to the roughness of play here Napier, Bert Thompson and McGonigle of the Celtics were far from shrinking violets. The way Napier kicked Hakoah’s little Leo Greenfield’s legs from under him in the good will game gives the Celtic player the undisputed title of ‘a real shin-buster’.”

Director Tom White’s observations of the journey home included, “On board the Celtic players have been acting as entertainers.  Their community singing delighted and amused hundreds of American students who are travelling on the liner.”  Tom Maley was also invited to give a talk to the students on football that he accepted graciously!

Jimmy McGrory disembarked on the return journey from the RMS Transylvania, on a customs launch in the Foyle, County Donegal, Eire.  He got married at St Michaels Moville by Father Shields of Falcarragh who attended the bigger games at Celtic Park. Escaping the clamour of the Celtic fans back in Glasgow was perhaps the motive, returning to his parent’s birth land and scenes where he spent his holidays.

He was also escaping his team mates who had anticipated him leaving by the liner’s own tender on the opposite side of the vessel.  Skullduggery being avoided, Maley revealed afterwards, “His colleagues had some satisfaction in the knowledge that they had given his baggage due attention and he would have some difficulty extricating his belongings from his suitcase!”

Only the influence and financial clout of someone of importance could divert a transatlantic ocean liner for a one man stop down the Foyle.

Jimmy’s bride Veronica “Nona“ Green was the daughter of George Green, whose family were then the proprietors of various fairgrounds and some thirteen picture houses and theatres, including some in Europe.  This included the famous Greens Playhouse that was later rebranded as the Glasgow Apollo.

The Transylvania was to return to this area for the last time nine years later when it was torpedoed by a German u-boat off Malin Head in 1940, sunk while performing it’s duties as a merchant cruiser during the war.

The Transylvania berthed at Yorkhill Quay at 8pm on the 10th July where Captain and future Manager Willie McStay was heard relaying to waiting reporters tales of rough play, poor playing surfaces and travelling long distances in scorching heat.  In a new one for the scribes he also mentioned,” Losing sight of the ball when it went above the lights!”

T.J. McKenna of Brooklyn N.J., originally a Garscube man along with Joe Jones a Welsh/American who conducted the negotiations stateside for The Celtic tour wrote to the Daily Record after the team’s return.

“Everywhere they went they made friends by the thousand, and when the Transylvania pulled away from dock many hundreds of admirers of the famous Celts felt they were parting with pals.  I had the pleasure of witnessing every match the Celts played from the opening game at Philly to the closing game at Baltimore.  In all the cities they visited they have left behind memories they should be proud of.  Thousands of old Celtic followers here are hoping that this visit is but the first of many frequent visits in the future.”

No Scottish club would tour the North American continent until twenty years later with the Second World War intervening. The next visitors were Celtic again in 1951.

Glasgow Celtic F. C. May 23 1931 – June 30 1931.  Tour Record.

9 wins, 1 draw, 3 losses.

Celtic Travelling Party: William Cook, Denis Currie, Charles Geatons, William Hughes, Joe McGhee, James McGrory, Peter McGonigle, James McStay, John Morrison, Charles Napier, Peter Scarff, Hugh Smith, Alex Thomson, John Thomson, Robert Thompson, Robert Whitelaw, Peter Wilson. Manager: William Maley, Trainer William Quinn, Directors Tom White, John McKillop, James Kelly. (Tom Maley was to join later in the tour as assistant)

Written by Iain Reynolds for CQN



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