Soccer, Travel

A World Cup Surprise – Circa 1950

I’m not even sure how to tell this story, but I’m going to give it a shot.  A week ago today started out as normal as any other day.  I had scheduled the day off to travel to St. Louis to see my friend Norb Thurmer, a fastpitch softball legend as a sponsor and coach who I think knows everything and everyone to ever play or watch a sporting event in St. Louis.  A 1948 graduate of St. Mary’s High School, Norb is a member of the International Softball Congress Hall of Fame, the St. Louis Softball Hall of Fame, and I’m sure other honorary memberships he’s too humble to tell me about.  I hadn’t seen him in a few years, and thought it was time to catch up with him.

In the course of talking to him on the phone and planning my visit, I told him it might be nice to have lunch on The Hill, St. Louis’ notorious Italian area where many good restaurants exist.  He asked me what my connection was with The Hill.  Simply put, I told him I had eaten there a few times and liked the area.  Also, being a fan of both baseball and soccer history, I might like to see Yogi Berra’s and Joe Garagiola’s childhood homes.  I also mentioned I was reading the book The Game of Their Lives about the USA’s upset of England in the 1950 World Cup, and through a little research determined Frank Borghi, the goalkeeper on that team, still lived in the area.  If you’re unaware of this event, it is considered the greatest upset ever in the World Cup, and was the subject of the 2005 Movie by the same title, later changed to Miracle Match.  Norb casually told me he had met Frank years ago when Norb sponsored a local soccer, and Frank was their goalie.  We really didn’t discuss it much further.

I picked up Norb around eleven and we head to a restaurant called Joey B’s, a place Norb says “is supposed to be good” and “they really fill your plate.”  We were meeting a few other friends from softball past.  Well, we walk into the restaurant and there sits Frank Borghi.  Norb had contacted him and invited him to lunch, but hadn’t told me.  I recognized him immediately from a scene in the movie (the living players of the 1950 team were honored at the 2004 MLS All-Star Game).  But I was totally surprised, thinking “maybe” we’d drive by his house that day, at most.

Let me say right now, having lunch with Frank was a great experience.  For lack of a better word, I would label it surreal.

Frank is 84 years old, and one of the friendliest people I’ve ever met.  I read a blog post where he was described as a “gentle giant,” and I believe that label is entirely accurate.  In the movie, he is the featured character played by the actor Gerard Butler.  Through lunch, we discussed a variety of topics, most related to the world’s most popular sport.

First and foremost, Frank talked about his kids (he has seven).  On this day, he was hoping his daughter would get discharged from the hospital after having some surgery.  And I was fortunate enough to meet his youngest son, who was visiting from Florida and actually brought Frank to the restaurant.

Frank initially played baseball, including a couple years in the minor leagues.  His father had died when he was 15, and when a scout came to sign him to a higher level of organized baseball, he said “my mother told the scout he don’t play ball no more.”  This essentially ended his baseball career.

When the discussion shifted to soccer, he was all smiles.

We talked about their first World Cup game with Spain, where they led 1-0 before surrendering three goals in the final eight minutes.  For a team that had 500-1 odds at winning the World Cup, that was certainly a respectable performance.

But the game against England in Belo Horizonte, Brazil was still the topic of the day.  Clearly, the fact that the United States’ 1-0 victory over England is considered such a great upset protects me from spoiling the ending, but to look in Frank’s eyes as he recounts that day is a once in a lifetime experience for a soccer fan.

The game is described in detail in the book, so I don’t need to recount that here.  But reading the book, watching the movie, and then talking to the man that was one of the focal points of the story, you can’t help but get a little mesmerized.

Frank shared some sad memories as well.

He talked about now deceased teammate Frank “Pee Wee” Wallace and how he was “my best friend since we were kids.”  He shook his head sadly when we talked briefly about Joe Gaetjens, the Haiti-born forward that scored the goal against England, only to be assassinated about 14 years later in his native country during some political upheaval.

And he sadly remembered Charley Columbo, the feisty defender and rock of a man whose body was eroded later in life by cancer.  At 84, I suppose those types of stories are inevitable.

At one point,  Frank, who no longer lives on The Hill, told me he’d like to move back there someday.

“That’s where I grew up, and that’s where most of my friends are.”

Norb and I had the pleasure of driving Frank home, and he gave me his phone number and invited me to come back.  I will the first chance I get.  Meeting his wife Rosemary (also featured briefly in the movie) was also a wonderful experience.  She told me we “made his day” inviting him to lunch.

There’s no way his day, that day, was better than mine.

I dropped Norb off at Carson’s in the Soulard neighborhood of St. Louis so he could play cards with some friends.  I owe him great thanks, and also a return trip.  There were eight of us at lunch, and with Norb seating me by Frank, I really didn’t get to spend a lot of time catching up with him.  But I will.

His parting words were “I sort of dazzled you with that Borghi move, didn’t I.”  Truer works never spoken.

A week later, I’m still a little in awe about meeting Frank.  Perhaps it’s a respect for soccer past.  To me, the meeting was a once in a lifetime experience.  I can only watch the movie and imagine what the game was like that day, as I’ve not seen actual video footage anywhere.  But I wanted to share one passage from the book that I though was particularly notable, and nicely sums up the aura of the event for the supposedly overmatched American:

 “But there was something else, too, going on.  For most of those minutes – for much of the game – as Tom Finney [England player] would say later to the press:  “There was a gremlin in the U.S. goal.”

It seemed true.  In the thirty-first minute, Stanley Mortensen [England player] missed again.  Just as strangely, another overkick from point-blank range, with Borghi as helpless as a trussed pig.  A minute later, it was Finney himself, this time off a corner kick, headed perfectly, unstoppably, into the top-right corner.

Borghi guessed – it had to have been a guess; it couldn’t have been anything more – and dove diagonally half the length of the goal, felt the ball slap off his right hand, then watched it sail, like a wing-shot pheasant, harmlessly over the bar.

And there were others, Borghi was uncanny – “El Magnifico,” they would call him later.  The English were off-target, the grass was too high, the field was too narrow, the goalposts were as wide as pillars.  Blind luck was an animate force.”

– Geoffrey Douglas in The Game Of Their Lives

I remember Frank telling me about meeting the England team at the airport (they were pre-tourney favorites but didn’t advance past the first round), and how cordial and friendly they were.  His words were a perfect description of a gentleman.

Sir Frank Borghi, as he once signed his name next to Sir Stanley Matthews, is just that.

Photo:  (1) Frank and Rosemary Borghi on their front porch in St. Louis.  Credit:  Jeff Findley  (2) Frank Borghi, goalkeeper for the 1950 United States soccer team, in uniform.  Credit:  http://www.italiansinamerica.com/World%20Cup%20Miracle1950.htm

3 Comments

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  • Deanna

    November 7, 2009

    I am inspired. Thanks.

  • Roger

    October 30, 2009

    Jeff,
    What a great day you must of had. I’m envious!!!!!!

    Roger

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