It was August 1967. The Yankees were languishing near the bottom of the standings, their great years behind them. The Mets had not yet become the Miracle Mets. Still, it was hard to imagine then that a soccer player would capture a large measure of New York sports fans — if not the entire United States.
But there he was, all of 5 feet 8 inches and 145 pounds. Pelé. We in the sportswriting business had heard of him, of course. He had led Brazil to two World Cup titles. We had even seen him play in New York the year before.
But this was soccer. Although played in some neighborhoods of the Bronx, Queens or Brooklyn where immigrants brought it from home, it had not yet widely taken hold across the land.
In the Sheraton-Atlantic Hotel, on Broadway and 34th Street, Pelé was holding a news conference. A day later, his team from Brazil, Santos, was to meet Inter of Milan at Yankee Stadium. A year earlier, Pelé had played in a boisterous match at Randalls Island, where fans ran from the stands onto the field to protest a referee’s call.
Now, there were rumors that promoters were thinking of expanding soccer in the States by starting a league, and what better place to start, what better athlete to help jump-start it, than Pelé, known as the “Black Pearl”?
A South American newspaper reporter asked the first question.
“Honorable Sir,” he began.
And I realized something different was happening here.
“Honorable Sir”? I don’t think anyone addressed even Willie Mays as “Honorable Sir.” Obviously, this was not your typical American athlete. (Mays, by the way, was the highest paid baseball player at the time at $125,000 a year. Pelé was earning $200,000 for Santos).
The foreign reporters continued to ask their questions, a beatific expression over their faces as they looked at this graciously smiling fellow who was deemed a national treasure by Brazil.
That’s right, a national treasure, making him officially something like the Statue of Liberty. By Brazilian law, he could not be traded to another team out of the country.
Everything about him was fascinating, starting with his name. A Brazilian reporter told me that in São Paulo they call street soccer “pelada”; he was such a symbol of the game that he got the nickname Pelé. (Pelé himself, though, offered several possible explanations for the nickname in his autobiography, but most probably it was a derivation of a player named Bilé whom he had admired as a boy.)
Pelé, 26 at the time, seemed quite comfortable talking with the international press before appearing at America’s most famous stadium. He spoke about his far-flung business interests, his 7-month-old daughter.
More than 15,000 tickets were sold in advance of the game. What would people see? What did this unassuming man do that would make Americans interested in soccer?
There were clues. In his game the year before, when the second half began, fans ran onto the field. A woman kissed Pelé. Other fans fought with some of the players. It was a chaotic scene.
Yet, as I watched, I understood how it came to be known as the beautiful game. And I recalled my first time with a soccer ball, at City College of New York. Like most New York kids, I had played baseball, stickball in the streets, basketball in the gyms and outside courts of the local schools.
But when I started to kick the soccer ball, there was a freedom I felt that I hadn’t gotten even from baseball. And in soccer, you are always in the game. You are always moving. You never stop — well, almost never. The game goes on and on and you’re always in it.
And now, all these years after college, as I watched Pelé at Yankee Stadium and listened to the full-throated fans hollering in Portuguese — there was a sizable Brazilian population in New York — I understood why Pelé had become a national treasure.
He was injured near halftime when three Inter players surrounded him and one tripped him. Pelé sat out the second half.
No matter. There were 37,063 fans at the game, then the third highest for a soccer match in the United States.
Within a few years, big-league soccer came to America, and not just as a fad. And, of course, Pelé came with it, bringing his big smile, his incredible upside-down and backward kicks and his boyish enthusiasm for the sport.
He showed Americans why soccer was the beautiful game.