Walter Bahr, Philadelphia-born U.S. soccer legend, dies

Walter Bahr, 91, a Philadelphia native who became one of the great players and coaches in American soccer history, died on Monday.

Mr. Bahr also was the father of two NFL kickers, Chris and Matt, who went on to win Super Bowls. His passing was announced Monday by former U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati.

In addition to Chris and Matt, Mr. Bahr is survived by his wife of 71 years, two other children, eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild. One of the grandchildren, Lindsey D. Bahr, told the Associated Press — for which she works as a film critic — that Walter died of complications resulting from a fractured hip.

Mr. Bahr grew up in Kensington, and began playing soccer with the famed Lighthouse Boys club.

“Kensington was soccer back when I was growing up,” he recalled in a 2010 interview with the Inquirer and Daily News. “Within every couple of blocks there was a playground, and soccer was one of the sports they played. No coaching or anything such as that. It was big-time in Kensington. If you were a fairly good soccer player in Kensington, most people knew your name.”

Mr. Bahr went on to play for local professional teams including the Nationals, Uhrik Truckers and United German-Hungarians. The Nationals, which later became the Ukrainian Nationals, and German-Hungarians still exist today as social and youth soccer clubs.

He made 19 appearances for the national team from 1948 to 1957. The most famous of them came at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. Mr. Bahr had the assist on Joe Gaetjens’ goal in the Americans’ legendary 1-0 upset of heavily favored England in the group stage.

In that 2010 interview, Mr. Bahr still had clear memories of the play. Here’s how he described it:

Ed McIlvenny threw the ball in from the sideline to me. He was my midfield playing partner. He threw the ball in about 35 yards out from the goal. I collected it, pushed it forward a bit, and took a shot from about 25 to 28 yards out.

If you took the 6-yard line and extended it out to the 18-[yard line], and then extended it out a little bit further, that’s about how far I was off the right-hand post. I took my shot and I hit it fairly well.

Bert Williams, the English goalkeeper, had to move to his right to get my shot. Which most likely he would have gotten. Somehow, on the flight of my shot, Joe Gaetjens got through traffic, and got a piece of the ball — a deflection, that’s the best word — it was a deflection that went to Bert Williams’ opposite side. He [Williams] was leaning right, and the deflection sent it back to his left and he just couldn’t react fast enough.

Mr. Bahr was the last living player from that 1950 team. The 2005 movie The Game of Their Lives told the team’s story to America’s new era of soccer fans.

Walter Bahr at his Boalsburg home in 2006. Bahr kept lots of memorabilia from his days as a U.S. national team player.
Camera icon Pat Little/AP file photo
Walter Bahr at his Boalsburg home in 2006. Bahr kept lots of memorabilia from his days as a U.S. national team player.

“He was just an icon to everyone,” said Werner Fricker Jr., a German-Hungarians board member who’s the son of former U.S. Soccer Federation president Werner Fricker. “Those days were the forerunners to everything we have today. … These people drew thousands of people to games all over the East Coast way before anybody knew anything about this game. ”

After Mr. Bahr’s playing career ended, he went into coaching. He coached Frankford High for many years, then the varsity men’s soccer teams at Temple (1970-73) and Penn State (1974-88). When he took the Penn State job, he moved to Boalsburg, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Mr. Bahr and the entire 1950 World Cup team were inducted into the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame in 1976. In 2010, when the coaches’ convention made one of its many stops in Philadelphia, Mr. Bahr was honored with a lifetime achievement award. It happened to be named for one of his former players, Walt Chyzowych.

He was also able to return to the World Cup in 1990. Mr. Bahr served as the head of delegation for the United States’ first appearance at the tournament since he played in it.

In his later years, Mr. Bahr was a frequent visitor to soccer events in a range of cities, especially the annual United Soccer Coaches convention. He was famous for being a greeter at the convention hall entrance, shaking hands and sharing memories with players and coaches of all ages.

And, of course, he cheered on the U.S. national team. He especially reveled in the draw for the 2010 World Cup, which paired the Americans with England in the tournament for the first time since Mr. Bahr’s famous win.

“It’s taken 60 years for England to have a chance to tie it up,” he said back then. “If things run according to Hoyle and [the English] win, it’s going to take another 60 years for them to have the [series] lead.”

The game turned out to be a 1-1 tie, allowing Bahr and the U.S. to keep that lead. They still have it to this day.

Memorial service details

Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer announced details of memorial events for Walter Bahr.

On June 28 from 5 to 8 p.m., a visitation will be held at the Koch Funeral Home in State College, at 2401 South Atherton Street.

Then, on June 29 at 11 a.m., a memorial service will be held at St. Andrews Episcopal Church, 208 West Foster Ave. in State College. That will be followed by a reception from 2-4 p.m. at Mountain View Country Club in Boalsburg.

The family asks that in lieu of flowers, memorial donations be made to the U.S. Soccer Foundation.