It was a Victorian football sensation. Five professional players – four from Manchester City plus a former teammate now at Sheffield United – were missing, presumed poached by a mysterious foreign agent. “A sudden disappearance!” exclaimed one newspaper. “A Sheffielder taken!” was the headline in another. The mystery was solved after the players were spotted boarding the White Star steam liner Teutonic, bound from Liverpool to New York. They had walked out on their English clubs to join the brand new American League of Professional Football (ALPF) – the first professional football league outside of Britain. 

It was the beginning of October 1894, seven games into the seventh English Football League season. Rumours of a US agent’s attempts to poach British players had been circulating for a couple of weeks. Newspapers reported that the agent had visited Blackburn and Burnley, “seeking players to cross the ‘herring pond’”, and was planning to visit other clubs around the country. The players were promised riches and fame in a venture that, a century before USA 94 and Major League Soccer, was set to popularise football in America. It ended up being, in the straightforward assessment of one of the players involved, “a huge mistake, a fiasco, and a total failure”.

1894-95 was Manchester City’s first season as a member of the Football League, and the first since the club had changed its name from Ardwick FC. Mitchell Calvey, the club’s 24-year-old centre-forward, scored five goals in City’s opening seven games. Fellow forwards Tommy Little and Alec Wallace, both 22, also played in all seven opening games and both of them scored goals, while the full-back Archie Ferguson, 29, was breaking into the first team after joining from Preston North End. Over at Sheffield United, the 23-year-old former Ardwick forward Fred Davies (or Davis – sources are inconsistent) had recently stepped up from the reserves to play a couple of League matches. On October 1, all five played for their English clubs. On October 3, they sailed for the US.

The ALPF had been conceived back in February during a meeting at New York’s opulent Fifth Avenue Hotel by the owners of six north-eastern US baseball clubs – the Baltimore Orioles, the Boston Beaneaters, the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, the New York Giants, the Philadelphia Phillies and the Washington Senators. The idea was to capitalise on football’s growing popularity and generate gate money during baseball’s off-season by filling empty ballparks with football fans. Each baseball club would field a football team and the league season would run from October to December. The teams would be made up largely of baseball players, plus “the best association players in this country and in Europe”. It was expected that the English league champions Sunderland would visit the US to play a series of matches against ALPF teams.

“I believe the scheme will be a success,” said the ALPF chairman and Philadelphia Phillies manager Arthur Irwin, “as we believe the public want football.” (And it was “football” not “soccer”. The term “soccer” was rarely used on either side of the Atlantic in the Victorian era.)  The eccentric Irwin was a former baseball shortstop credited by some sources with inventing the catcher’s mitt, marketed as the “Irwin Glove”. A sports entrepreneur and promoter, Irwin also invented a mechanical stadium scoreboard, and promoted boxing matches and long-distance bicycle races. ALPF football matches would be played with his patented “Irwin Ball”. 

New York’s newspapers offered mixed reactions to the arrival of professional association football. The New York Sun reported the belief that “the game can be made as popular in this country as it is in England.” But the World was less optimistic, pointing out that the ALPF would face competition from the burgeoning college football (American football) scene. “It will probably be a failure,” said the newspaper. “Association football no more compares with the college game than beanbag does with baseball.” And the Tribune said clubs might struggle to put together their teams, particularly as baseball players had “not taken kindly” to the suggestion they might be required to become football players. Football was, said the Tribune, “a little too rough for the green diamond knights”.

The Baltimore Orioles were baseball’s National League champions in 1894, and they fully intended to be football champions, too. They were led by the player/coach “Foxy” Ned Hanlon, another eccentric innovator, who was credited with developing “inside baseball”, an effective hit-and-run offensive strategy that pushed the game’s rules to their limits. In an unusual move, Hanlon took charge of the Baltimore football team, despite admitting he’d never before seen association football played. Although the stated intention of the ALPF was to use “home talent”, including some baseball stars in order to attract baseball fans, Hanlon appointed the Ireland-born agent and promoter Ted Sullivan to travel to Britain and bring back an entire team of professional players. “I did not think it would be right, after giving Baltimore a good baseball team, to give it a mediocre football team,” said Hanlon, “so I have hustled around and gotten together a first-class one.”

It’s easy to see how Victorian footballers could have been tempted to join Baltimore in the ALPF. In 1894, the highest-paid British footballers earned around £5 per week, while top US baseball players could earn ten times that amount. According to the Sheffield United player Fred Davies, Ted Sullivan promised them “financial benefits in plenty” and “popularity to an unbounded degree”. It seems Sullivan agreed terms with an entire team’s-worth of British players, but apparent changes of heart meant only half of them boarded the Teutonic. Manchester City’s George Mann and Joseph Nash and Sheffield United’s Hugh Morris and Jimmy Yates (both former Ardwick players) were among those who were reported to have signed agreements with Sullivan before deciding not to go.

The British press reacted with anger at the “Yankee agent” and his “spoliation” of English clubs. They also disparaged the players who had left. “We cannot congratulate the agent on the quality of the goods he has shipped,” sniped one newspaper. “Surely America does not hope to make first-class football players out of men such as these?” The Sheffield Daily Telegraph was scathing of the entire endeavour, and rubbished claims that Sunderland might visit the US to play the ALPF teams, no matter how much money was on offer. “American dollars, it is said, will do anything,” said the paper, “but it will surprise me if, in this case, those who used the dollars have not slightly over-reached themselves.” 

Ted Sullivan had been careful to ensure that no one in the US knew about his mission to Britain. A representative of the Baltimore Orioles – possibly Ned Hanlon – had contacted the US Treasury Department back in August to ask if professional footballers under contract in England could legally come to the US to play in the ALPF, under an exception allowed for artists. The telegraphed response was clear: “In the opinion of the department, football players are not artists, and, coming into the United States under contract, would be prohibited from landing.”

Perhaps aware of this, none of the five footballers divulged their true professions in the Teutonic’s passenger manifest. Fred Davies claimed to be a gardener, Archie Ferguson an engineer and Alec Wallace a sailor. Tommy Little stated his profession as “dyer”, suggesting he worked in a textile mill. Mitchell Calvey, whether by accident or intention, was recorded as “Michael Calvert”, a carpenter. When they disembarked on October 10 at New York’s Ellis Island, all five applied for permanent residence in the US. After what Davies later described as a “fight” with officials, the five men were allowed to enter the country and stepped out into the unfamiliar and pullulating metropolis. With Ted Sullivan nowhere to be found, the footballers were left to make their own way to Baltimore, some 200 miles away.

When they eventually arrived at the Orioles’ Union Park ground, they were met by AW Stewart, an experienced footballer, originally from Scotland, who’d been installed as the team’s goalkeeper and captain. Ted Sullivan’s failure to bring back his full complement meant the club had only the bare minimum of eleven players – captain Stewart, the five professionals, three Canadian brothers named McKendrick, and a couple of Brits named Barkey and Ireland. (It’s possible that Barkey and Ireland were recruited by Sullivan in Britain. Ireland may even have sailed over on the Teutonic. A 20-year-old Alex Ireland is listed next to Fred Davies in the passenger manifest.)

Despite the team’s lack of numbers, the rookie manager Ned Hanlon declared his satisfaction and said the first training session filled him with optimism. “I never saw the game until today, when some of our boys were at practice,” he said, “but I became interested in it at once, and think it will become a popular autumn amusement.” The Baltimore Sun was also impressed with the first training session. “The association play differs widely from that of the colleges, being more simple and easily understood,” wrote the newspaper’s reporter. “It is more deserving of the name ‘football’ than the college game is, for it is played chiefly with the feet, and the dexterity which some of the players show in manipulating the ball is remarkable.”

The ALPF adopted a punishing baseball-style game schedule, involving multiple series of rapid-succession matches against opposition teams. Baltimore’s first four-game series would be played over the course of eight days against Washington. The league had kicked off on 6 October 1894, while the British pros were still mid-Atlantic, with New York beating Philadelphia 5-0. Early games were said to be entertaining but “did not attract many people” and there was some confusion among spectators regarding the rules. “They found some difficulty in following it at first,” reported one newspaper. “It will require considerable schooling before the public becomes educated to the game.”

Star players began to emerge during early games and it was reported that New York full-back “Fatty” Flynn and Brooklyn right-winger “Kid” Bannister were “likely to become very popular on account of their good playing”. But the New York and Brooklyn players were also criticised for using the kind of language that might prevent ladies, schoolboys and “people of refinement” from attending football matches. “In the game between the New York and Brooklyn clubs there was an amount of profanity, obscenity and general abuse utterly unprecedented in the history of first-class sport in this city,” said the New York Sun. “There were very few ladies present, it is true, but those who were there and attempted to follow the game had their ears assailed with such talk that it is not likely that any of them will visit the grounds again.”

Baltimore’s footballers swiftly showed signs of being able to emulate the success of their baseball contemporaries, debuting on October 16 with an emphatic 10-1 victory at Washington. Ferguson was at full-back and Calvey and Davies played at half-back for Baltimore in a then-typical 2-3-5 formation. The team’s five forwards – including Little and Wallace – all scored. A mistake by Stewart in goal gifted Washington their mild consolation. Washington made two substitutions (an innovation that wouldn’t be introduced in British football for some 70 years) in the second half, but Baltimore’s 11-man squad allowed no such luxury. The small crowd of 500 spectators seemed to enjoy their first taste of professional football. “Five hundred persons seated on the stands of a ball field would seem to offer little fuel for the fire of enthusiasm,” said the Baltimore Sun, “but those who saw the game got lost in their excitement.”

The Sun’s match report was headlined “Football Hustlers”, suggesting there might be something slightly untoward about the free-scoring Baltimore team. Then the Washington manager Gus Schmelz made the bold claim that some of the Baltimore players were British professionals. One of his players had recognised their names from British newspapers. Schmelz’s accusation was repeated in the Washington Post, which revealed that the Treasury Department was launching an investigation into Baltimore’s “alien footballists”. However, as the Post reported, Ned Hanlon claimed that “nearly all” his players were in fact from Detroit.

Meanwhile, Hanlon’s team continued its series against Washington, showing “extraordinary skill”, at their Union Park field in front of a bigger crowd of 2,500 fans, to win the second game 5-1. Baltimore’s Canadian centre-forward “Big” James McKendrick threatened to overshadow the British pros by scoring two goals for the second consecutive game. “The home team outclassed the Washington representatives and won all the way,” said the Washington Post. Then it was back to Washington for the third game in four days, where “the Baltimores vanquished the Washingtons by 3 to 0.” “The attendance was only fair, but the game was replete with interest,” said the Post. Unfortunately, the fourth game of the series would never be played. 

At a meeting of ALPF club owners held on the day of the third Baltimore-Washington game, October 20, it was decided to bring the season to an immediate close. The owners had been spooked by news of the formation of a rival baseball league, and were wary of losing focus on their primary cash cow. The Treasury Department investigation was potentially damaging, and in any case the football league wasn’t attracting enough spectators. The decision to emulate baseball scheduling had been disastrous. There were too many games, and many of them were very poorly attended. While a couple of thousand turned up for some weekend matches, one midweek match attracted just 17 spectators – including two policemen. Somewhat optimistically, the ALPF announced that it would reorganise and recommence for the following season. 

So the ALPF’s inaugural season came to an abrupt end just 15 days after it had begun. Only 17 games had been played between the league’s six sides, and Baltimore had played only three. Nevertheless, Ned Hanlon quickly claimed the league championship for Baltimore on the basis that, with three wins in three games, they were the only undefeated side in the League and therefore had a baseball-style winning percentage of 1.000. “While the baseball pennant will float from one end of the grandstand at Union Park,” said Hanlon, “the football pennant will be raised at the other.”

In fact, Brooklyn topped the truncated league table with five wins – although they’d played twice as many games as Baltimore. But Hanlon blamed the Brooklyn club for the ALPF’s demise, claiming they had pushed for the season to be abandoned because they were scared of facing the high-scoring Baltimore. Hanlon and his captain Stewart refused to disband their team and vowed to play on – in Stewart’s words, “for love, blood, money or marbles”. After winning a trio of friendly games against Philadelphia, Baltimore challenged Brooklyn to a six-game series – part grudge match, part unofficial championship decider – with both sides looking to prove they were the best team in America.

Brooklyn, with home advantage in the first three games, didn’t have any British professionals, but they were no pushovers. The first match ended in a draw and the next two were won by Brooklyn – leaving Baltimore with a mountain to climb to save the series. Returning to Baltimore for the home leg of the series, Baltimore found that the Union Park field had been badly churned up by a touring horse show. The scheduled matches could not be played and the series could not be completed. On November 20, just four weeks after its first game, the Baltimore football team was officially disbanded.

It was a disastrous turn of events for the British professionals, made even worse when their formerly-trusted captain Stewart disappeared with the team’s spending money. According to Fred Davies, the pros spent the next week wandering the streets of Baltimore “without a cent between us, and no better prospects”. Eventually, a threat to take the matter to the British Consul prompted the Orioles to pay for the players’ voyage home – via the cheapest possible tickets. “We had second fare going out,” said Davies, “but only steerage home!”

More bad news awaited. For leaving their clubs without permission, all five players were suspended indefinitely by the Football Association. Mitchell Calvey had his suspension removed at the end of the season, but didn’t return to the Football League, signing instead for Bacup in the Lancashire League. Tommy Little did return briefly to Manchester City for the 1895-96 season, playing nine games before being transferred to Wellingborough Town. Alec Wallace was out of the game for three years, then played briefly for Small Heath (now Birmingham City) before moving to minor-league Hereford Thistle.

Archie Ferguson went back across the herring pond and spent the rest of his life in the US. Fred Davies also left Britain, to live in Canada. The Sheffield Independent reported that Davies carried with him a watch he’d obtained during his American trip and “a keen regret that he was ever inveigled into taking part in such a terribly disastrous expedition”.

As for the ALPF, despite the club owners’ promises, it never resumed. However, its short existence had provided the US with a tantalising taste of football. “The association game has much to commend itself to the sport-loving public,” said the New York Sun, “and while the initial attempt to popularise it has resulted in so dismal a failure, there is no reason why it should not yet occupy a prominent place in the category of American sports.”