by ERNIE LONG, The Morning Call
Bethlehem is known for its steel mills, made world-famous by Billy Joel in his hit song "Allentown".
But few people today remember that Bethlehem Steel was once famous for producing more than beams and girders.
"The Steel", as it is known in the Lehigh Valley, was once heralded around the country for its competitiveness on the soccer field as well.
In fact, from 1913 through 1919, the Bethlehem Steel Soccer Club was the San Francisco 49ers of its day, dominating its competition.
The dynasty was born out of The Steel's determination to support community activities.
Already involved in sponsoring a band and supporting the Bethlehem Bach Choir and Lehigh Valley Orchestra, Steel chief executive officer Charles M. Schwab had his company build a sports facility in the city "which in a sense was a gift to the people of Bethlehem at a time before public playgrounds and parks existed," according to The Bethlehem Booster, a former publication of the company's bureau of employment, compensation and welfare.
The Moravian congregation sold The Steel eight acres and in 1915 the Elizabeth Avenue Athletic Field, now called Steel Field and used by Moravian College, was built.
This became the home base for a Bethlehem Steel Football Club which had already been making a name for itself both regionally and nationally.
In fact, The Steel captured the American Cup five times and won the National Challenge Cup four times in a seven-year span.
Adept at bringing in fresh foreign talent to mesh with the abilities of hard-working immigrant employees, The Steel went on to post an astounding record of 162-6-16 from 1913-1919.
(The team's accomplishments can be found on a plaque under the grandstands at Steel Field.)
The Steel regularly took on other Northeastern company teams and the games were immensely popular, as were players such as Paddy Butler, "Mudhorse" Easton, Jack Lance, Harry Ratican, William "Billy" Sheridan and Harry Trend. Sheridan went on to coach wrestling at Lehigh University.
Once, 10,000 fans packed the stands at University of Toronto to see The Steel down an all-star Canadian squad 2-0 in a match played on 2 inches of snow.
While Bethlehem Steel eventually stopped funding a team, the seeds of competitive soccer were sown in the Lehigh Valley.
Players began forming their own teams to keep the game alive locally.
But it would take nearly 60 years before a Lehigh Valley-based adult soccer team would enjoy the national success and recognition of those Steel teams.
The Pennsylvania Stoners of the American Soccer League, founded by team president and coach Willie Ehrlich, were based in Allentown from 1979-83 and became the darlings of local soccer fans.
The Stoners featured a nucleus of local players complemented by equally talented "outsiders".
Forward Roman Urbanczuk, an All-American player from Dieruff High School; midfielder Bob Ehrlich, a Liberty High School grad; and defender Ron Ost, a Freedom High product, were joined by standouts such as midfielder John McDermott, Ken McDonald and Clyde Watson, and defender Jeff Tipping to form one of the better lineups in the league in 1980.
In fact, the Stoners would go on to down Sacramento 2-1 for the ASL title on Sept. 18, 1980 in a match played before 7,233 fans at Allentown School District Stadium.
"It was a very exciting time," said Tipping, who has become one of the top Division III coaches in the country while at Muhlenberg College. "Going through college at that time you had the incentive to improve to be a pro. Although there are more players now, the very best athletes in this country are still not going into soccer because you still can't make any money in it."
The Stoners would compete in one more ASL championship and amass a five-year record of 76-49-25. Other locals such as Doylestown's Kevin Costello, Allentown's Joe Dueh, Jr. and Bethlehem's Tim Ehrsam would all get a chance to perform before the hometown folks.
But, because of losses totaling $5 million, competition from the established North American Soccer League and the newly formed United Soccer League, and sagging attendance, General Manager Kalman Csapo was forced to take the Stoners out of Allentown by 1983.
However, developers of the Lehigh County Soccer Fields believe their eight-field, state-of-the-art complex is capable of luring at least a semi-pro team out of the United States Interregional Soccer League back to the tradition-rich Lehigh Valley, and Bethlehem is trying to entice an A-League team to play there next year.