by Si Affron
In a star-studded class of inductees including the likes of one NFL MVP (Rich Gannon of St. Joe’s Prep), one eight-time Gold Glove winner (Garry Maddox of the Phillies), and one legendary NFL coach (Dick Vermeil of the Eagles), Benny McLaughlin is not the most well-known name.
Nevertheless, as a member of the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame’s 2015 class of inductees, McLaughlin will receive due recognition for being one of the greatest soccer players in Philadelphia’s history.
And he happens to be the father of Water Tower Recreation Center director Brian McLaughlin.
In the mid-20th century, the Kensington neighborhood, chock full of immigrants from Scotland, Ireland and the rest of Europe, benefited from the growth of several prominent boys clubs for soccer.
The prominence of some clubs, such as Lighthouse Boys Club, where McLaughlin spent his formative years, turned “the K&A” (Kensington and Allegheny avenues) neighborhood into an American soccer hotbed.
McLaughlin, though, may be the most celebrated player to ever come out of the neighborhood, or even the city.
He spent his collegiate years down the street at Temple University. He was then one of the finest players to ever play in the American Soccer League, a mid-century precursor to today’s Major League Soccer, spending most of his years with the Philadelphia Nationals.
But according to his son Bernie McLaughlin, who was on hand to speak on behalf of his late father at the media conference on Thursday, “he was particularly proud whenever he played international ball, knowing that he walked onto the field representing the United States of America.”
The McLaughlins came to America because of soccer, as Benny’s father was a Scottish player, and Bernie said the soccer and athletics tradition will continue down through the family. It has certainly carried down to Benny’s son Brian.
Another son of McLaughlin’s, Andy McLaughlin, tells a story to describe his father: “There was an assistant coach I had who went on to coach at Villanova University. He once referred to my father, Benny McLaughlin, and his teammate and friend Walter Bahr as the Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig of soccer.”
It was an era, however, when soccer players earned a fraction of what baseball players made. So, as two of his sons recalled, he turned down a spot on the 1950 Olympic team because the time away would have lost him his day job. That U.S. team beat England, 1-0, in what is considered one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history. It would be 40 years before the United States returned to the tournament.
Nevertheless, Benny McLaughlin is an American soccer great, earning his induction into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1977, and also the Temple University Sports Hall of Fame and Southeastern Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame before his death in 2012.
“I think one of the biggest contributions that my father made was that, before soccer was recognized in the way it is today in this country,” Bernie said. “He gave visibility to the game for a lot of the colleges and universities in the area.”
The Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame, which recognizes both athletes who are from Philadelphia and who played in the city, also included Billy Markward, Bob Montgomery, Cindy Timchal, Dave Zinkoff, Dick Vermeil, Dick Williams, Garry Maddox, Karen Shelton, Lou Nolan, Mahdi Abdul-Rahman, Rich Gannon, Rick MacLeish, Sam Thompson, and Timmy Brown in its 12th class.