Lloyd Monsen: left wing and pitcher at the 1952 Olympics
By Tom Shieber
We’re unveiling a new exhibit titled Olympic Baseball. As you might guess, it is a celebration of the history of baseball in the Olympics. What you may not know is that our national pastime has been played at the Olympics for almost 100 years, starting with a pair of exhibition games at the 1912 Games in Stockholm.
Baseball was also played at the 1936 Games in Berlin, the ’56 Games in Melbourne, Australia, and the ’64 Games in Tokyo. But perhaps the most surprising and obscure appearance of baseball in the Olympics took place at the 1952 Games in Helsinki, Finland.
That summer, the Olympics featured an exhibition of pesšpallo, a popular Finnish game adapted from our game of baseball. Famed sportswriter and future J.G. Taylor Spink Award-winner Red Smith witnessed the game and wrote: “[Pesšpallo] was invented by Lauri Pihkala, a professor who wears a hearing aid and believes his game was modeled on baseball. Somebody must have described baseball to him when his battery was dead.”
Apparently, the local Olympic organizing committee invited the U.S. to play a game of baseball (the original game, not the Finnish version) against a champion team from Finland. Walter Giesler, coach of the U.S. soccer team and a future Soccer Hall of Famer, was tasked with organizing the baseball team. With his soccer team quickly eliminated from the Olympics, bowing to the Italians, 8-0 ,on July 16, he had a surplus of top athletes with little to do. Why not play baseball?
The U.S. played a practice game against Venezuela on July 29, posting a 14-6 victory, then followed that up with the main contest against the Finns, a 19-1 drubbing played at Helsinki Football Stadium on Aug. 5.
As lead curator of the exhibit, I wanted to make sure that we featured artifacts from each Olympiad in which baseball was played. The one hole was the Helsinki contests. I immediately set to work trying to track down some of the soccer players from the 1952 U.S. team in hopes that they might provide some leads.
Finding out who was on the U.S. soccer squad was no problem, as the team is well-documented and featured quite a few “name” players. Besides Coach Giesler, the team featured five other future Soccer Hall of Famers: Charlie Colombo, Harry Keough, Lloyd Monsen, Willy Schaller and John Souza.
Of these greats, four — Colombo, Giesler, Keough and Souza — were members of the famed U.S. soccer team that stunned England, 1-0, at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. The victory is considered by many to be the greatest moment in U.S. soccer history … and the worst in the storied history of English soccer.
Working my way alphabetically through the list of six Hall of Famers, I turned my attention to Colombo. Like many others on the Olympic soccer team, Colombo hailed from St. Louis, a city that has long been a hotbed of soccer talent. Like baseball legends Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola, Colombo grew up in St. Louis’ Italian neighborhood known as “Dago Hill,” today referred to as simply “The Hill.” But Colombo passed away over 20 years ago, so I turned my attention to Harry Keough.
Harry was, and still is, a legend in St. Louis. Not only did he win a national junior championship, play on the 1950 U.S. team that toppled England and participate in two Olympic Games (1952 and ’56), but he also went on to coach the St. Louis University Billikens to five NCAA men’s soccer championships. Fortunately, I was able to contact his son Ty, a great player in his own right as well as a television soccer analyst. Unfortunately, my timing was off. Ty informed me that his father was out of the country.
Next: Lloyd Monsen.
Monsen, who played left wing for U.S. Olympic soccer team, was born and raised in Brooklyn. Some cursory research led me to believe that he might still be living in the area, but in checking on the Web, I found that not only was there no “Lloyd Monsen” listed in Brooklyn, there was no one by that name in the entire state of New York. I decided to “go for it” and searched for any Lloyd Monsen in the country … and found just one!
I made the cold call to Clearwater, Fla., and when a man answered the phone, I introduced myself and asked if this was Lloyd Monsen.
Was this the same Lloyd Monsen who played soccer at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki?
Did he know anything about the baseball games that were played that summer in Finland?
“Not only did I play in those games, I was the starting pitcher.”
Unbelievable! Lloyd was, and is, as sharp as a tack and went on to describe the baseball games in surprising detail. He recalled that U.S. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. threw out the first pitch before the game against Finland, and noted that the host country supplied all the baseball equipment.
Thankfully, Lloyd kept quite a few souvenirs from his Olympic experience in Finland, and he has graciously loaned us the patch from his team jacket along with his official Olympic ID for our exhibit. These wonderful artifacts are just two of over 50 that are featured in our Olympic Baseball exhibit, now open on the second floor of the Museum.
Tom Shieber is senior curator of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.