The following biography was compiled and written by Julian Friend, a writer, native Marylander and friend and fellow Navy Men's Soccer teammate of mine. Julian offered to write the biographies of all the Potomac Kicker coaches as part of the team's 20th Reunion Program back in 2002. I'm posting the biography of Coach Joe Baer here so I can provide a link to it to all Coach Baer's friends and family in our effort to raise $50,000 in 50 days in his honor in support of the 2014 Washington DC Race for Hope to Cure Brain Cancer. Joe died last Monday, March 10th, at age 85, after his failing heart finally gave in. If you read this and would like to help us reach our goal, please click the following link: Donate in Honor of Joe Baer. We need all the help we can get to reach this aggressive goal. Thanks.
compiled and written by Julian Friend
Joe Baer’s parents and he left Frankfurt and the madness of the Nazi regime that ruled in Germany for Strasbourg, France in May of 1938. He was ten at the time, an only child. In July, they made their way to Le Havre, where they boarded the cruise ship the SS Washington, which was used as a transport ship during World War II. Joe remembers that he learned to swim in the ship’s pool during their Atlantic crossing.
When they arrived in Ellis Island, they had trouble clearing immigration because both Joe and his mother were sick. Joe’s situation was further hampered due to his being legally blind in one eye. (His blindness was a condition he had simply adjusted to, and his compensation is all the more remarkable given the hand-eye coordination demands necessary to play goalkeeper.) Joe doesn’t remember the details, but eventually some of his family in New York helped his parents and him clear immigration.
His father had been a master butcher in Germany but also knew something about the scrap iron business, which is what he wanted to do in the States. However, finding work in the heart of the depression was difficult. Again, family connections saved the day, but all that could be found for Joe’s father was a job in Baltimore with a meat packing business that required working for seventy-two hours a week for eight dollars a week. They moved to the northwest area of Baltimore, but Joe’s father lost the job after six weeks because of his difficulties speaking English. Eventually, his father built up a produce-shipping business.
Joe himself had more immediate success hopping streetcars and selling the Baltimore Sun, just like Lionel Chaiken, who was hawking the same rag at the racetrack. He remembers the feelings of surprise and discomfort when his father and he discovered that Joe had more than eight bucks in his pocket after a successful day of selling papers. Joe’s industriousness never waned. “You name it, I did it,” he says—a saying supported by the believe-it-or-not fact that he even sold bibles for a while. By the time he was in high school, he would spend his summers working three jobs at once. At eighteen, he remembers a stretch when he would get up at 3:30 am two days a week to help his father load produce. Then, he would go to Druid Hill Park where he worked as a lifeguard for many years and stay from 8:30 to 3:45 p.m. By 4 p.m., he had to be at his new job with the Social Security Administration. The SSA job paid fourteen hundred a year.
Joe’s youth was not all about work. He did make the standard immigrant stab at baseball, while he could field well enough, he rarely got a hit. Not surprising, given his blindness in one eye. However, he had a better time with softball, which he loved. His junior high principal invited him to come down to Patterson Park and play in the gatherings there, and the softball diamond is where he got the name “Joe.” His given name is Eric, but the Polish immigrants at the park couldn’t pronounce that. So, they looked at the Joe Mitchell Co. sweatshirt that he wore and started calling him “Joe.” The name stuck.
When he was nearly 15, he made a visit to some cousins in New York who were part of a traveling club soccer team. When they came to Washington, he made his debut with them in a game played in the Ellipse near the Mall. Shortly thereafter he started making regular weekend trips to New York to play with the club in their local league. (The round-trip ticket on the B&O line was seven dollars.) By then, his father had started a meat business, in which he had hoped Joe would join him, but Joe’s devotion to soccer and his own industriousness were moving him in a different direction. On his son’s love of soccer, his father said, “If my son sees a girl in one corner and a soccer ball in another, I know where to find my son.”
Joe’s next opportunity came through a boxer friend, Alvin Glass, who was a scholarship boxer at the University of Maryland. Alvin told Joe that he could get a scholarship for room and board at College Park by convincing the coach, Henry Miller, that Joe was a boxer. Joe only had to act like a boxer. He showed up at the University, and it was soon apparent to Coach Miller that young man Baer’s physical well-being would be at serious risk if he tried to continue the pretense of being a boxer. Miller, however, was a good sport about the ruse and told him he would let him have room and board for a year. He found another means of supporting himself in college by waiting tables at a sorority house for his entire undergraduate career.
Free of his shady pugilist past, it wasn’t long before Joe found his way to the soccer field, where he made the varsity in ’48. The team was coached by a “slash” coach: tennis/soccer coach Doyle Royal, who knew next to nothing about soccer. Baer’s teams at Maryland were dominant, winning the ACC for three years; however, none of this was attributable to Royal, who once during an 8-0 romp over UVA, was found by his players to be off playing tennis. Another time, on a trip to Durham/Chapel Hill, the players learned that Royal had been pocketing their per diem and buying clothes from discount houses in North Carolina.
However, Royal was not the only person associated with UM soccer with a secret. During his entire amateur career at Maryland, Joe continued his trip to play in the semi-pro leagues in New York, where he had been a standout for years and would continue to play in until 1953. The NCAA never found out about his double career but it did come to some people’s attention when some people learned that he had been invited to the ’52 Olympics tryouts for college players and for semi-pro players.
Joe’s abilities got him to the final tryout, held in St. Louis in 1951. Unfortunately, he broke his hand in the very first game. By his own assessment, he was probably only the third or fourth best keeper there, but he became disillusioned with the selection process because the politics of the selection process were overt. In Joe’s opinion, the best keeper was a guy from California, but the selectors had strong ties to St. Louis, which wound up having eight representatives on the Olympic team, including the goalkeeper, Larry Sirach. Joe was named as an alternate and trained in England with the team before the games in Helsinki began.
With no professional opportunities in soccer available, Joe sought to find something which would keep him close to athletics . . . and his semi-pro gig in New York. He had finished his degree in Education at Maryland and then applied and won a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania’s physical therapy program. However, two circumstances conspired to prevent his matriculation. The first was that, unlike today, in the fifties the field of physical therapy was almost entirely made up of women, a fact he wasn’t entirely comfortable with. Second, his father got sick and had to go into the hospital for a while. Someone would need to run his wholesale meat business, and Joe dutifully answered the call and ran the business for about two years.
By ’53, he found an opportunity with a small loans company that specialized in automobile financing. When he started, his ambition was to make 100 dollars a week, which at that time was good money, but, working fourteen-fifteen hour days, he was earning over five times that within a year. He worked with the Metro Inc. Finance Co. from ‘54-’59. Joe moved into real estate sales in ’60, when he hooked up with a firm that purchased, remodeled, and sold houses. However, while fortune favored his business efforts, he experienced tragedy in his personal life.
Joe got married in the mid-fifties, and the Baer’s had a son in ’57. The son died mysteriously within six months in what was thought to be a case of accidental lye poisoning. The effect was devastating on Joe’s first wife, who, though able to continue being married to Joe and have two more children – Kenny in ’60, Steve in ’63, never coped successfully with the loss of the first son. They divorced in 1964, and Joe handled the duties of parenthood alone until he was blessed with meeting Hanna, whom he married in ’69.
Soccer remained a part of his life through refereeing, and his organizational talents served him well when he became the founder and first commissioner of the Montgomery Soccer Inc. (MSI) league. Eventually, Lionel and Marty Chaiken and Joe joined the best players from the MSI teams and formed them into one traveling team, which they entered in the National Capital Soccer League. The success of the team was immediate, and its success inspired him to make a greater commitment to it. As he has famously said, “My business became my hobby, and my hobby – soccer – became my business.” Between ‘74-’81, Joe estimates that he devoted about 60 hours a week to soccer.
While they continued dominating the NCSL, the Kickers began traveling in ’75 and went on to win tournaments in Cincinnati and Toronto (Robbie Cup). The England trip of ’77 was inspired by Mr. Donnaly, whose son Tom played for the Springfield club in the Capital League. He called Joe and told him, “I’ll arrange the details for a trip to England, if you can take Tom.” Joe felt such trips were great for the kids soccer-wise, but also valuable to their general education. They went 2-2-2 on the trip, playing games in Redding, Plymouth, and Liverpool. By the time then-named Potomac Kickers were of high school age, it was composed of players mostly from Whitman, Churchill, and Springbrook High Schools.
Of the infamous Pompeii game, Joe’s best memory is having the coach say to him, “How did you expect us to win the game when you had God in the goal?” That God-for-a-day was his own son, Steve. The trip to Omaha was bittersweet because he felt that the astroturf mitigated the strengths – skill, finesse – of the Kickers. However, beating California for third place took some of the bitterness of losing in the semis away. Joe confesses that his worst day in soccer was losing in the Maryland state final the next year, ’82. It was a Kickers team composed of high school seniors and college freshman that might have been better than the team that beat Pompeii. They finished the game tied to Olney 2-2 and lost in penalty kicks.
Of his days with the Kickers, Joe said, “Those kids meant everything to me. I’ve never seen a closer-knit club. It was family. Everything about it was family. You could see it in the little things like the way the parents participated in every way, including taking care of the fields at Woodward.” He feels proud about being able to get nearly the entire roster some college soccer opportunities and scholarship money.
One of his most special memories involves John Rutten. “John was a student at Springbrook High School who was offered a scholaship by Mark Berson [the coach at South Carolina]. During his freshman year, his father, Earl, died of a heart attack, and John came home for the funeral with thoughts of leaving school. His mother, Sharon, wanted him to continue at USC, but John was ready to walk away to return home. We stayed up talking in their kitchen ‘til three a.m. for two nights in a row, and he began to see that leaving college then would have been too hasty of a decision. He went back. He graduated and is now the vice-president of a chemical company. He and his wife had a child recently and visited us. It is those kinds of moments of being involved beyond the soccer field that are indicative of what kind of family environment the Kickers was.”
After 1982, Joe stayed active in soccer as a referee until ’97, when he had back surgery. He now lives in Florida with Hanna. Joe’s friendship with Lionel continues to this day. He is grateful for Gary Darrell’s participation in the club’s development. “He took the players beyond what we could teach them.” Joe enjoys being a grandfather and enjoys receiving Xmas cards and other intermittent calls and greetings from his former players.Note: In 2011 and 2012, Coach Joe Baer was inducted into the Maryland and Washington, DC Soccer Hall of Fame.