I was on Twitter when I came across the news that David Wangerin died. I had been combing tweets for news on the U.S. swimming, gymnastics, and track trials, reading occasional editorials about the Supreme Court’s ruling on health care, and, admittedly, boning up on the breakup of Tom and Katie. And then I read a tweet about David from Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl, who included a link to the obituary published by Major League Soccer Talk.
On Wahl’s Facebook page, soccer fans expressed condolences as well as their admiration for David’s work, with statements such as “he needs to be in the Hall of Fame” and “he was a tremendous resource in the American soccer community.” Perhaps best summarizing Wangerin’s legacy, one fan posted: “A loss to those of us who love the history of the game. He connected the dots with his deep knowledge, bringing to light the rich tradition of soccer in the US. In Fife, at Raith Rovers, the Kingdom is now playing one short.”
David’s work first came to my attention when Temple’s executive editor, Micah Kleit, sent me a copy of Soccer in a Football World, published in the United Kingdom. I tore through it, my jaw dropping frequently at the story he told of soccer in America. I, like so many others, had always thought of soccer as a more recent drive-the-kids-to-their-game-this-Saturday sort of sport. Americans left the fanaticism and hooliganism over the beautiful game to the rest of the world while baseball and (American) football and basketball took up all the headlines. David, born and raised in the Midwest, lived abroad to satiate his love of what was largely seen in the U.S. as a “minority sport,” describing himself as “a soccer fan born in the wrong country at nearly the wrong time.” Balancing his fandom with his serious research and writing skills, David’s book powerfully altered the way in which soccer fits within the context of the history of American sport.
Needless to say, I wanted the book, badly. Temple published it in the spring of 2008 in my series, Sporting, giving it an even larger audience than it already had. We followed suit with his next effort, Distant Corners, which continues his track of diving into the ebb and flow of soccer’s popularity in the United States, giving us characters such as Thomas William Cahill, the nearly forgotten “father of American soccer”; the importance of St. Louis in developing the so-called American style; and thrilling detail of the 1979 season of the North American Soccer League. Library Journal declared, “The seventh book in Temple’s ‘Sporting’ series is one of the best recently published soccer books.” I heartily agreed: the book was both a treasure trove of rarely – if ever – told stories as well as a telling statement on why soccer’s popularity continues to lag behind here.
The loss of David is enormous. When I asked Wahl – the most important soccer journalist in America – to comment, he simply stated “He left us far too soon.” And he did. And while it feels cliché to write that his work will live on, it is true, as that is one of the great legacies of great writing. He changed forever how we view soccer in this country, giving us narratives that began far before David Beckham ever set foot in Los Angeles. And it was a privilege to be part of that work.
Dr. Amy Bass is Professor of History, at The College of New Rochelle and Editor, of Temple University Press’ Sporting series.