Kearny's Cradle of Soccer
In the early 1880s, John and Mary Cooper moved to lower Kearny and settled on the banks of the Passaic River. The area’s major employers were the Clark Thread Company and Marshall Flax Company, which “imported” thousands of workers from Scotland and England, respectively. The Coopers recognized a need for civilized employee housing and built a dozen large wooden tenements along the river bordering the Erie Railroad, and also opened up a general store. The neighborhood soon became known as Cooper’s Block. The Coopers built more housing after the Nairn Linoleum mill opened nearby. Nairn employed Irish workers in addition to Brits and Scots.
Many immigrants leaving Ellis Island stepped onto barges delivering them to Kearny and East Newark, where they found employment in one of the three massive factories—often as part of prearranged six-year contracts. Naturally, they gravitated to Cooper’s Block to congregate with their countrymen during their leisure time.
With these immigrants came a love of soccer, and Cooper’s Block became the cradle-to-grave epicenter of soccer culture in the region. Almost all of the best players and teams and leagues in the 1890s and early 1900s traced their roots back to the Block. There were multiple fields within walking distance of the Cooper properties. On weekends, as families, friends and fans flocked to the games, the Block became the social hub of Hudson County.
Among the transformational players who learned and played the game around Cooper’s Block were Archie Stark and his brother, Tommy, Davey Brown, Shamus O’Brien, John Hemingsley, George Post, George Tintle, Jim Ford and Jimmy Douglas. One of the earliest soccer stars from Cooper’s Block was Fred Cooper (above), John and Mary’s son. He not only anchored the first generation of soccer players from Kearny, but also played an influential role in basketball.
In 1893, Fred gave the new sport a try and instantly noticed that basketball players did not understand how to spread the court, as soccer players did. He and teammate Al Bratton, playing for a YMCA team in Trenton, unveiled the concept of passing—at first to each other before including their teammates. The Trenton YMCA dominated basketball in the region and beat the heralded 23rd Street YMCA team in 1894 to claim the first “world championship” of basketball.
The Cooper’s Block tenement complex operated into the Depression. The buildings were torn down in 1936 to make way for new housing, but the old soccer gang that grew up there continued to meet at reunions in the 1940s and 1950s. A popular pub named Cooper’s Block does brisk