The men running at Joe Gaetjens wanted to grab him and make him theirs. Terrified, Gaetjens and other members of the 1950 U.S. World Cup team at first looked to flee, not realizing that the mob wanted only to hoist them on its shoulders.
After the Americans defeated England 1--0 that June evening in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, there seemed to be nothing but beautiful horizons before soccer in the U.S., and before Gaetjens himself, a Haitian émigré who had played the game, studied accounting and worked as a dishwasher in New York City before scoring the lone goal in perhaps the greatest upset in World Cup history.
Thirty-seven minutes into a first-round match in which no one gave the Americans a chance, Walter Bahr of the U.S. sent a shot toward the far post, shoulder high, from about 25 yards on the right side. As English goalkeeper Bert Williams moved to his right, he kept the ball in his sights for what looked to be a routine save. That's when Gaetjens laid himself out in a dive around the penalty spot.
Flouting the buttoned-up ethos of postwar America, Gaetjens liked his jersey loose-fitting and untucked, with his socks shoved down around his ankles. Relatives and former teammates remember him as a carefree, gregarious bon vivant. Whether they're playing dice or putting money on a fighting cock, it's characteristic of Haitians to double down on even a remote chance of the big payoff. Gaetjens made the goalmouth a stage for what Haitians call l'esprit magique, a determination to court the long shot.
If Gaetjens had struck the ball square with his forehead, it would have caromed harmlessly toward the corner flag. Instead, only grazing his head, the ball took off as if with a mind of its own. Williams didn't have a chance. When the goal stood up after another 53 breathless minutes, the 15,000 or so fans at Independência Stadium, their numbers swollen as word spread of the brewing upset, gloried in the humiliation of Brazil's great rival, the team then regarded as the world's best.
A year later Bobby Thomson would hit a home run for the New York Giants that provincial U.S. sportswriters popularized as the Shot Heard 'Round the World. But Gaetjens's goal truly was a broadside with global reverberations, even if only one U.S. journalist, Dent McSkimming of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, made the trip to Belo, paying his own way at that. The newspapers burned by fans in the stands to celebrate the Americans' victory could have symbolized the way news of the achievement would go up in smoke back home.
One afternoon in Port-au-Prince 14 years later, other men wanted to grab Joe Gaetjens and make him theirs. Only this time it was no delirious mob sprinting toward him. There were only two of them, both Tontons Macoute, the hard men of Haitian dictator François (Papa Doc) Duvalier. They walked up to Gaetjens as he pulled to a stop in his car. Then they took him to a place from which he never returned.
It took another eight years for Gaetjens's family to find out what had happened to him. His brothers Gérard and Jean-Pierre, who lived in exile in the U.S., established a foundation to determine his fate and that of other former athletes around the world facing political persecution. Clive Toye, the first general manager of the New York Cosmos, took up the Gaetjens's cause in 1971 and publicized Joe's plight at a match at Yankee Stadium. After pressure from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, among others, an answer finally came in early 1972: The Haitian government confirmed to the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince that Joe Gaetjens had died.
But when and how remain a mystery. Indeed, from the moment that ball struck the back of the English net, it's as if a multinational conspiracy had been joined to obscure or distort the man who sent it there. The wire report the day after the match credited the U.S. goal to Gaetjens's teammate Ed Souza. Eduardo Galeano, in his 1995 classic, Soccer in Sun and Shadow, called the goal "the work ... of a black Haitian center forward named Larry Gaetjens," although Gaetjens was neither Larry nor black, but a milat, a member of the light-skinned social elite. The 2005 feature film about the 1950 World Cup team, The Game of Their Lives, makes Gaetjens out to be a voodooist, when in fact he was raised Catholic and remained a weekly communicant until he disappeared. And today, if you go to waitingforgaetjens.com, the home page for Greg Lalas's podcast commentaries on U.S. soccer, and click on Who Is Joe Gaetjens?, you're greeted by the message, "Coming soon." Gaetjens as Godot.
Such are the wages of obscurity. Sixty years on, as the U.S. and England prepare to take the pitch in Rustenburg, South Africa, on June 12 for their first meeting in World Cup play since the miracle of Belo, Gaetjens remains the where-have-you-gone Joe least likely to inspire a song lyric—the sports hero Americans scarcely noticed had gone missing.