Green Day, Grass Painted Green: Pelé Debuts for the Cosmos

Charles CuttoneEvery sport has its moments that, while perhaps seeded in historical truth, have evolved into myths that seem bigger than the truth. Like Babe Ruth’s called shot in the 1932 World Series. Or painting the dirt green for Pelé’s first game with the New York Cosmos.

While there are conflicting reports whether the Babe actually called his shot, the-dirt painting legend is true. I know. I was one of the painters. That was part of the glamorous job of being a public relations assistant for what was soon to become one of the most famous soccer teams on the planet.

Though it happened more than 40 years ago, my memory of the day remains vivid, and while a bit of embellishment might have crept in over the years, it did happen. The story has been retold so often, and somehow become a lead item to a lifetime of work in the sports industry, that I fear it might someday become the first line of my obituary.

It was a warm Sunday morning in June. I, barely into my teens and freshly graduated from Catholic school, was ready for the day and attired in my brand new suede sneakers, a big step up from the beat-up canvas Keds or PF Flyers kids wore in those days.

I rode up to Randall’s Island with other members of the team’s staff, many hours before the game was scheduled to kick off. Upon arrival, we were informed that there would be additions to the normal game day routine, especially since the largest crowd in the Cosmos’ then-brief history was expected, along with nearly 300 news media members and a worldwide TV audience.

Some staffers, all of whom were given T-shirts with the No. 10 on the back, were put to work setting up sponsor sign boards along the touchline. Others set about ringing the upper row of the concrete stadium with surplus school chairs, the kind with the arm and little desk attached. These were to be used for the overflow news media that the tiny concrete press box could not possibly accommodate.

Me, I was given an old metal watering can, the kind designed for watering flowers in the garden. Its contents? Watered down green paint. I was told to go cover the patches of bare dirt dotting the Downing Stadium field. Soccer had arrived as a big league sport, and needed to look the part!

Later, in the broadcast booth, the CBS announcer, who was doing the game for national television on the network in eight years, had a puzzled look on his face as he gazed over the field. He said the grass looked a little strange in some places. I informed him it was because the dirt had been painted over. He of course, didn’t believe this teenager whom he had just met. I pointed to the now green-covered suede sneakers I was wearing as proof.

The Cosmos beat the Dallas Tornado, 2-1, that day. Pelé scored one of the goals, on an assist from Mordechai Shpigler, then returned the favor by setting up the Israeli for the other goal.