From the Civil War to the Great War: the First 50 years of Cornell Athletics
Judging from history, the biggest collegiate sports in the 1860s appear to be football, baseball, crew and track. These ‘Big Four’ also hold the distinction of being the first sports clubs to burst onto the scene with Cornell University’s genesis in 1865. Not much has changed since then–besides, oh, civil rights and women’s suffrage–with football and baseball still ranked as the two most popular sports in America.
Primarily, these clubs did their own thing, like a hillbilly with a shotgun. These hillbilly sports clubs financed and ran themselves completely independently from each other and the University. Even after the Cornell University Athletic Association was formed in the 1870s, it had little power over the clubs, which remained largely autonomous. The turning point wouldn’t come until the 1880s, when the gift of Percy Field, the original football gridiron and baseball field, led to a need for Athletic Association intervention.
The football team began to enjoy the most success during this period and victories such as a 66-0 win over the University of Michigan in 1889, a huge score even in the modern era, helped cement Cornell’s reputation as a serious contender. In 1892, a student named Glenn “Pop” Warner decided to give football a try—does that name ring a bell? A few years after graduating in 1894, Warner returned to coach football as well as a couple of years of baseball for his alma mater.
“Dedicated to the joys of manly contest” are words, literally written in stone, above the entryway to Harvard Stadium in Cambridge, Massachusetts, opened in 1903. This seems to be a clear indication of the different dreams that led to the foundation of Harvard versus those at Cornell, where Schoellkopf Field, opened in 1915, would never be limited by such words. It was a stadium used for the viewing of both men and women displaying the joys of contest. These contests were broadening past the “big four” sports as intercollegiate games became a bigger deal. Between 1889 and 1900, the University would add many other sports, from cricket to lacrosse, to their athletic tool belt.
By 1912, the recently-nicknamed “Big Red” athletic programs were in full swing, enjoying the greatest successes and expansions from then to 1917. The football team won the first of its five national championships in 1915. However, ‘the war to end all wars’ seriously depleted the athletic rosters from 1917 to 1919 and suspended most play. In addition to the war, the Spanish Flu, also known as the Pandemic of 1918, made it its mission to kill many young people that managed to survive ‘the Great War.’
This Deadly Dynamic Duo worked together to almost completely eradicate collegiate sports clubs during this time. They failed, however, and the fall of 1919 saw the youth of America adopting the attitude that would become common in the 20s—to grab all joy while you can, because something is probably about to kill you. Joy in this case was that “manly” (and womanly) contest, and the Big Red saw a tripling in both enthusiasm and budget for their athletics. Sports at Cornell had survived and were here to stay.