Destroy It And They Will Come
By onset of the Roaring Twenties, the popularity of KU’s outdoor athletic teams had outgrown the seating capacity of McCook Field, their first permanent home. This makeshift stadium was more than 30 years old, and its bleachers and grandstands had seriously deteriorated. The time had come for its replacement with a larger and more modern facility.
On May 10, 1921, in an event dubbed “Stadium Day,” more than 4,000 students and faculty members turned out to tear down McCook Field. It took them only an hour and 18 minutes to destroy the venue that had seen 32 KU football teams struggle (with varying success) against their peers from regional schools like Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Missouri. Afterward, students and faculty members enjoyed a barbecue at the University’s expense. Undoubtedly, the moment was not without a few wistful remembrances of KU’s early athletic contests played on a field that had come into existence through the unexpected beneficence of a stranger.
The origins of McCook Field can be traced to December 1889, when a coalition of students and faculty members formed the University Athletic Board. Their aim was to coordinate KU’s rather haphazardly organized sports teams and events. In its efforts to direct and encourage competitive sports at the University, the Athletic Board formed the “triangular league” by arranging intercollegiate games of football, baseball, and tennis with Baker University and Washburn College. From its inception, the Athletic Board sought to develop both an athletic field and a gymnasium. Raising the necessary funds, however, proved problematic for the board until it found, in the words of the 1893 Quivira, “an unexpected benefactor in Col. McCook, of New York.”
According to the self-reported Who’s Who in America, John James McCook had left Kenyon College to join the Union Army during the Civil War. Wounded in the Wilderness Campaign of May 1864, the young officer was brevetted to the rank of Colonel. (His father, eight brothers, and five cousins also served as Union Army officers in the Civil War and were called the “fighting McCooks of Ohio,” a title the University Review claimed was known “wherever the history of the nation is known.”)
In 1866, the year he turned 21, McCook graduated from Kenyon College. Three years later he received a law degree from Harvard and entered the employ of Alexander and Green, one of the oldest and most prestigious law firms in New York. McCook appears to have enjoyed a successful practice and a respectable career. He was reportedly offered a cabinet position by US President William McKinley, and became a member of the board of directors of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad.
In this latter position, McCook met Charles S. Gleed, who sat on the University of Kansas Board of Regents. Gleed invited McCook to be KU’s 1890 commencement speaker, and the New York lawyer delivered a rousing speech in which he attempted to link a classical education to the “material progress” of Kansas. McCook was apparently taken with KU and decided to bestow a gift upon the University. After witnessing the Senior-Faculty baseball game on the Massachusetts Street sports grounds south of the University, he resolved to donate $1,500 to the Athletic Board for the creation of a more suitable field. He later added another $1,000.
Following McCook’s unexpected contribution, the Athletic Board began to debate the future location of the field. Two possibilities presented themselves – the Massachusetts Street field already in use or a 12-acre gully northwest of campus owned by former Kansas Governor Charles Robinson, who was willing to donate half of the property to the University and accept payment for the other half at below-market value.
A vigorous dispute between proponents of each site lasted for nearly a year. Supporters of the Massachusetts Street location begged the board not to adopt a “pennywise policy” that would place the field in an unsuitable “ravine, gulch, or hollow.” Those who called for buying Robinson’s land pointed to the much higher cost of acquiring the Massachusetts Street property and argued that the northern grounds were “nearer the actual center of [the] student population.” Ultimately the Athletic Board decided to buy the land from Robinson, even though it involved the cost of grading the gullies.
In the spring of 1892, the grading of the grounds began, and by September of that year a high-board fence was being erected around the new field. On October 27, 1892, the Jayhawk football team defeated Illinois 27-4 in the first game played on McCook Field. (The gridiron ran east-west, or crosswise to the layout of present-day Memorial Stadium.)
Initially, McCook only had a covered 800-seat grandstand in the northwest corner of the field. The University gradually added to this seating until by 1911, bleachers that could accommodate 10,000 people surrounded the field on three sides. Outside the fence were trees in which young children could climb to watch the games, as well as two small brooks – one of which originated in Potter Lake while the other trickled down from a spring in Marvin Grove. At the confluence of the two creeks stood Hamilton Hall, which acted as the dressing room for the Jayhawks and their opponents.
During the 1910s, the bleachers and buildings of McCook Field began to decay. In October 1915, the University Daily Kansan reported that one of the bleachers’ planks had broken at a game and resulted in a minor injury. For the remainder of the decade, repairs followed every year. This maintenance could only accomplish so much, and in 1920, the University declared that the grandstands were “a menace to those who thronged them.” As the campus had grown considerably since 1892 and since football had risen in popularity, the school decided to replace McCook Field with a stadium that was to be dedicated to the memory of the 130 KU students who had lost their lives during World War I.
The new sports ground was constructed quickly following the demolition of McCook Field. On October 29, 1921, KU officially dedicated the partially completed Memorial Stadium in a game against Kansas State. Although McCook Field has disappeared into the University’s past, the donor who made possible the school’s first on-campus athletic facility has not been forgotten entirely. The road that provides access to the Memorial Stadium parking lot bears McCook’s name eighty years after his field’s last day.
Mark D. Hersey
Department of History
University of Kansas