Memory Lane: Field Day
It’s a Saturday in October, about 100 years ago. The trees are starting to change, there’s a chill in the air, and the stands at Illinois Field (1891–1986)—all wooden bleachers—are starting to fill, as fans stream through its wrought-iron gate. It’s a perfect morning for Illini football, especially against a conference rival like the University of Chicago. The game is a sellout, 18,000 fans, and not only are the stands full—there are even students up in the elm trees that surround the field, watching the game for free amongst a sea of golden leaves.
Before Memorial Stadium opened in 1923, that was a common football Saturday at the U of I. Coach Robert Zuppke’s teams of the 1910s and ’20s were among the nation’s best, with two national championships to their credit (1914 and 1919), and two in their future (1923 and 1927). Students, alumni and local football fans attended their games at Illinois Field in droves.
Built in 1891 as Athletic Park, Illinois Field was the campus’s first dedicated athletics facility. It served as the home of all the University’s outdoor sports—baseball, football, and track-and-field—for more than three decades, growing from a student-built, 300-seat ballpark into a spartan complex that covered four city blocks.
By the early 1920s, however,soaring attendance made it clear that the football team had outgrown the austere old field, leading to the construction of the 62,000-seatMemorial Stadium.
Illinois Field survived, despite losing its main attraction. Two years later, the track team would also leave for the new stadium; yet the baseball team remained. The Illini nine played its home games at Illinois Field for a total of 95 years, with only three losing seasons.
As the decades passed, Illinois Field began to show its age. By the 1980s, it offered few of the amenities found in most Big Ten ballparks. Former Illini pitcher Todd Mitter, ’89 BUS, recalls being astounded that it “still just had wood bleachers, no press box or sound system.”
It looked, in essence, a bit like a community ball field, and in its final years it also served that purpose, playing host to Babe Ruth League baseball practices and University Laboratory High School PE classes. Former student activist Vern Fein, MA ’64 LAS, remembers that even his “slow-pitch hippie softball team” used the field in the early 1970s because it “was right across from Earthworks and Metamorphosis restaurant.”
Finally, in 1986, Illinois Field was razed to make way for the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. By that time, a new ballpark was long overdue.
When Proano Stadium (now known as the “new” Illinois Field) opened in 1988 on the south side of campus, it was a welcome change for players and fans alike.
Still, many former Illini players, such as Paul Koch, ’66 ENG, MS ’68 ENG, have fond memories of the old ballpark—like a rainy weekend in the mid-1960s when Coach Lee Eilbracht, ’47 ACES, inspired by the Los Angeles Dodgers, called in helicopters from nearby Chanute Air Force Base to dry the field before the first pitch. It didn’t work, but for Koch and his fellow student-athletes, sitting in their dugouts and watching helicopters hover over the diamond was something they would never forget.
For four generations of U of I alumni, the same can be said of Illinois Field itself.