A trapezoid goes quad
In February 2023, the University announced it soon will ease a chronic shortage of space for first-year students by building a $500-million complex of five residence halls on Elbel Field.
Architects from the prestigious NY-based firm Robert A.M. Stern produced impressive renderings and 3-D models for the complex. Breathtaking, even.
But around Ann Arbor, a hint of nostalgic melancholy trailed the news. So many memories will be buried under that magnificent new quadrangle.
No one said it was pretty
Elbel Field has never been much to look at, just a flat, fenced trapezoid in the University’s backyard. It is bounded by Hoover, Hill, and South Division streets, and the Ann Arbor Railroad.
Still, the field has been the stomping grounds of two beloved U-M institutions — the intramural sports program and the Michigan Marching Band (MMB).
Both will find a new home as Elbel Field moves to its future location across Hill, where the sheds of Fingerle Lumber once stood. (The University acquired the land in 2019 and has since torn the sheds down.)
Future athletes will still compete and the band will certainly march on, but the people who scored, ran, practiced, and played on the old Elbel Field will remember what they did there for a long time.
In the stadium’s shadow
The 6.42-acre plot had a long life as Wines Field, the home turf of the original Ann Arbor High School. In the era of World War II, the University rented it for “interscholastic games.”
Then, in 1950, the Regents bought the property for $115,000 and handed it over to the Athletic Department. Still called Wines Field, it became the home of the sprawling intramural sports program and the practice field for the University’s marching musicians. In 1977, at the suggestion of George Cavender, MMB director from 1971-79, the administration renamed Wines Field to honor Louis Elbel, composer of “The Victors.”Touch football and softball were Elbel’s perennials. But over time, the field also hosted volleyball leagues, soccer leagues, Michigan’s rugby and lacrosse club teams, and eclectic forms of frisbee tossing from “ultimate” competitions to summer Sunday freestyling, with or without dogs. A U-M Boxing Club did some low-key sparring in Elbel’s little locker house. And when the MMB was on the road, pick-up basketball players swarmed the big patch of pavement. (“The backboards are so stiff,” one Michigan Daily writer advised, “that if you don’t swish your shot, it’s not going in.”)
‘Whoa, what a smoke’
Two varsity teams once played at Elbel — women’s softball and women’s soccer in the programs’ early years. But intramural sports ruled the field. Of course, the IM athletes also roamed the more picturesque Mitchell Field on the banks of the Huron. But Elbel, somehow, remained the program’s gritty home base.
After all, Elbel’s wannabes played in the shadow of Michigan Stadium and Crisler Arena. And at twilight, glorious fluorescent lights snapped on to bathe the field in visibility until 11 p.m.
Geoff Larcom, BA ’80/MA ’82, a sports editor of The Michigan Daily who became sports editor of the Ann Arbor News, remembered the challenge that beckoned to every slugger who stepped to the plate on the southeast softball diamond.
“If you put it over the fence to the railroad tracks,” he said, “that was just a huge crunch. You had to pull it right down the line. I remember seeing one guy do it. Like, ‘Whoa, what a smoke.'”
The Apes of Wrath and the Ted Lasso Reserves
Over the decades, Elbel hosted networks of intramural leagues that on paper looked more complicated than Major League Baseball’s farm system. In a given year, softball leagues fighting for time on the two diamonds could include the Graduate Competitive, Graduate Recreative, Fraternity A, Fraternity B, Residence Hall A and B, Women’s Competitive, Women’s Recreative, Co-Rec Recreative and Co-Rec Competitive, plus squadrons of independent teams.
Team names were even more multifarious. In fact, they were a minor form of pop art, from the cute to the risqué to the downright scatalogical.
Roster lists of 50 years ago featured the Apes of Wrath, the Fupped Ducks, the Random Samples, Totally Offensive, and the Cadavers. The tradition persists today with the likes of the G Spot, the Hot Messis sic, the Ted Lasso Reserves, and Ball Me.
When Coach Jim Harbaugh arrived on campus in 2015, the Ultimate Frisbaughs emerged on the scene.
The refs have it
A thousand minor triumphs and tragedies of sport played out on Elbel Field. Griping over student officiating was its own pastime. A Daily writer of the 1980s preserved an overheard exchange that was typical among quaddies down through the years:
“Hey, man, you win your IM game?”
“Are you kidding? Damn refs screwed us again. I thought they might be better in football but they’re as bad as ever. And they were the pits in softball.”
“The guy who umped when I played for you in the B-level championship game was pretty good.”
“Yeah, but he was the best they’ve got.”
The most visible classroom on campus
Years ago, the University installed small sets of bleachers for students who wanted to watch friends play IM games. But before long, some muscular fans of the MMB turned the stands around to face the band’s practice field.
From then on, the bleachers welcomed generations of Ann Arborites and their children who came by on weekday afternoons and football Saturday mornings to watch the band rehearse — possibly the best free entertainment in Washtenaw County. On a clear autumn afternoon, the pounding drums at Elbel could be heard from the Diag to the far reaches of Ann Arbor’s Old West Side.
For members of the band, Elbel was “the most visible classroom of any course at the University of Michigan,” said Eric Becher, MMB director from 1980-89. The two-credit course consisted of grueling rehearsals and sheer physical hardship, especially during pre-football “Hell Week,” which was often closer to 10 days than seven.
The pre-season schedule called for dreaded “three-a-days” — rehearsals from 9 a.m. to noon, 1:30-5 p.m., and 7-9 p.m. — on a practice gridiron of sun-baked asphalt. (Artificial turf arrived about 20 years ago.) Band practice wasn’t U.S. Army boot camp, but it wasn’t easy.
Take one example — Hell Week in 1974. On Monday, Aug. 26, the mercury in Ann Arbor thermometers hit 87 degrees. The average high for the week was 81. John Bisaro, BS ’78/MBA ’83, a freshman at the time, was trying out for the trumpet section. Once the exhausting tryouts ended, he went home to Allen Park for a much-needed rest — only to shock his mother with his appearance. Bisaro had made the band. But in five days he’d lost 10 pounds.
Time marches on
When Becher (once a trumpet player in the band) took over as director in the 1980s, he liked to go for a run after the Hell Week evening sessions. One night, long after the band had left, he was on his way back past the deserted Elbel when he spotted a solitary figure in the bleachers.
Becher jogged over to check on him. It was a percussionist in his first year. Becher asked what was up.
“I’m thinking about quitting,” the student said.
“That’s fine,” Becher said. “Three-a-days are tough. This isn’t for everybody. If it was, we’d have 16,000 members in the band. But I’ll make you a deal. Stay through the first game. Go through that tunnel once. Experience that thrill. If at that point you still want to quit, we’ll shake hands and go our separate ways.”
The kid said he would try.
Some 30 years later, Becher was standing on the sidelines at Michigan Stadium during a Homecoming game when he heard someone in the crowd call his name. He looked up and recognized the percussionist.
He had made it through that first game. He had marched all four years. He had met his wife in the Michigan Marching Band. Now he wanted to introduce Becher to his children.
All because of that one talk in the stands at Elbel Field.
Sources included John Bisaro; Eric Becher; Geoff Larcom; the papers of the U-M Department of Recreational Sports, Bentley Historical Library; and the Michigan Daily. Lead image: Holden Warriner, a member of the men’s intramural softball team, “The Bambinos,” warmed up with his teammates in 2013 as the sun set over Elbel Field. Credit: Lon Horwedel, Michigan Photography.)