Adieu, Elbel Field

A trapezoid goes quad

Artist's rendering of a new residence Hall to be built by Robert A.M. Stern Architects.

Robert A.M. Stern Architects provided this image of the stunning new residential complex.

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

Aerial view of Elbel Field reveals a trapezoid shape.

An aerial shot of this trapezoid will look markedly different in just a few years. (Image: Roger Hart, Michigan Photography.)

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

It’s tough to spot the receiver under the dark of night, 1975. (Image: Joe Grimm, courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

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’

Betsey Axley plays women's soccer on Elbel in 1994.

Women’s soccer once called Elbel Field its home turf. Here, Betsey Axley represents the Wolverines against Northern Illinois in 1994. (Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

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

An intramural baseball team talks strategy on the sidelines. Young men in a semi-circle dressed in mismatching t-shirts.

Members of an intramural ball team in 2015 plan strategy before taking the field. (Image credit: Peter Matthews, Michigan Photography.)

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

Two soccer opponents compete to control the ball. Action shot.

Soccer is one of the most popular sports on Elbel Field. (Image: Peter Matthews, Michigan Photography.)

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

The Michigan Marching Band, before turf. (Image: Martin Vloet, Michigan Photography.)

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.

Members of the MMB flag corps lay on the green turf at Elbel Field to stretch before practice.

Members of the MMB flag corps stretch on the turf at Elbel Field prior to an August 2012 practice. (Image: Martin Vloet, Michigan Photography.)

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

A horn player is silhouetted against the evening sky with a band case in the foreground that reads Michigan Marching Band with a Block M.

The MMB will soon call the new Elbel home. (Image Lon Horwedel, Michigan Photography.)

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.

Masked members of the MMB 2020

In 2020, members of the MMB adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic using unique protective equipment. (Photo: Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography.)

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.)


  1. Jo Shaw - 1950

    What a wonderful trip down memory lane. I grew up a block from Wines Field on John St. I went to the summer playground and ice skated there in the winter. While at Ann Arbor High I went to football games and marched in the band. I took my children there to watch the MMB practice. Thanks for the memories.


    • Pat Sullivan - 1975, 1980

      I lived near there and often wondered what the field’s name was. I thought of it as a multi-purpose space with grass – it was a big field.


  2. James Mammel - BS78,MD81. MMB75,76

    Will the Cavender tower be moved to the new Elbel field MMB rehearsal field? Can some more photos of the new building be posted please


  3. Leon Sarkisian - 1974

    I was a member of MICHIGAN’S MARCHING BAND from ’69-’73 and practiced on that field Monday through Saturday. My parents would drive one hour from Royal Oak Michigan on Saturday morning and park on the field after the band did its morning rehearsal. Lunch followed out of the trunk of our ’69 FORD LTD for any member of the band whose parents couldn’t make the trip. Lots of great memories of that field.


  4. John Rietz - 1993

    Whenever I pass the practice field, I think of the famous photo published in Life Magazine (in 1950) of a string of kids imitating a Michigan drum major high-stepping on Elbel Field.


  5. Constance Kelly - BA65, MA66

    For as many years as I can recall, the “preferred path” back toward campus after a game in the Big House was the diagonal across the field from the railroad tracks on Hoover to the corner of South Division and Hill. Then it was fenced off and the sports diamond and bleachers disappeared. We had to take the long way around!


  6. Carl Wahl - 1999

    Practiced many night and played many games of rugby for the UMRFC on Elbel Field; recall scoring two tries against Cooley Law the weekend I wrapped up studies in Ann Arbor. I likely still have soil from Elbel (and Mitchell and Palmer Fields, respectively) in some of the scars from that long ago.


  7. Bob Acker - 1969

    I have memories of practicing on Wines Field with the Marching Band in 1968 and 1966. Those August drills in the hot summer sun were brutal. Marching all the way down the field, about face, and then marching the other way. What a workout! But as that percussion player experienced, that first time on game day marching to the Stadium and coming out of the tunnel was indeed incredible.


  8. Alex Wood - 2011, 2012

    Great article and sad to see it end. The Men’s Soccer team also called Elbel home when it first turned varsity in 2000 before moving to a field on State Street.


  9. Bob Scranton - 1970 MPH School of Public Health

    Around 2009 we moved our tailgating RV from Pioneer to Fingerle Lumber. Owner John was so grateful to see us, he made special arrangement to park several RV’s at Fingerle and would let us come in on Friday and leave on Sunday. He even provided electrical hookups. Great place to Park and we to this day talk about the great times at Fingerle. Of course on Friday nights and Saturday mornings we would wander over from our RV’s to watch the MMB practice, which was outstanding and provided us with the spirit for the Saturday Games. What great times.


  10. Michael Young - 1992

    Displacing the Marching Band further from Revelli is not ideal, but I’m hoping the upgrades that the new field will provide will make it worth it. My one concern, as a parent of a MMB trumpet player, is whether the new layout will accommodate the breakfast/lunch tents that the MMB parents set up to provide much needed meals to the band on game days. Will there be vehicle access for drop-off? Will there be suitable area to set up the large tent sites? Will the extra 5 minute walk to/from the field impact the time that the band students have to eat their meals? Many questions, and I am hopeful that this great game-day tradition of the MMB parents providing meals will go on.

    Go Blue!


  11. Wendy Shepard - BSN60

    Oh what bittersweet news. I remember that picture in Life when published!!!. and when back in 1962-1964 for my hu. MBA, we took our newborn to then 2 year old child for a glorious free afternoon of heart stirring music.The free was most welcome but the words would be sufficient to describe. Know U of M needs this…but farewell to a warm part of my past.


  12. Nauman Chaudhry - 1998, PhD Computer Science

    During (at least) the 90’s Elbel Field was the home ground for University of Michigan Cricket Club. I played cricket there during the summers of 92, 93, 94 and 95. I was the club president in 94 and 95, and the team captain in 95. Most of the team members were international graduate students, with some undergrads who were attending summer school, and some US students who had caught the cricketing bug during study abroad in England. Some faculty members would also play with the club. Two members of Michigan Cricket Club from that time are or have been recent chairs of two different Michigan engineering departments – Aerospace and Material Science & Engineering.

    We hosted teams from many universities in the mid-west (Ohio State, Michigan State, Purdue, Penn State, Toledo, Cincinnati, Western Michigan) and some clubs from the Detroit metro area. Our pitch was near the center of Elbel Field, without grass. We would roll the pitch to make it smooth and then we would lay a matting pitch on top of it. I graduated in 1998 and the club was still playing till then. I not sure when the club stopped playing at Elbel Field.


    • Joanna Connelly - 2013

      I played with the U of M Field Hockey Club while a student from 2009-2013. When the weather was nice we played on Elbel’s turf field, but when it wasn’t, we played across the street inside the Coliseum. For some of that time the next practice after ours was cricket. We’d watch them set up and start to play as we stretched and my Indian, Pakistani, and English teammates would explain the rules! Great memories.


  13. Christina Consolino - BA, 1995; PhD, 2003

    I just shed a tear! I spent hours on Elbel playing softball and sand volleyball, and the basketball hoops in the parking lot were favorites of mine. My husband and I met there too. We’ll be sure to stop by before August to have a family picture taken at the place that started it all for us!


  14. Sherman Stenson - B.S.Engin (IOE) '82

    Elbel Field was part of some of my favorite daily routines in Ann Arbor: Hiking down State Street from South Quad, past the diner whose only name seemed to be “Food” from the neon sign in the window, fall baseball practice at Fisher Stadium, back to SQ for dinner, then off to Elbel Field with my Kelsey House “Roots” teammates for intramural football in questionable lighting. Laughing our butts off all the way back. Great memories.


  15. Tim Yagle - 1980

    Nice article, Jim. By the way, you and Ann Marie were the Daily co-editors in chief the year I joined The Daily, so thanks for helping set the bar so high for us.


    • James Tobin - 1978, 1986

      Thanks, Tim!


  16. Rolf Wucherer - 1974

    I went by Elbel Field as a kid riding my bike around Ann Arbor. One night in later years I went by with my wife (class of ’76) and we saw the drum major tryouts as each candidate strutted their stuff. It was huge fun! I am glad that new memories will be built in the new location. BTW, I used to fly my kite at the field where the field hockey stadium now is, and we later played beer ball with leftover kegs there. I walked through that field on many days on my way to the stadium.


  17. Michael Weinberger - 66

    I biked by the field every day on my way to Rackham and was always inspired by the band to pump harder.


  18. Paul Sutherland - 2008

    Fond memories of Marching Band on Elbel, which feels more like the home of the band to me than Michigan Stadium given all of the time we spent there. The turf was not added to the band field 20 years ago though, more like 10. My knees might be a bit happier climbing stairs today if I hadn’t done so much high-stepping and entries on the asphalt, which they can confirm was still the surface of the field in 2005-2007.


  19. Ron Porter - 1977, 1979

    Fond memories of Markley Elliott winning the championship in Residence Hall B football on that field. Not as successful trying to defend against Tom Slade’s throws a few years later in the grad school football league when he was in dental school and I was in law school. Lot’s of great times there!


  20. Tim Bartholow - 1973, 1974, 1979

    MMB bass drum 1967-1970. One of my favorite Wines Field memories from those old days is seeing Chip Davis (yes, THAT Chip Davis), who played cymbals in the MMB, slip on muddy Wines Field and fall flat on his face while dressed head to toe in white Levis. Can’t catch yourself with cymbals in your hands! He was a mess for the rest of that rehearsal. Hello to Mark, Steve, John, Chip, Salo, and all the other old MMB drummers.


  21. Travis LaFalce - UM-Flint 2019

    I attended the games with my dad growing up from 1999-2018 and every game we passed by Elbel Field walking down the railroad tracks as a shortcut from Hill to Keech. I’ll never forget some of the characters I met there. After the Braylon Edwards catch in triple overtime game against MSU in 2004, nine year old me begged my dad to buy me a State Sucks t-shirt from one of the guys hawking them on the sidewalk by the intramural field. He said “I’d never hear the end of it from your mom.” Met Jim Brandstatter and Jamie Morris going into the stadium through the entrance by the tunnel.


  22. Andrew Augustine - 2002

    I’m really going to miss Elbel Field. From my first days on campus during hell week, to just sitting peacefully on a warm summer night, it will alcohols a special place in my heart.


  23. J B

    Turf came in 2010 halfway through my membership in the MMB so only 13 years ago. Many generations of MMB members’ knees don’t miss the blacktop!!


  24. Craig Mirkin - 71, 75

    Practiced and played rugby on Wines, late 60s early 70s. Great memories!


  25. Jack Atkinson - 1981, 1994

    Played my first rugby match at Elbel in March of 1980. I came to UM as a transfer student, so I was a junior. Having grown up in Massachusetts (Boston, to be precise), UM/Ann Arbor was very new ground for me, and my adaptation wasn’t easy.
    Rugby changed all of that; it gave me an instant niche. Elbel was the ideal location for a home “pitch.” Adjacent parking, proximity to the “student ghettoes” where so many undergrads lived (I was just a block away, in Fletcher!). In the Fall, we’d get foot traffic from people on their way to home football games. Turns out we actually got some new players that way. Rugby was such an experience for me that I still live in the area, and it all started at Elbel. To this day, many of us “Olde Boys” say that the rugby club traded down when it was forced off of that great field.


  26. Jan Bloom - Umniversity High 1965

    U High used Wines Field for Track until the UofM closed the school. I saw no mention of that in the article. The Marching Band was not using the field at that time.


  27. William Ahrens - 1971, 1973

    In 1969-70, I lived in an apartment at 408 Hill Street, right around the corner from Wines Field. After classes, there were many pick-up football and basketball games, as well as IM football and softball. Many great memories. One year, I was lucky enough to play in an IM football championship game. When teams made it that far, the championship game was moved to the Michigan turf practice field, affectionately known as Bo’s turf. What a step up from the mud at Wines!


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