Memorial Stadium's history a 'monument' to Terre Haute

Indiana State Memorial Stadium has a history that extends back to 1925 (Photo by Drew Canavan).

As a member of the Terre Haute community and an ISU graduate, I enjoy keeping abreast of college attitudes and events by reading the Statesman.

Occasionally, the newspaper contains a comment which sparks my responsive instincts. For instance, in issue of Sept. 16, a story stated: "Curious as to why Memorial was built so far away? Who knows? That's just the way it is."

To thousands of Terre Haute residents who "do know," the statement is a bit shocking. Upon reflection, however, I suspect that there are many students who don't know and, perhaps, don't care. For the few who might like to have the answer to the story's question, I offer this brief lesson in local history.

Prior to the Civil War, the Vigo County Fairgrounds were located in the northern part of the city. In 1861, the buildings at the fairgrounds were converted to barracks for Union soldiers who formed several prominent Indiana regiments. The converted grounds became known as Camp Vigo.

After the Civil war, Terre Haute needed new fairgrounds. The site chosen was located on the northeast corner of Wabash and Brown avenues. It was "out in the country," to be sure, but substantial space was necessary. The new fairgrounds were elaborate for its day and featured in a centerfold in Harper's Weekly, the popular New York Newspaper. The Indiana State Fair was held there in 1867. The grounds included an outstanding half-mile track. Soon, horseracing became a very popular spectator sport here. By 1886-87, the half-mile horseracing track had been turned into a mile-long track which encompassed much more land than both the present stadium and the golf course. It had been redesigned by surveyor George Grimes and track superintendent Uriah Jeffers.

During the two decades the track was on horse racing's Grand Circuit, over 20 world records were set there. By special design, it was the fastest track in the country. Terre Haute's "Four-Cornered Track" was, literally, world famous.

Meanwhile, Terre Haute also had professional baseball. The first enclosed stadium for baseball was built at 19th and Wabash in 1883. The second was built in 1895. That facility was still serving the community, its colleges and the pro baseball team in 1924. Football also was played there, it was called "Athletic Park." With the introduction of automobiles and motorcycles, interest in horse racing diminished. By World War I, the "Four-Cornered Track" was being used for track meets and auto and motorcycle races than for horse racing. The city decided to build an elaborate sports complex at the site, primarily for baseball but also for football.

When memorial Stadium was dedicated in May, 1925, it was hailed as the "finest minor league baseball stadium inn the country" and second only to New York's Yankee Stadium in playing area. Baseball Commissioner Kenneshaw Mountain Landis was here for the inaugural ceremonies. The stadium quickly became the primary arena for college and high school football. Indiana State students reached the stadium by using railroad cars, which departed on Saturday mornings-at a point a few blocks north of campus-and dropped them off at a point less than a block north of the stadium.

Professional baseball continued to flourish in Terre Haute-though interrupted by World War II-until 1956.

Television-a "new kid on the block"-kept many fans at home and a 73-year tradition floundered. The last pro baseball game involving a Terre Haute team was July 4, 1956. Though the stadium and its 11,500 seats continued to be used for amateur and semi-pro baseball, boxing, wrestling, fireworks, pageants, circuses, band programs and high school and ISU football, inconsistent use did not permit it to be properly maintained.

ISU had not maintained its own football facility since Parsons field was abandoned early in the century. As ISU expanded its athletic program, Memorial Stadium was a logical site for a football stadium. The University leased the stadium from the city for 99 years and made it the first outdoor athletic facility in the nation to install Astro-turf and remodeled the baseball stadium into a football stadium. Only the memorial arch remains.

When, in 1865, the City of Terre Haute successfully battled competing communities before the stat legislature to obtain ISU, it was an advantage to locate the college in the middle of the town, near business and necessary facilities. One building turned into two and so on as the college was in the midst of a residential area, including many residential mansions. Over the years, most residences and nearby businesses have been eliminated as the campus has dramatically expanded. Now, most athletic facilities are on or near campus.

As you take the shuttle bus to Memorial Stadium this season, ponder that you are taking a step back in history and returning to the site where, a little over a century ago (1892), the great Nancy Hanks stunned the racing world by racing the mile in 2:04.

It is where the immortal racehorse Dan Patch often tried to set a world record and failed where Babe Ruth, Roger Maris and Hank Aaron hit home runs where Cannonball Baker carved his reputation where Max Schmeling demonstrated the punch which captured the world heavyweight title where Roy Ewry, ten-time Olympic gold medalist, won several college athletic meets in the standing high jump and standing long jump where baseball immortals Roger Hornsby, Max Carey and George Sisler gave baseball lessons . . . where pitchers Dizzy Trout, Tommy John, Harry Taylor, Emil Bildilli and Bill Butland were discovered. Riley-now the New York Knicks' coach-frolicked while his father managed the Terre Haute pro team where Don Larsen strode to the mound years before pitching the only perfect game in a World Series . . . and hundreds of others honed or performed the skills that would make the household names.

In a modest way, the stadium is a monument to those individuals, their feats and a multitude of significant events and accomplishments. Officially it is a shrine to those who lost their lives during the world wars. World War I was on the minds of those who built it.

Memorial Stadium provided Terre Haute with the finest athletic facility in the country for a community under 500,000. At the time it was built, and for 40 years after, its use by ISU was incidental to existence, not the reason for it. It was altered and is maintain to preserve a history heritage and to provide ISU with an outstanding football arena. Let's hope that both students and community support will continue to justify its existence.

This column orginally ran in the Oct, 21, 1994 issue of the Statesman.