One of northern Manhattan’s most interesting landmarks is a strip of land bounded by 218th Street, the Spuyten Devil Creek, Broadway, and Inwood Hill Park. It is a sports complex owned by Columbia University known as Baker Field. This site is Columbia’s principal outdoor athletic facility which boasts the fact that it is the only complex used for amateur and collegiate sports in New York City.
The 26-acre site was purchased in 1921 with funds donated to Columbia by banking executive George Fisher Baker, Jr. (1840-1931), who was the longtime head of First National Bank which was the forerunner of today’s Citibank. He started as a teller in 1863 and rose to the rank of President by 1877. In 1909 Baker retired as President to become Chairman of the bank which he retained until the end of his life.
Over the years Baker, who was a quiet man, never spoke to the press and was typified as a Nineteenth-Century banker. In later years, Baker gave large gifts to educational, cultural and medical institutions of New York City. The George Fisher Baker, Jr. Trust was named for him and the philanthropic causes he gave to.
Baker’s last years (1927-1931) were spent residing at 75 East 93rd Street on the corner of Park Avenue. During this period, Baker had purchased the adjoining buildings (number 67, 69, 71 and 73). The complex designed by Delano and Aldrich in 1917, is the finest example of English and American 18th-century architectural forms. The main house (#75) and the ballroom wing (#71 and 73) is now used by the Synod of Bishops Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia which has been at the site since 1958.
The property that Baker Field is located on was once owned by the Dyckman family who lived in the area since the 1600s. The Chrystie Field House is located on the site of the home of Isaac Michael Dyckman (1813-1899) on 218th Street and Park Terrace East. The three-storied Victorian mansion where that branch of the Dyckman family lived had been razed to make the way for the present facility.
Columbia’s baseball and football teams originally played on the main campus at 116th Street between 1907 and the 1920s known as South Field located between Low Library and Butler Hall and was only a couple of acres in size. It accommodated both baseball and football teams during their respective playing seasons. The baseball diamond was initially laid out with the right-field line heading south to Butler Hall and the left-field line running east to Amsterdam Avenue. In time the baseball field lines were reversed.
One of Columbia’s athletic wonders of both teams was to become famous for playing baseball in the 1921-1922 and 1922-1923 seasons. This legendary player was future Hall of Fame star Lou Gehrig who went on to play for the New York Yankees. Gehrig was known to hit long home runs. One hit wound up the steps of Low Library, another rolled out onto Broadway and 116th Street over 500 feet away from the campus playing field. In 1923 Gehrig went to the New York Yankees to play professional baseball. There is a little known fact about Gehrig; he was a student at P.S. 132 at Wadsworth Avenue and 183rd Street when his family moved from East 94th Street to Washington Heights in 1908.
Intercollegiate football moved to Baker Field in 1923 and varsity baseball two years later. On May 17, 1939 the first televised baseball was held at Baker Field. Princeton University defeated Columbia 2-1 as the game was viewed as far away as Radio City Music Hall on 50th Street and Sixth Avenue and at the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow, Queens.
The following day The New York Times reported that the players appeared like “white flies running across the screen” according to the observers watching the game. These same observers mentioned that the baseball appeared like a comet-like pinpoint as it flashed across the grass and the television screen.
Lou Little was the dominant sports coach for Columbia University. He was head football coach from 1930 to 1956. Twice during Coach Little’s tenure, Columbia had won games. First, on January 1, 1934, Columbia beat Stamford 7-0 at the Rose Bowl. The second time was on October 25, 1947, when Columbia upset Army 21-20 at Baker Field. It was Army’s first loss in 33 games because in the previous two games Columbia was trounced by Yale and Penn State.
In both instances, the other teams were considered favorites, and Columbia was the underdog team. In each case, victories were remarkable and unexpected. One of the plays used by the football team was called KF-79 in which quarterback Clifford Montgomery made a series of hand-offs to the halfback of the Columbia Lions.
The Lawrence A. Wein Stadium constructed in 1984 boasts 16,500 seats and is the centerpiece of Columbia’s athletic facility. It replaces the 32,000 wooden stands that were at the site since 1928 when the original stadium needed enlarging. In 1987 a 400-meter, the eight-lane running track had been added within the boundaries of Wein Stadium. AstroTurf was added to the stadium in 1995. Baseball and Soccer are still played on grass.
Baker Field has facilities for rowing teams, tennis courts, soccer fields, and other major sports events that are scheduled year-round. The rowing teams can be seen practicing on the Harlem and Hudson Rivers in the early morning to prepare for a major event with other Ivy League rowing teams.
One of the most imposing sights in the area is the Columbia “C” on the opposite (or Bronx) shore of the Harlem River Ship Canal. Originally conceived by Robert Prendergast a medical student of Columbia University and Coxswain of the heavyweight rowing team. Prendergast approached the New York Central Railroad for permission (which was given) to have this sign was painted on the 100-foot high wall of Fordham Gneiss and was completed in the fall of 1952 by the rowers of the crew team.
In an interview, Dr. Prendergast had taken time from his busy schedule to provide information about the Columbia “C” Two colors were used to the letter, traffic white, and ultramarine blue. The original size and still is 60 feet by 60 feet. The stroke was 12 feet wide. This was done with the use of a boatswain’s chair built by Pop Johnson that was held by ropes attached to drill holes at the top of the rock.
It (the “C”) has become a fixture for residents and tourists alike. The Circle Line Tour Boats make note of it when they pass through the area. The “C” was last painted and touched up in 1987 by the boat crews who have kept the tradition for the past 47 years. Dr. Prendergast is presently an Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine for Ophthalmology and Pathology.
After decades of declining crowds, Baker Field has made a comeback with many sports. In spite of the complex’s updating, it hasn’t changed from its original design made in the 1920’s. It remains one of the finest collegiate sports facilities in the United States. The Columbia song for the football team at Baker Field is “Roar, Lion, Roar.” Within the complex is a statue of the Columbia Lion, which has become the mascot of the football team.
Baker Field can be reached by Mass Transit. The #1 and #9 trains stop at 215 Street and Broadway. Bus service to Baker Field is attainable by the M110, Bx 20, and the Bx 7 at 218th Street and Broadway.
For more information on the Baker Field Sports Complex call Diane Gossett who is operations manager of Baker field at (212)567-0404 and William Steinman who offers sports information about Columbia University (212)854-7144. The Columbia University website is www.columbia.edu/cu The Columbia Crew Team’s website can be accessed at www.columbia.edu/crew/general.html The Columbia Lions website address is www.columbia.edu/cu/football The Synod of Bishops, Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia can be reached at (212)534-1601.