Charles Baird: Visionary for Town and Gown
He "put football on a paying basis" - and inspired iconic campus scenes.
by Jeffrey Welch
From the November, 2020 issue
Charles Baird transformed the University of Michigan in two distinct ways, first through athletics (1890-1908) and then through art (1935-1941). Because he seldom sought public credit, his name is less well known than that of the football coach he hired, Fielding Yost. But his influence is felt whenever a game is played at the Big House, there's a carillon concert at Burton Tower, or children play by the fountain on Ingalls Mall.
Strikingly handsome, charismatic, and entrepreneurial, Charles Baird distinguished himself at Hyde Park High School in Chicago as a wrestler, a debater, and a Latin scholar. Arriving in Ann Arbor in 1890 with his younger brother James in tow, he studied law while James played quarterback for Ann Arbor High. In 1891, he added the literary college's four-year course to his studies, and in 1893 he became manager of the football team.
When Baird took over, it was in a deficit condition. While Ivy League teams were playing to crowds of 30,000, the Michigan-Northwestern contest in Chicago the previous season had drawn just 1,000 spectators. At home, only 600 people saw the Oberlin game, watching from a small grandstand, from their buggies, or standing on the sidelines.
Michigan had recently joined a "western" league with Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Baird almost immediately faced a challenge from Wisconsin and Minnesota, which didn't want to play in Ann Arbor's tiny, unprofitable venue. He carried the day, and that fall, all three sent teams to Michigan, completely changing perceptions at home and drawing crowds that required expansion of the athletic field.
The following season, while continuing to schedule the western schools, Baird began seeking games against Ivy League powers Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Playing such prominent opponents brought notoriety and bigger gate receipts, but also required a much higher level of performance.
Most likely, the decisive turning point in Michigan's emergence as a national power occurred in the second game against Cornell in 1894. In early November
Michigan lost in Ithaca 22-0, its seventh consecutive defeat by the eastern team. But at the Detroit Athletic Club three weeks later, team captain James Baird, a confident and successful playmaker as quarterback, led his team to victory, 12-4.
Charles Baird graduated in 1895 with degrees from both the law school and the literary college, but stayed on for postgraduate work in law. That season, Michigan won every game but one, including a victory over Chicago in front of a crowd of 10,000.
The only loss was at Harvard, 4-0, and the program finished the year in the black. Baird, in the words of a 1936 Michigan Daily article, had "put football on a paying basis."
But to do so, Baird had run afoul of a growing movement to tighten eligibility rules for college players. In the early days, teams needed players to fill out rosters--where they came from mattered less than their talent. But as more colleges fielded teams, pressure built to limit squads to bona fide students.
In 1893 the Detroit Tribune charged that several men on the Michigan team were not enrolled. A rebuttal in the Daily explained that a "new" and "valuable" man, John Hollister, had come out for preseason practice at Michigan then left to play for Williams College for several games before returning in November to take up his studies in the law department--and, incidentally, to play football.
Hollister got much less sympathetic treatment from Harper's Weekly. In November and December 1895, the magazine published exposes of professionalism in Western and Southern football programs--including the information that Hollister had been paid "$1,000 per year" to work as a trainer at Beloit College. The implication was that he had returned to Michigan only to play for even more money.
Hollister wrote a letter denying the allegations, but the charge that he was no amateur stuck. And Harper's claimed that other players had been offered cash "inducements" to come to Michigan.
The university responded by suspending Baird. A new manager was elected in December 1895, and Baird moved to Chicago to practice law.
For the next two seasons the Michigan team had ups and downs. With the undergraduates clamoring for his return, Baird was brought back in 1898--this time with faculty status as Michigan's "graduate manager." He supervised all of Michigan's sports teams, scheduled their seasons, and managed their finances. This centralized structure made him, in all but title, the nation's first athletic director.
By then, Princeton and Yale were following Harvard's lead by building large stadiums. Baird traveled extensively in preparation for building one for Michigan. Help came from Dexter Ferry, whose gift of twenty-one acres of swampland in 1901 brought the university's grounds right up to the corner of State and Hoover.
Baird "had a spur line from the Ann Arbor Railroad pushed into the swamp, and more than 10,000 yards of gravel were dumped into it," the Daily wrote in 1926. "In addition to the gravel more than forty carloads of drain tile were placed under the ground. Mr. Ferry furnished the funds for the handsome gates and ticket offices at the entrance of the field."
To fill his new venue, Baird brought Fielding Yost to Ann Arbor. From 1901 through 1905, the coach would win fifty-five games against just one loss and one tie. By 1908, Ferry Field was the country's largest college stadium, with room for 40,000 fans.
Baird met Georgia Robertson when both were students at Michigan. They married in 1902. His wife's father was a wealthy Kansas City (MO) banker, and when he died in 1908, the Bairds moved there to take over his business interests.
But in a sense, Baird never really left Michigan. In 1920 he and law school classmate Ralph Stone, who'd also been deeply involved in athletics, established the Michigan Alumni Fund. In 1923, he gave generously to expand its endowment.
President Marion LeRoy Burton was engaged in a massive building program, and he traveled ceaselessly to enlist good will and support from alumni. After his shocking early death from overwork and a weak heart, in 1925, Ann Arbor alumni set a ten-year goal to build a bell tower in his memory.
Eliel Saarinen, the Finnish modernist architect teaching at U-M, provided a drawing of an elegant tower, and a committee traveled to Europe to select a foundry to build a large carillon. But once the Great Depression descended across the land, all forward motion stopped.
In 1935, Baird got the project moving again. That June, he told an alumni gathering that he would make a gift of $50,000 to pay for the carillon--so long as it was ready for the U-M's upcoming centennial celebration in 1937. (The university had not yet backdated its founding to 1817, when a precursor school opened in Detroit.)
The U-M had no funds to buy land or to build a building. Chicago architect Irving Pond, the designer of the Michigan Union, was invited to redesign the union tower for a carillon, which proved impractical. But then, that September, Horace Rackham died. A founding investor in the Ford Motor Co., Rackham left $6.5 million to the university, including $2.5 million to buy property and to pay for a substantial building to house the graduate school.
By late November, several decisions had settled the arrangement of buildings around Ingalls Mall. The bell tower was pulled in close to Hill Auditorium, onto land already owned by the university. The Saarinen design was modified by Albert Kahn, who turned the lower eight floors into classroom spaces and raised the height from 170 to 212 feet. The regents decided that both the Rackham Building and the Burton Tower were to be clad in Indiana limestone, a relatively more expensive material than the brick used for Hill and the Michigan League.
Baird provided further support by adding two bells to the carillon (bringing the total number to fifty-three); overall, he contributed almost a third of the total cost of $243,000.
The tower was dedicated in December 1936. The opening concert on the Baird carillon included "America," "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," and "Variations on 'Ode to Joy.'"
The success of the bell tower led Baird to propose a second gift--this one to honor his former teacher, law school founder Thomas McIntyre Cooley. At first, Baird thought of a statue, but his daughter, Mary Baird Cunningham, suggested he visit Cranbrook Institute to view a fountain designed by world-famous sculptor Carl Milles.
Milles had designed three large fountains for Swedish cities before moving his North American headquarters to Cranbrook in 1931. Baird met with Milles, and it is likely that Milles and Saarinen together visited the site to determine how the fountain should relate to Burton Tower, the Michigan League, and the Rackham Building.
There is evidence of a turf fight: the Rackham Fund had paid to create Ingalls Mall to link the Rackham Building to the Diag, and wanted it to remain open to accentuate the building's monumentality. An article in the Michigan Daily in 1995 recounted an old story of how Mary Rackham had insisted that the fountain be lowered by two feet because it interfered with the sightlines of her late husband's building.
Fred Mayer, a member of the University Planning Office from 1966 to 2004, says he heard the same story from older facilities people. And Kate Bromley, a longtime friend of Carl and Olga Milles who attended the dedication in 1941, wrote that Carl Milles told her while sitting in the sun that he had wanted the sculpture to be two feet higher.
Sunday Morning in Deep Waters draws its story from Carl Milles's boyhood, when he and his three brothers were taken by their father for morning swims in the ocean. He saw the scene of the great Triton man-fish surging through the waves while his happily terrified sons cling to him for dear life as a correlate to university life: young people away from home for the first time, happily terrified while learning to move about with confidence in the great sea of university life.
At the dedication, Baird said he hoped the fountain would provide a beautiful setting for the university and for the citizens of Ann Arbor. Eighty years later, it remains a much-appreciated giver of delight for gown and town alike.
[Originally published in November, 2020.]
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