A snap of one of the prints of the stadium rededication available at the mphotostore.
Dr. Robert Soderstrom chronicled the stadium project of the mid-1920s is his wonderful book The Big House, Fielding Yost and the Building of Michigan Stadium (Huron River Press, 2005). He chose an appropriate title. The story is foremost about the structure itself, but without Yost’s vision and willpower, the project probably wouldn’t have happened for another few decades.
Dr. Soderstrom was kind enough to speak with me earlier this year his book project:
MVictors: What drove you to write The Big House?
Robert Soderstrom: I’ve always been a crazy football fan, I actually grew up in Illinois and was kind of an Illinois football fan and knew all about Memorial Stadium down there. When I came to Ann Arbor for medical school in 1968, I was intrigued by Michigan Stadium when I saw it for the first time. That was the year before Schembechler arrived here but I thought at the time, even though it was only half full those days, it was an awesome edifice as a stadium. I hadn’t seen anything like it.
What really triggered it was a trip to Italy around 1998 that I took with my daughter, who was in the engineering school at the time. While we were down there we spent a day at Pompeii and outside the city they had excavated the old stadium. Walking into that stadium, you come into it just like when you’re coming through Michigan’s tunnel. You come in from the outside and you walk into the arena. It’s the oldest existing stadium in the world, it was built around 80 B.C. and it’s an absolute microcosm of Michigan Stadium. It seats 25,000 people instead of 100,000 and the tunnel is at the end of the field, not on the side like ours. It’s built into the side of a hill and seeing that place I thought, ‘Fielding Yost must have known about this place when he built that stadium.’ I told my daughter, when we were inside the stadium, that when I got back home I was going to try to find out what I could about the building of Michigan Stadium.
MVictors: So what was out there about the stadium project, before you started?
Soderstrom: Basically what I found were a few magazine articles here and there, but nothing that really discussed it in detail or at least in the detail that I was looking for. So I thought, ‘Maybe there’s a story here.’ So I called up the Bentley Historical Library to see what they had, and it turned out they had a whole collection of Yost’s old personal papers and all the old athletic files, year by year. They are not in any category that makes any sense, they’re just filed year-by-year, month-by-month. So I just started poring through that stuff to see if there was even a story worth telling. The more I dug in, the more I thought that it was really an interesting tale and one that needed to be told.
MVictors: Could you have done this book without the records at the Bentley?
Soderstrom: Oh no way. No way. And the librarians at the Bentley , as I mentioned in the introduction to the book, they were great to me from the minute I showed up. As far as they were concerned I was Mr. Nobody. I’d never been in there before, I was an alumnus but I wasn’t a faculty member. They were great in helping me find my way through the resources that they had. What the library has is awesome, really, but all I could do to find out what was available was to go through those athletic files month-by-mouth, page-by-page. Sometimes I’d be in there for an afternoon and I was like, ‘I’m not finding anything here,’ but then you’d turn the page and there’d be a letter that was exactly what I was looking for. There were a lot of hours in the library, I can tell you that.
That place in an amazing resource for the university. I was researching the Red Grange game at the University of Illinois, and this was six or seven years ago, and their historical library was a dark, dungy looking thing in the basement of their undergraduate library where they had stacks and stacks of old file cabinets and stuff. It was a mess!
MVictors: Had you written a book before?
Soderstrom: I’d never written a historical text before. Anything I had written was medically orientated. I think I had the research skills, but I wasn’t necessarily a historian by any means. The problem I faced when I went to publishers, they said ‘Well, it’s not really a sports story, and it’s not really a history story, where do we put this and where do we promote this?’ And especially when I was talking to publishers who didn’t realize how important Michigan Stadium is to Michigan alumni. I had some publishers write me back and say, ‘I can’t imagine anyone being interested in a story about a stadium.’ [laughs]
MVictors: [laughs] You’re kidding?
Soderstrom: No. And I was dealing with publishers in Chicago and a sports publishing outfit in Indianapolis. They just didn’t want it. Finally I found Huron River Press in Ann Arbor and it was a gold mine. They felt right away that this was a story and a book they wanted to do.
MVictors: That cracks me up, the idea of thinking no one would care about a book at the Stadium. People bring ashes of their relatives to spread there. People stop there limos on their wedding days to take photos.
Soderstrom: The affinity that the Michigan community has for that place is different than my experience in Illinois. They have a great stadium down there, but it’s not the same affinity that you feel with the Michigan crowd. That is a unique thing. The stadium itself is such a beloved place. The other thing that triggered my thinking about the book was when they put up the yellow halo and everybody just went berserk. I’m thinking, ‘People really do care about this place.’
MVictors: They say that old Yankee Stadium was The House That Ruth Built, and Crisler is house that Cazzie Built. But has there ever been a more proper use of that cliché’, to say that this structure was truly built by Fielding Yost? He handled every aspect of the construction beyond driving the trucks and pouring cement.
Soderstrom: I think that’s really true. It’s one of the stories where one person’s vision and willpower brought that place to completion. Yost was a lawyer and a law school graduate so he was very well educated. When you read his personal letters, they are very well written. In many of his letters when talking about more than one stadium, he uses the term ‘stadia’. The guy was very well educated not only in English, but also had a Latin background. I really think that helped him against all the opposition he ran into on campus. Yost was not intimidated the opposition he faced from professors on campus. Yost felt like he could take these people on, on their own field, within the university community, and he could make his point as well as they could make theirs. He didn’t have to take second place to anybody on campus even though he was “just the football coach”.
And I tell people that we take it for granted today that football has a place in a university like this but in the 1920s but that was really a serious debate. You can take The University of Chicago as an example of a school that went the other direction. Amos Alonzo Stagg and Chicago and his teams had a tradition just as strong as Michigan and within about decade they killed it because they didn’t think there was a place for football at an academic institution like that.
MVictors: When they had public forums debating the whether to proceed with the current renovation, certain speakers came including Fielding Yost III. Did you ever meet or speak to him?
Soderstrom: No, never met him. I tried to make contact with him via the athletic department, but they had no contact info that they would provide to me. I wasn’t able to talk to him about what he knew about those times. When it came up that he was an opponent to the stadium, and this was a couple years after the book came out, I got his address and sent him a complimentary copy of the book.
My own feeling? I was a little reserved about the idea of the renovations frankly, but I could never see how you argue that Yost would be opposed to it. When you read my story it’s clear that Yost is very interested in the finances of the athletic department, and he built that stadium by selling bonds to people that could afford it, and they were all going to get 50-yard line suites. I don’t think Yost would have any problem with putting up luxury boxes once that became the idea of how you raise a lot of money.
My concern was all about how it was going to look when it was done, because I loved the symmetry and the simplicity of the bowl. But to tell you the truth, now that it’s done, my feeling is that they’ve done a beautiful job. Both inside and outside, the place is beautiful. Looking at the old pictures, the stadium almost looks naked without the new additions.
MVictors: If they weren’t able to get approval for this in the mid-1920s, given the Great Depression was looming, do you think they would have been able to do something on this scale, at least until after World War II?
Soderstrom: I don’t think anything would have happened during the 1930s. Even when they had those great championship teams, nobody showed up. They averaged about 25,000 people in the stadium. They never would have proceeded with building a stadium. And who knows what would have happened after World War II, whether the land would have been available and of course Yost was gone. The whole idea of the Roman-Greco stadium, the symmetry, how the seating is right on top of the field—who would have been there pushing those kind of ideas? I don’t think we would have had anything like this if it hadn’t been approved in the mid-1920s.
MVictors: While Yost defeated the opposition on campus, he probably had a more significant challenge in battling all the water they found under the stadium. How close was the water to ruining the project?
Soderstrom: It was a near catastrophe. The problem was Yost was really under the gun financially and it would have been a financial catastrophe if they’d had to abandon the site. It was a real touch and go situation for a few months until they finally got it sorted out. While it worked out ok for the athletic department, the guy who did the excavation went bankrupt over that. He was a well thought-of excavator in the Detroit area—he worked on the Detroit-Windsor tunnel and several projects for the auto companies. Because of all the sand and water trouble that delayed the project so many months, he lost everything.
MVictors: One of the greatest tales of Michigan Stadium involves a crane or steam shovel being buried beneath the stadium, lost in all that water and sand during the build. But you didn’t find any evidence of this in your research?
Soderstrom: [laughs] I was unable to confirm that and I’ve heard that story since I arrive in Ann Arbor way back in 1968. I could not find anything in the current literature, either in the Ann Arbor News or the Michigan Daily or anything. I can’t imagine that wouldn’t have been recorded by somebody if in fact they had lost a whole steam shovel. The [excavator] lost everything else. I also asked his granddaughter and she said she never heard that story from her grandfather.
[Ed. Interview originally appeared in GoBlueWolverine Mag and Scout.com for subscribers. Go get The Big House, Fielding Yost and the Building of Michigan Stadium]