Friday, April 17, 2009

A Stadium for the Big Reds

by Ron Pesch
Big Red Historian
Class of '79

In 1907, Muskegon High School's home football games were moved to the newly christened Hackley field. The success of Bob Zuppke's squads put strains on the new facility. Around 1911, the field was enclosed by a brick and iron fence, and in 1914, solid wooden bleachers seating about 4,000 were constructed. Crowds soared in size for contests with rivals like Grand Rapids Central. The twenties represented a period of gridiron dominance for Muskegon. Between the seven year span 1920-26, Muskegon won or shared the mythical state championship four times. Three titles came under coach J. Francis Jacks; the fourth, under his replacement, C. Leo Redmond.

The success of the Big Reds, combined with increased demand for tickets and 13 years of wear and tear on the facility, illustrated the need for a new athletic complex at the high school.
"We walked out to the bleachers at the football field" recalled coach Redmond years later, "and Joe Bicknell (the Hackley Manual Training School director and the person in charge of finances for athletics) pulled out his pocket knife. He then pushed the blade completely into one of the wooden beams supporting the bleachers and said, 'They will fall down if they have to support another season.'

A plan to replace the bleachers was publicly announced following the 1926 season. At the football team's annual banquet in December, Charles W. Marsh, secretary of the Board of Education and chair of the stadium committee discussed the project. He noted that due to the narrowness of the Hackley field, serious consideration was being given to the proposition of erecting the stadium at a vacant field located on Park and Southern, west of the high school. If the move were made, the Park Avenue site would be rechristened Hackley field.

Marsh announced the proposed stadium would seat 6,000 on permanent concrete bleachers. With the use of temporary bleachers already owned by the school, the facility could handle crowds of 10,000 "without overcrowding the space allotted."

The proposed move to Park Avenue (later the site of John A. Craig school) was controversial and short lived. On May 7, the Chronicle announced the plan to fund the project.

"Muskegon football followers next week will be asked to invest $75,000 dollars in bonds to pay for erection of an athletic stadium on Hackley field which is designed to be the largest high school stadium in Michigan." The classes of '27, '28, '29 and '30 were asked to undertake the job of selling the bonds to the public.

"Principal John Craig talked to us Thursday night after practice," remembered Gont Miller, captain of the 1929 Big Reds. He said, 'We're going to ask you to get out and sell some bonds.'
"Bub Meier and I were walking home after practice and we talked about selling the bonds. Together, we decided we weren't going to do it.

"After I got home, I told my mother about the bonds, and she said, "Boy, that will be easy. After dinner go on over and see Mr. Runzel across the street, and the Nelson's on the side of us. I'm sure they will be interested."

"Well, I guess she got me inspired. I went over an saw Mr. Runzel and he bought four. And Lester Nelson bought three and Otto Meeske bought six. Mr. Runzel said 'Go down and see my son' and I did and he bought two. People really supported Big Red football. We sold all the bonds, and they built the stadium. It was quite an experience for a kid."

The Osborn Engineering Company of Cleveland, Ohio (builders of Michigan Stadium, Wrigley Field, and Notre Dame Stadium among others) was employed to design and oversee the construction of the facility. Sorensen-Gross Construction Company of Grand Rapids was selected as general contractors. N.J. Yonkers handled heating while McCullom Plumbing and Hall Electric handled plumbing and electric work at the stadium. Actual work started on Wednesday, June 15 and was completed in time for the first game against Muskegon Heights on Saturday, September 17. According to the files of Osborn Engineering, the concrete structure was completed in 24 days - July 20 to August 12.

"Impressive and colorful flag raising ceremonies marked the dedication of the new stands," wrote Jimmy Henderson in the Muskegon Chronicle. "A massed assemblage of over 2,000 students who paraded on the field following the Heights and Muskegon High school bands, and close to 3,000 spectators in the stands stood at attention while the massed bands under the leadership of Ronald Hinchman played the national anthem, as the new flag was slowly raised to its position over the stadium."

The Big Reds posted a crushing 89-0 victory over the Heights and their new coach Oscar E. "Okie" Johnson. It was the first of nine shutouts posted by Muskegon en route to a 10-0 season and another mythical state title.

For more on high school football stadiums in Michigan, check out the article Hallowed Grounds.

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