Editor’s Note: This story was written by and republished with the permission of the Big Red Sports Network, which provides excellent Cornell sports coverage throughout the year for alumni, parents, students and fans everywhere.
Just two months before signing with the New York Yankees and 18 years before passing away from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the disease that would later bear his name, Lou Gehrig played a baseball game at Cornell’s Hoy Field.
The 21st Century Library Campaign – Tompkins County Public Library
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A brief history of Hoy Field
Hoy Field was exactly one year old at the time: named after David “Davy” Hoy (of “Give My Regards To Davy”), the park was created to replace the former baseball field at Cornell, Percy Field, which served the Cornell community from the 1890’s until 1922.
Davy Hoy was in charge of all baseball operations on campus, and he determined that it was time for a new baseball facility; there were rumblings that the Cornell administration was gunning for a new diamond as early as 1897.
The only update Percy Field did undergo was for metal bleachers, and those would be carried over to Hoy Field. And thus, the park was built. The ball field was dedicated on April 22, 1922 with great fanfare: a “parade… as well as a band concert” kicked off the first game, and Davy Hoy threw out the first pitch. (That ball can be found in the Kroch Library Rare and Manuscripts Collection.)
And that brings us to nearly one year later. In that span, only one batter had hit a home run at Hoy Field, and he went by the name of Murray, a player for Syracuse University. The second home run, though, would be momentous.
Lou Gehrig was already a well-known phenom in the baseball world, making headlines as early as 1920 when he hit a game-winning grand slam at Wrigley Field in a high school bout… at just 17 years-old.
At the behest of his mother he enrolled in Columbia University as an engineering major with a football scholarship, and he played for the Lions football team for just a season. When it was revealed that Gehrig had played for a professional summer team he was declared ineligible for college baseball, and he was barred from playing during his freshman year. He returned for the 1922 football season and 1923 baseball season during his sophomore year.
In just one season, Lou Gehrig left a historic legacy at Columbia. His time was short, but he left a number of single-season records: first all-time in Slugging Percentage (.937), fifth in Batting Average (.444), eighth in Wins (6), and sixth in strikeouts (77). By virtue of playing in the Ivy League, Gehrig was on a path intended for Hoy Field. And so on April 21, 1923, Lou Gehrig and his Columbia Lions embarked on a trip to Ithaca to take on Cornell University.
Gehrig at Cornell
The game–in short–was a rout.
It was nothing like today where an Ivy League series would constitute four games, so just one contest decided that Columbia was the superior team by a score of 8 to 3. And thanks to the Cornell Daily Sun’s Digital Archive, we know exactly what happened that day. The starter for Cornell, known as Rollo, was roughed up over six innings as he allowed seven runs on nine hits.
The opposing starter was none other than Lou Gehrig himself, and he struck out ten over just six innings; he allowed three runs on five hits and one walk. But Gehrig’s real impact was with the bat, where he went two for five with a triple and a towering and legendary home run, possibly the longest in Hoy Field’s history.
There was one eyewitness account that arose many years later, courtesy of the SABR Biography Project:
“His power at the plate soon became the stuff of legend. More than a half-century later, one of Gehrig’s Columbia teammates, second baseman George Moisten, recalled a blast that Gehrig hit against Cornell: ‘That right field at Cornell had a high fence, then there was a road back of it, then a forest. Lou lifted his home run into the forest. I looked over at Coach Coakley, sitting near me on the bench, and he was slapping his head in wonder.’”
The Cornell Daily Sun’s writer in attendance echoed Moisten, stating that “Gehrig’s drive went soaring over the right field fence, several feet farther out than the famous smash of Murray, Orange twirler, last season.” Their headline, too, summed up the affair: “GEHRIG STAR OF CONTEST.”
How far did that home run go?
The real question, though, is: how far did that home run really go? The layout of Hoy Field in 2015 is much different than it was in 1923, but there are still a few landmarks that can give us a clue as to where the ball landed. First below is a rendition of Cornell in 1928, and the right is the Google Maps image of Hoy Field today:
If you notice, both Barton Hall and Schoellkopf Field are landmarks in each representation, but you’ll notice that the orientation of Hoy Field was a bit different. Today, home plate at Hoy Field faces Rhodes Hall and the engineering quad; but in 1923, home plate was directly behind Barton Hall and faced the Creek. If we know that it is about 400 feet from home plate to the center field wall at the current Hoy Field, then it is not a stretch by any means to claim that Gehrig’s home run was roughly 450 feet over the right field wall. Represented on today’s Hoy Field, that would be the equivalent of hitting a home run either to the top of Rhodes Hall, or over it into the woods behind it. Regardless of semantics, I do not know if we will ever see a home run as far as that one in Ithaca again.
After that game, the rest was history. Just eight days after Gehrig’s performance at Hoy, he hit two home runs in one game at Rutgers University. A New York Yankees scout, Paul Krichell, was on the trip with the Lions and immediately called the Yankees’ General Manager Ed Barrow, excitedly reporting to him that he “discovered another Babe Ruth”.
He was not wrong. Gehrig would go on to play 17 seasons with the Yankees where he won six World Series’, played in seven All-Star Games, won two AL MVP’s, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1939; he is still widely considered one of the best baseball players of all time, and he is certainly the greatest first baseman ever.
But for one day in his historic career, he would be the star of the contest at Hoy Field.