The Stadium the Pillsburys Built: Northrop Field at the U of M Where Ticket Scalping Became Illegal

Alfred Fisk Pillsbury is probably best known for three things in Minnesota other than his “Best XXXX” flour-making name.

Pillsbury Best revOne, he was a major contributor to the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The renown of MIA’s Chinese collection is due in large part to Pillsbury bequeathing his personal collection of bronzes and jades to the museum. He had a good eye in addition to deep pockets.

Two, he played for eight University of Minnesota Gophers football teams 1886-1893. That’s right, eight! As long as a student was working toward a degree in those days, he was eligible to compete on a university’s athletic teams. Earned your degree? No problem! Pursue another, stay eligible. So young Pillsbury—”Pilly” to fans and sportswriters—twice captain of the team and, literally, the owner of the team’s only football his freshman year, went from undergraduate courses to law school. Eight years, six as the team’s QB!

Alfred F. Pillsbury (first row, far left) with his 1888 teammates. This was the third year of his seven year career with the Gophers. He was captain of the 1887 and 1889 teams. He began his playing days in 1886 as a linemman, but at only 142 pounds he was soon shifted to quarterback. His size is not as small as it would seem by today's standards. Players who weighed 200 pounds were considered gigantic.

Alfred F. Pillsbury (first row, far left) with the 1888 Gophers. This was the third year of his eight year career at the University of Minnesota. He was captain of the 1887 and 1889 teams. He began his playing days in 1886 as a lineman, but at only 142 pounds he was soon shifted to quarterback. He was not as small as it would seem by today’s standards; players who weighed 200 pounds were considered gigantic then. Don’t you love those lace-up shirts? They were made of canvas to provide some protection and elusiveness. It was hard to get hold of the snug-fitting canvas.

His eighth year on the team is a bit mysterious. Most sources, including the History of Minnesota Football, published in 1928 by the General Alumni Association of the University of Minnesota, claim Pilly’s football playing days ended in 1892. John Hayden writes in a chapter titled “The Early Days”: “For long and creditable performance no one has surpassed Alf. Pillsbury. He played good football on the first team, in 1886, and on successive teams until 1892, when he completed his law course.”

But it seems as if Pilly had one game left in him. The Minneapolis Tribune’s account of the Gophers’ 40-0 thrashing of the Wisconsin Badgers—the biggest game of the year—on November 11, 1893 describes several Pillsbury plays as a halfback that day. He scored two touchdowns. A drawing that illustrates the story shows “Pilly” carrying the ball. It was apparently his only appearance during the 1893 season. Though he wasn’t on the team’s roster for the year, he does appear in the 1893 team photo (too grainy to reproduce here). He was still in law school—he didn’t actually graduate until 1894—so perhaps the team felt they needed their former star to defeat the highly regarded team from Madison and complete a second consecutive undefeated season.

The Marx Borthers in Horsefeathers (

The Marx Brothers in Horsefeathers (

The Badgers’ star halfback that day, Lyman, had faced the Gophers before as a student at Grinnell College in Iowa. He reportedly vowed he would stay in college until he beat Minnesota—which evokes images of Professor Wagstaff, Pinky and Baravelli in “Horsefeathers” a few decades later.

The Wisconsin game in 1893 was not the last time Pillsbury took the field in a Minnesota football game. He twice played against the Gophers—and lost—in 1895 representing the Minnesota Boat Club and the Ex-Collegiates.

Perhaps the greatest tribute to Pilly as a player was offered by the famous University of Chicago coach Amos Alonzo Stagg. Writing in the University of Minnesota Alumni Weekly football special in 1914, Stagg recalled the first contact he ever had with a Minnesota team when he refereed a Gophers game in 1891. Pillsbury was one of four players he remembered from that game more than 20 years earlier, noting that Pilly was a “stalwart” at his position and “made a great reputation.”

The 1889 Gophers were a more relaxed outfit. Pillsbury, the captain, is front center.

The 1889 Gophers were a more relaxed outfit. Pillsbury, the captain, is front center.

Digression: Golden Gophers. When did the University of Minnesota officially add “Golden” to Gophers? How silly. “Back when I was a kid they were just Gophers and that was plenty good for us.” (Spits tobacco, misses spittoon.) Golden? That’s trying way too hard. “Gopher” too wimpy for you? Well, “Golden” makes it seem like we’re begging for a wedgie. Every time a national sports announcer says “Golden Gophers”, I can hear the eye-roll. There was a time when the “Gophers” were winners. Since the “Golden” was added? Losers. Posers. Hosers. It’s a curse. In the name of Jerry Kill and Richard Pitino, drop the Golden! Especially since the teams have gone to an ugly yellow—Grotesqueyellow Gophers!—instead of gold for a uniform color anyway. If “Buckeye”—the least fearsome nickname/mascot ever— doesn’t need enhancement, why should “Gopher”? Ohio St. still does okay.

Alfred Pillsbury’s third most visible personal accomplishment was serving as a Minneapolis park commissioner for 19 years between 1925 and 1946. He was president of the board for three years in the 1930s. My favorite quote from the annual reports that Pillsbury wrote was from the park board’s report for 1933.

While pleading the case for greater spending on park recreation programs, even in the depth of the Depression, Pillsbury wrote that providing recreation was, “just as vital as any function of government, not excluding that of the apprehension and conviction of criminals and the education of our youth.” I doubt that anyone has ever put the case more strongly for the value of recreation in our society.

That’s how the world seems to remember Alf, as Lori Sturdevant calls him in her family biography, The Pillsburys of Minnesota. But in these days of stadium subsidies and related land development d-d-d-deals—Gestribheit!—it is worth noting something else Pilly/Alf did.

The Stadium that Outlawed Ticket Scalping

Alfred Pillsbury is credited with playing a pivotal role in creating a new stadium for the Gopher football teams. Until 1896 — Pilly’s entire playing career — the Gophers usually played football on the baseball field behind the West Hotel in downtown Minneapolis. The biggest drawback was that the baseball field wasn’t quite long enough for a regulation football field, which lead Northwestern University to protest their loss on the shortened field in 1892. In 1896 the team moved to a new field, a sandy burr patch next to the Armory on the University campus. For three years spectators were accommodated by chairs placed around the field. In 1899, the athletic department borrowed $1,500 from the Board of Regents to construct a 3,000-seat grandstand. A board fence around the field was built by students, although the student newspaper reported with shock that some students climbed over the fence to attend games. The new field was named after University President Cyrus Northrop.

Alfred F. Pillsbury (MinneapolisPark and Recreation Board)

Alfred F. Pillsbury (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

Northrop Field, however, was never considered adequate. Dissatisfaction with the field led to a discussion in 1900 between the Dean at the time, Fred Jones, and former Minnesota Governor, President of the Board of Regents, and Pilly’s dad, John S. Pillsbury. The elder Pillsbury had also been one of the original twelve commissioners when the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners was created in 1883. John and Alfred Pillsbury were the first father-son duo to achieve park commissionerhood. The most recent was Leonard and Scott Neiman. The Neiman family could add a generation this year, given the candidacy of Scott Neiman’s son, Josh, for the park commissioner seat from the same southwest Minneapolis district that elected his father and grandfather.

Subsequent to his chat with Fred Jones, John Pillsbury privately purchased six lots adjacent to the Armory football field and convinced the city to vacate Arlington and Union Streets through the campus at that point. His intention apparently was to give the lots he had purchased to the university to expand the football stadium, but this plans were not completed before he died in 1901. His son and heir, Pilly, completed the plan, however, deeding the land to the University. The University then augmented the gift with the purchase of additional land and paid for the construction of a new grandstand that would seat 10,000 and provide standing room for nearly 10,000 more spectators. Pilly then stepped up again with the money to construct a brick wall around the entire athletic complex, which also included a running track and a baseball field.

Northrop FIeld bleachers and choice standing room

The west end zone and standing room sections of Greater Northrop Field with the a portion of the Armory at right. My favorite part of the photo is the fans on the pole outside the stadium. Alfred Pillsbury’s brick wall wasn’t going to keep them from watching the game. (Minnesota Historical Society)

The new stadium, Greater Northrop Field, which opened in 1903, was considered exceptional for its time, but pressure for a bigger and better stadium would grow in only a decade.

Coaches Never Change. After praising the Gophers’ stadium as one of the “very best football playing fields in the country” a coach expounded, “Fine as this is, however, it does not meet the present football requirements of the University…Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Chicago, and Illinois have all far outstripped Minnesota in extent of grounds and equipment. A new field with concrete stands and ample acreage is a not unreasonable hope for the near future. Commodious, clean dressing quarters, baths and locker rooms in place of the present inadequate cramped, dirty, unsanitary, and unhygienic quarters should accompany the new field. While bearing but indirectly on football and yet affecting all athletic enterprises at the University, it might be well to mention that Minnesota has one of the poorest college gymnasiums in the country, in no wise in keeping with its needs or its athletic accomplishments.”
— U of M football coach Dr. Henry L. Williams writing in the Alumni Weekly, November 9, 1914. Norwood Teague could use that speech today with minor revisions.

The demand for tickets to see the Gophers play in those days is demonstrated by a law passed by the Minnesota Legislature in 1913, Chapter 521 of the General Laws of Minnesota.

“Be it enacted by the Legislature of the State of Minnesota:
Section 1. Prohibiting theater ticket scalping.–No person, firm, or corporation shall sell or offer or expose for sale any ticket of admission to any theater, opera, concert, athletic contest, or other public entertainment at a greater price than the same are being sold or offered for sale by the management of the same.”

Although the law is couched in general entertainment terms, the Minneapolis Tribune reported April 27, 1913 that the bill was passed expressly to prohibit the scalping of Gopher football tickets, which had been prevalent when the Wisconsin Badgers came to Northrop Field to play the Gophers the previous November. At that time — the Tribune headline was “Football Fever Grips City” — tickets that normally cost $1.50 were selling for as much as $10, putting them out of reach of most fans. (The first Minnesota legislation I can find that applies to excess charges on tickets of any kind is a 1893 law that prevented ticket brokers from raising prices for steamship and railroad tickets.)

The new law got its first great test when Coach Stagg’s University of Chicago eleven came to Minneapolis for a mid-November game in 1913. The 10,000 seats in the grandstand sold out the same morning tickets went on sale even though a limit of six tickets per person was implemented to curtail the anticipated aftermarket in tickets despite the new law. While the penalty for scalping tickets was a $10-$100 fine or 10-90 days in the county jail, the University also imposed punishment for students who sold their student tickets, which cost $5 for the season. The penalty was harsh: expulsion from school. Minneapolis police assigned three plain clothes detectives to patrol “hotel lobbies, cigar stores and saloons” to catch anyone trying to sell tickets over face value. (It wasn’t until 1949 that the legislature expanded the law to prohibit selling tickets below face value, too.)

The big game, played on a field that had been protected from frost all week by a covering of 18 tons of hay, lived up to advance billing resulting in a dramatic 13-7 win by Chicago. Despite the home team’s loss, the Tribune reported an “orgy of celebration” after the game that had never been equalled in Minneapolis history. The paper credited the Chicago win to Coach Stagg’s “shifty plays.” Chicago went on to beat Wisconsin the next week — the entire Wisconsin team was rumored to be at the Minnesota game scouting the Chicago squad — and won the Big Nine conference championship. It was the Big Nine, instead of the Big Ten, at the time because Michigan had temporarily withdrawn from the conference. Chicago was a member then, not replaced by Michigan State until 1949 after Chicago dropped out of major college athletics. What became of all that hay remains a mystery.

At conference meetings the week after the 1913 season ended, faculty representatives of Big Nine schools agreed to try out using numbers on players uniforms the next year. They also appointed Chicago’s coach, Amos Alonzo Stagg, to lead an effort to “devise a signal code by which officials in football games can inform announcers of the causes of penalties”.(Minneapolis Tribune November 29, 1913)

Digression: Squirrels, ferrets and flats. Lest you think that the 1913 legislature was being frivolous in passing laws against ticket scalping, it also passed laws against killing any kind of squirrel in public parks and repealed the law that had made it illegal to use ferrets to hunt rabbits in Hennepin, Ramsey and St. Louis counties. Apparently after passage of the law banning ferrets, the rabbit population had exploded and was destroying fruit trees in those counties. I don’t know if or when either law was ever amended or repealed. So if you plan to use your ferret to hunt rabbits in Minneapolis this summer, you might want to check first. The legislature also granted city councils the authority to determine where flat or apartment buildings could or could not be built, one of the first steps toward zoning restrictions and modern city planning.

After several years of intense public pressure, Northrop Field was replaced after only 21 years by Memorial Stadium, which opened in 1924. Alfred Pillsbury was reported to have donated $50,000 toward the construction of that stadium.

Medical school students demonstrating support for a new stadium about 1920. (Minnesota Historical Society)

Medical school students demonstrating support for a new stadium about 1920. (Minnesota Historical Society)

Pharmacy students demonstrating for a new stadium. (Minnesota Historical Society)

Pharmacy students demonstrating for a new stadium around 1920. (Minnesota Historical Society)

The reference to the “auditorium” in the photo above was to what became “Northrop Auditorium.” The fundraising campaign for Memorial Stadium also included raising money to build Northrop Auditorium.

Although I don’t know if you can still use ferrets to hunt rabbits in Minneapolis, the laws prohibiting selling tickets to sporting events and other entertainment for more or less than face value was repealed in 2007.

While no evidence remains of the Pillsbury family’s contributions to athletic facilities at the University of Minnesota long ago—I don’t know if Pillsbury descendants contributed toward construction of The Bank or other newer facilities at the U—a statue of John S. Pillsbury remains prominent on campus for his role in creating the entire University. History also remembers both John and Alfred, father and son, for their contributions to Minneapolis through the park board; in that sense our city parks are also part of their legacy. And you can still go to the Minneapolis Institute of Art and find items donated from the collection of Alfred F. Pillsbury. I think I can write with confidence that he is the premier art collector in history who also played on his college football team for eight years.

David C. Smith

© 2013 David C. Smith


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