The Cornell Bear. It comes as a surprise to many that Cornell does not have an official mascot - so what is this bear that one sees all over campus, on t-shirts, coffee mugs, ties, you name it? Well it’s an homage to the four real black bears, all named Touchdown, who once prowled the Hill and started a tradition that lasts to this day.
The first bear showed up in 1915. In September of that year a bear cub arrived in Ithaca at the invitation of the football team. The cub was described, as were her 3 successors, as a “playful and lovable little creature standing about 3 feet high with soft well furred ears and eyes shoe button black”. You can imagine how these cubs captivated the student body. Cute little cubs, however, have a tendency to grow up and this was certainly the case with our 4 bears—but more of that later.
After some other names were tried, the football team decided on “Touchdown” and the cub made her debut at the game between Cornell and Oberlin. Immediately Touchdown became a fan favorite due to her pre-game antics of climbing the goal posts and the fact that the Big Red after four games with Touchdown on the sidelines started the 1915 season 4 and 0. This set up the showdown in Boston with mighty Harvard who was riding a 33 game winning streak. The Big Red was not given much a chance, but there was hope that Touchdown could be the game changer.
The football team was housed in the Lenox Hotel and hotel management offered to give Touchdown accommodations in the hotel lobby, complete with strained honey. Beware, however, non-Cornell Hotelies - all of this hospitality was simply a clever way to provide Harvard the opportunity to kidnap Touchdown in the early morning hours before the game. It was only after a posse made up of Cornell undergrads and alums rescued Touchdown that she was back on the sidelines for the start of the game which Cornell won 10-0.
This was the first time the Big Red had ever defeated Harvard, and Cornell went onto win the rest of its games that season, two of which were on the road against Michigan and Penn. Touchdown the Bear went night clubbing in Detroit, and became a celebrity in Philadelphia and Atlantic City.
Atlantic City you ask? As you may know the Cornell - Penn football game is annually the last game of the season. This rivalry goes back over a hundred years and for most of that time the game was played at Franklin Field in Philly on Thanksgiving Weekend. In the custom of the day, the Big Red team would travel first to Atlantic City where it would engage in various pre-game “preparations” for several days before going onto Philadelphia. Touchdown was still in a less-than-friendly mood the next day when she was introduced to the Penn mascot - “a wolf dog of the huskie type”. My favorite picture is of this meeting; the very natty Penn cheerleaders in their tennis sweaters and white flannels, and the rubes from Ithaca with their slouch hats, black suits and high top boots. The country comes to the big City.
We may have looked outclassed there on the fifty yard line at Franklin Field, but Touchdown showed who had the upper hand. Upon meeting the Penn huskie, Touchdown clubbed the dog across the muzzle and knocked the poor beast out cold. This presaged what the Big Red team was to do that afternoon to the Less than Fighting Quakers with a convincing 24 to 9 victory, finishing the season 9-0. This was Cornell’s first undefeated team and national championship team.
Touchdown and the “Unbeaten and Unbeatable” Big Red team returned to Ithaca after the game. Touchdown then went home to Old Town, Maine.
Touchdown I set the standard for the three bears that were to follow in 1916, 1919 and 1939. Touchdown II was the bear abandoned in Philadelphia after a loss to Penn, but she went to the Rose Bowl with the Penn mascot.
Touchdown III demonstrated in support of faculty salaries and made a trip to New York City for the Dartmouth game where she had a high old time at the Cornell Club.
But my favorite bear is Touchdown IV who made the 1939 season memorable and historic. There were twenty years between the third Touchdown and the fourth due in large part to antipathy toward bears on the part of the athletic director during that period.
But in the fall of 1939 a perfect storm was brewing - a new athletic director - one James Lynah, restlessness on campus due to war clouds in Europe, and six undergraduates who hatched a plan to continue the tradition of Touchdown I, II and III. Lynah was stubbornly opposed to having a Bear anywhere near Schoelkopf. The more he dug his heels in the more the students pressed their case. The Sun, acting as the mouthpiece for the students, requested, pleaded and then demanded that the Touchdown IV be allowed to represent the Big Red. But Jim Lynah was unmoved; he refused to grant Touchdown permission to be anywhere near Schoelkopf Field. This standoff culminated in a student demonstration in front of the Straight during which Touchdown spent most of her time up in a tree.
Perhaps propelled by the energy of the student body, the Big Red football team rolled over its first three opponents. This led up to a faceoff against national power Ohio State in Columbus. The Cornell Club of Cleveland had heard about the trials and trevails of Touchdown and invited her to attend the game as its guest. Touchdown and several students took the Club up in its offer of hospitality, and Touchdown made the 300 mile train trip to Cleveland and then onto Columbus.
Although we have no record of Touchdown being on the sidelines at arguably the Big Red’s greatest football victory, a 23-14 humbling of Ohio State, that was front page news across the country, she became the post-game story…
Now picture hundreds if not thousands of Cornell revelers, including Touchdown the Bear celebrating their way back to Cleveland most by train. Touchdown ended up in a Cleveland nightclub where she created a bit of a scene with the Animal Protective League. The officer arrested poor Touchdown, and on that Sunday morning papers literally from coast to coast led with headlines like “Cornell’s Cub Cuts Up At Night Club” and “Cornell Cub in Custody After Night Club Spree.”
After intense negotiations, Touchdown was finally released and sent to the woods of western Pennsylvania under the watchful eye of the Pennsylvania Conservation Commission.
Although Touchdown was not around for Cornell’s next game, or for the rest of the season for that matter, the Big Red went on to win all of its games, finishing the season 8-0 - Touchdown IV, like Touchdown I before her, was certainly an inspiration for the team’s success.