Diamond Day

NCAA Ivy League baseball champs past and present meet on their home turf.

by Eric Kester Published Summer 2016
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The 1976 Ivy League champs, then.

So instead, Acosta planted himself on the third-base line and watched. He had an endless list of things to do: appeals to hear; decisions to write; Columbia trustee business to attend to; a workout to finish. But as the late-day sun began to push through the clouds, and the sound of balls popping in leather mitts echoed across the field, he knew he wasn’t going anywhere.

When Acosta first stood on the mound for Columbia in 1976, he was standing atop a tradition already more than a hundred years old. Columbia’s first recorded baseball game took place on May 27, 1867, when a group of young Columbia men, the Civil War and its raw lessons of mortality still fresh in their minds, happily traded bayonets for bats. They defeated a squad from NYU by the no-that’s-not-a-typo score of 43–21. The following fall, the team traveled to New Haven to face Yale. This was the last Columbia baseball game for almost two decades, and while the reason for the sport’s sudden disappearance remains unknown, one imagines that the 46–12 drubbing at the hands of the Elis didn’t exactly spread baseball fever across campus.

Baseball returned to Columbia in 1884, but the sport truly caught on in 1921 with the arrival of a student-athlete known around campus as “Biscuit Pants.” This moniker, a reference to the baggy trousers he wore over his thick lower body, was probably not one he relished. No matter: when the slugger, the quiet son of German immigrants, began launching majestic blasts that soared over the wall of old South Field, over 116th Street, and landed on the steps of Low Library, a new nickname took hold. “Biscuit Pants” would no longer suffice; he became known simply as “Columbia Lou,” a name that stuck on campus even after Lou Gehrig ’23CC left for Yankee Stadium to become one of the greatest hitters the game has ever known.

“I didn’t 'exactly' guarantee victory over Harvard in my interview with the 'Crimson.' But I came pretty close.”

In 1930 the Lions joined the Eastern Intercollegiate Baseball League (EIBL), which included Army and Navy teams in addition to the traditional Ivy League. They had some early success, but as the decades wore on, the Lions’ luck faded, until they found themselves entering the 1976 season with a thirty-two-year championship drought (excluding a three-way share of the EIBL title in 1967). Harvard had a death grip on the league, gunning for a fifth straight title. Of course, they had yet to meet Columbia’s freshman pitcher, a kid from the Bronx who brought with him an electric fastball and something more than confidence.

 “I didn’t exactly guarantee victory over Harvard in my interview with the Crimson,” Acosta recalls now with a wry grin. “But I came pretty close.”

Closer, at any rate, than Harvard bats came to Acosta’s pitches. Despite a hostile Harvard crowd jeering the freshman, Acosta took the mound with a cunning game plan and a sense of justice befitting a future judge.

“The best hitters are always crowding the plate,” he explains, “not letting you pitch to the inside corner. But I went out there with an attitude of, ‘Hey, that plate is just as much mine as it is yours.’”

Acosta owned the inside corner that day, shutting down Harvard in one of the great performances of a career that featured four straight All-Ivy honors and EIBL Pitcher of the Year honors in 1977 and 1979.

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