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Teddy's legacy

The University of Cincinnati’s original Bearcat will be forever known for an athletic prowess that inspired his team’s name, but his true legacy extends far beyond any football field

by John Bach

Those who knew him say Leonard “Teddy” Baehr never really brought it up.

He didn’t talk much about the fact that he inspired the name of the now 100-year-old Bearcats.

At a glance — and for those only interested in the Wikipedia version of things — Teddy’s legacy is simply that of a bruising and gritty fullback whose profane exclamation during a 1914 football game inspired the century-old nickname of the University of Cincinnati.

Birth of the name

Baehr and the Red and Black — as the team was generically referenced in the industrial age — were trailing the Kentucky Wildcats on Oct. 31, 1914, when a frustrated Teddy turned to his teammates and cried out, “Give me the goddamn ball!”

In a hushed moment that Halloween, Baehr’s bark travelled clear across UC’s Carson Field where fans — the men mostly in casual suits and boater caps and the women in long skirts and feathered hats — packed into the wooden bleachers clinging to the hillside that created a natural bowl for what would become Nippert Stadium.

Teddy’s inspirational shout reached the ears of head cheerleader Norman “Pat” Lyon, who immediately responded with a moment of genius and led the crowd in a now-famous cheer: “They may be Wildcats, but we have a ‘Baehr-Cat’ on our side.” UC would go on to win the game 14 to 7, and the student newspaper immortalized the historic scene with a series of cartoon drawings by John “Paddy” Reece — the first officially documented use of the name Bearcats.

For most, Teddy Baehr’s legacy ends there. And for most that’s enough. After all, he inspired the name of their beloved Bearcats.

Not even newspaper clippings or the UC yearbooks of the time reveal volumes more about Baehr the man. Unlike coverage in today’s 24-hour-media, it was only his on-the-field accomplishments that made the headlines.

Judging by what was written about him, Baehr was clearly a beast on the football field. North of 6-feet tall and around 200 pounds, he was UC’s captain and an “All-State” star who could run over defenses when he carried the ball or scare the hell out of just about anyone who lined up across from him when he played defense, which was often.

One Cincinnati newsman wrote the following after Baehr was named to the 1914 “All-Ohio Eleven”: “Teddy Baehr, husky line plunger … is the unanimous choice of the critics for the fullback position. This big honor is certainly due the Norwood strong man … not a rush line being found which could stop his fierce advances.”

According to Baehr’s family, his tenacity for the game may have come from his mother, Marie, who despite the complaints from her other children, cooked only young Teddy a steak every game day when he played for Norwood High School.

And when her son carried the ball, she was known for running along with him in the stands, even if it meant bulldozing spectators clean out of their seats along the way.

As for his father, Leonard, Sr. was a German immigrant who came to the United States all alone at age 14 with only his violin. He was a musician in New Orleans when he met and married Marie, then caught on with a circus, which they followed to Cincinnati, where Leonard Kasper Baehr, Jr. was born on Dec. 26, 1893.

During his time at UC, he became best known as Teddy. But once he pulled on the leather helmet, reporters referred to him as a “demon” on the gridiron and the “most feared man” in the Ohio Conference.

“Meeting an elephant in a head-on collision was mild with what a player experienced when he attempted single-handed to stop Baehr,” one writer continued.

For those who knew him best, however, Teddy’s role as an athlete and even in the naming of his alma mater’s sports teams are only bit parts in a far more compelling and human story that mostly centers around his days long after he left UC.

Few know, for example, that Teddy married his UC sweetheart, Helen Taylor, after returning from fighting in World War I. Helen, also a 1916 graduate, was a talented pianist at UC. Known as “delicate and reserved,” Helen was vice president of her senior class and a member of the literary society. In other words, she was a fine contrast to the exuberant Teddy, who his daughter suspects may not have passed his classes without “a lot of help” from his professors.

Teddy and Helen hit it off after playing lead roles opposite one another in their senior class play.

A few years later, after the war, Captain Baehr returned to Cincinnati to pursue Helen. They married in 1919 and had a daughter, Jane, in 1920. It was around that time that he purchased the Excelsior Laundry Company of Cincinnati from his father-in-law, a profitable venture that would land him among the local newspaper’s list of wealthiest Cincinnatians.

Less than two years after their wedding, however, Helen’s health declined rapidly, and she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

“My mother had MS long before anybody really knew what it was, and it hit her very hard,” says Jane Baehr Robinson, now 94 years old and living independently in Monroe, Ohio. “For many years she was nearly paralyzed. She was a beautiful woman and a marvelous pianist, but the first thing to go was her hands, so she could no longer play.”

Robinson, who prides herself on driving the nearby “little old ladies” on their errands, remembers her dad carrying her mother through their 14-room home along Springer Avenue in Cincinnati’s Hyde Park.

“I remember Dad saying he was glad he was as strong as he was so he could carry her,” recalls Jane. “My mother was an invalid as far back as I can remember, so my dad and I were particularly close because she couldn’t do much for me.”

Despite the disease, Teddy and Helen entertained often and continued to play bridge with friends. When MS stole Helen’s mobility and even her ability to talk, Teddy built a wooden rack and set up her bridge cards so she could still indicate which cards she wanted to play.

Listen to stories from Teddy Baehr's 94-year-old daughter 

Robinson remembers her father taking her to UC football games from the time she was 2 years old. “We went to games all around the state by train,” she says. “We never had Thanksgiving because UC was always playing Miami on Thanksgiving. As a girl growing up, football didn’t mean much to me.”

By the time Jane was in high school, Teddy moved the family to their Loveland, Ohio, farmhouse, which was large enough for their domestic help as well as his parents (both in failing health). To entertain Jane and her friends, he purchased pleasure horses and had both a tennis court and pool built on their sprawling property.

“My memories are of a wonderful father who never told me ‘do’ or ‘don’t,’” says Jane. “But I would not have wanted to disappoint him. Everybody that met him just really loved him. He sort of terrified my dates, but even they still liked him.”

When it came time for Jane to enroll in college, her dad insisted she attend Ohio Wesleyan — not because of the school’s academic reputation but rather because of the impression its football team had made on him during his playing days.

“He said he never played against a group of players that were as gentlemanly as Ohio Wesleyan,” she laughs. “But that was it. We didn’t even look anywhere else. That was where I was going.
“It worked out. That is where I met my husband.”

When Jane married in 1942, her father wept and so did his lifelong friends (most of them old football buddies) at the ceremony, as they knew how lonely Teddy would be without his only child at home, especially since Helen had lost her ability to communicate.

Then, in 1944, he lost Helen.

Teddy remained single until 1951 when he married his daughter’s best friend, Elizabeth “Libby” Hidden, A&S ’40, who was 25 years younger. Jane would remain Teddy’s only child for 33 years until he and Libby had two more daughters  — Betsy Baehr Pierson in 1952 and Marie Baehr Timko in 1953 — at the start of their 29-year marriage. The expanded second family breathed a new spirit into the Loveland farmhouse that had grown so quiet. Teddy and Libby became known for their swimming, card and dinner parties. With the advent of automatic washing machines and home dryers in the ’50s, Teddy saw the writing on the wall for commercial laundry businesses and sold Excelsior in 1958. In his retirement, he invested in real estate.

Jane’s son, Lenny Robinson (named after his grandfather), was born in 1954 and spent much of his childhood in Loveland spending time with his grandpa and playing with his aunts, who were his age.

Though his mother, Jane, couldn’t make the event (she was on a cruise), grandson Lenny came to campus on Oct. 31, 2014, when UC marked the 100th anniversary of the game in which the Bearcats name was born. During the Bearcats birthday party, he shared many stories, including how much his grandfather loved returning to the university for the annual captain’s breakfast (which he never missed) as well as Teddy’s affinity for Sigma Sigma, the men’s honorary fraternity that he was initiated into as a student in 1915. Baehr was also a member of the social fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon.

Growing up, Lenny’s favorite thing was hearing Grandpa share football stories.

“He would tell me how he used to block and jam his fists into the opponent’s biceps. Or if he knew that the fella across from him was going to put his hand down into the mud, well, he would spit in there first. He used tactics like that to gain an advantage.”

Lenny recalls learning to dive and do flips in the family’s Loveland pool from Grandpa, who was also once a champion diver and captain of the UC swim team.

“That was where all of us kids learned to do flips,” Lenny recalls. “But the word he said if it met his approval was ‘gooder.’ ‘That’s a gooder,’ he would say. That was the highest compliment you could get. He kept diving up into his 80s.”

Daughter Jane said her father never slowed down even in his later years when it came to maintaining his property.

“He had a big tree right out in the front that had a bad limb,” she says. “So he climbed up into the tree to saw off the limb, and of course, he fell.

“The limb split and knocked the ladder right out from under him.
He got up fine from it, and he said, ‘You never forget what you learn in football. When I fell, I knew I should roll.’”

One Thanksgiving, not long before his 86th birthday, Teddy’s family invited a neighbor, Elmo Lingrel — a one-time rival player from Otterbein University — to join them for dinner. It had been 65 years since the two team captains had last locked stares.

“Grandpa was always nattily attired with his tweed jacket, bow tie and beret over his bright white flat top,” recalls Lenny. “So the doorbell rings, and Grandpa springs up and says, ‘I’ll answer it.’

“He opens the door, and there is Elmo — also in coat, tie and hat — grinning from ear to ear with a twinkle in his eye. Grandpa sticks out his hand and says, ‘Elmo, I’m Teddy Baehr. You’re the son of a bitch that broke my leg.’ For that afternoon, time vanished. They just sat and shared stories. I’ll never forget it.”

Teddy Baehr died the next year in September 1980, months after his induction into the James P. Kelly UC Athletics Hall of Fame. He was buried in a special casket that his son-in-law, a master craftsman, built from premium lumber Teddy had collected in his barn “for something really special.’’

Teddy’s children noted at his memorial service what he had often told them: “Don’t give me a funeral. I’ve had a wonderful life. Just have a party.”

He had been the original Bearcat. Countless others would carry on the name. But there was only ever one Teddy Baehr.

A great legacy, indeed.



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