Blame it on the legislature. If Leland Stanford had been approved by the State Senate for a position on the UC Board of Regents in 1883, the world would be a much different place today. There would be no Hoover Institution, no Stanford Band, and no Paul Biddle. But Leland Stanford wasn't approved by the State Senate for the Regent position he so coveted. The man who served as United States Senator and Governor of California, headed the transcontinental Central Pacific Railroad, and was one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the West, was rejected in his quest for a seat on the governing board of the University of California.
"Stanford felt greatly chagrined, and according to some accounts, it was for that reason he determined to build and endow a university of his own," according to an 1897 book, The History of California.
Built on a horse farm in Palo Alto, and named after the robber baron's only son, the school opened on October 1, 1891. Five months later, on March 19, 1892, students from Cal and Stanford met for the first Big Game.
It's been more than a century since Cal and Stanford people started feeling edgy about each other. In those 100 years, the world has turned upside down: empires have risen and collapsed, technology has revolutionized daily life, and great leaders have been born and changed history. But remarkably little has changed about the rivalry between Cal and Stanford. The stereotypes that were born a century ago remain strong and true today: Cal people are noble, industrious, creative, and well-rounded; Stanford people spend a lot of time practicing their forearms and mixing martinis.
The Farm-dwellers view themselves a little differently. With only half the student population of Cal and considerably less history, Stanford considers itself the feisty underdog, the rebellious, rowdy, little brother. And Stanford people seem to have a rather uneasy fixation on Cal, no doubt inherited by Leland Stanford. Virtually all their early songs were about beating Cal. Their ticket number is 1-800-BEAT-CAL. "Beat Cal" has been scrawled along the locks of the Danube River, on the Tower of London, and anywhere Stanford grads find themselves with spraypaint. But the rivalry has extended far beyond football. And most agree the competition has benefited both universities: in prodding students and faculty to strive for academic success, in providing tradition and culture, and in offering some of the best football games ever played.
"Overall, the rivalry has helped make both Cal and Stanford two of the top universities in the country," said former Berkeley public administration officer Ray Colvig, '53. "Cal will get two or three Nobel Prizes, then Stanford will get a few. It goes back and forth. It's rather unique to have two such universities within 60 miles of each other."
As of press time, the Cal faculty counts 15 Nobel laureates (seven deceased), five Pulitzer-Prize winners, and, since 1981, 110 Guggenheim winners. Stanford has nine Noble laureates (plus three affiliated with the Hoover Institution), six Pulitzer Prize winners, and 123 Guggenheims since 1974.
The schools share library services, several academic programs (such as the centers for African, Latin, American, and Soviet studies), and have an informal agreement not to raid each other's faculties. There are even a few intermarriages: Cal professors Christina Maslach and Jewel Taylor Gibbs are both married to Stanford professors.
But a century ago, relations were a little less friendly.
"When Stanford University opened its doors in 1891, California was suffering from an exaggerated combination of unbearable smugness and a false sense of superiority with such feeling that every resource in her power should be mobilized to the undoing of it," wrote former Stanford track coach Dink Templeton in a 1930 essay.
Templeton describes the early Stanford student body as living in shacks, with no money, no nice clothes, "no showy possessions," and working hard all day to build the campus. "The very thought of California made them mad, so much that nothing more could possibly interest them as much as in knocking her off her high horse."
A football challenge was issued. Cal, which had thoroughly dominated West Coast athletics for twenty years, eagerly anticipated the chance to humble this newly formed team of upstarts. A record-breaking 20,000 people saw the game, played at Haight Street in San Francisco. The Stanford team manager, Herbert Hoover, S '96, forgot to bring the ball, so they used a sort of punching bag donated by a local sporting goods store. (In his memoirs, President Hoover admitted that the football was forgotten, but, typically, blamed his Cal counterpart.)
The game fulfilled all the hoopla and expectations. Although heavily favored, Cal lost, 14-10. Another game was played the following December, which Stanford also won, and the two teams agreed to meet every year on the Saturday before Thanksgiving.
"That period proved to California, reluctant as she was to accept such ridiculous beliefs, that henceforth she would have to battle for all she was worth and for any prestige she would gain. It was really the birth of what has since been known as the California spirit," Templeton wrote.
Tressider Student Union is a large, modern building near the Stanford Quad. Next to the beauty parlor, in a glass and steel case, lies the Axe. It is secured by eight bolts and rigged with an extensive alarm system. On the plaque, the scores of past Big Games are engraved for all passersby to read.
The score for 1982 reads: Stanford 20, California 19.
"Did they really do that?" smirked former Stanford sports information director Gary Cavalli, feigning innocence. "How 'bout that?"
While other schools vie for trophies like little brown jugs, victory bells, or bronze beer kegs, Cal and Stanford compete for an implement of death. The Axe is not a symbol of the rivalry; it is, in fact, exactly what the schools want to do to each other. It's not a metaphor for anything. It is the actual weapon used to behead a bear.
After being excavated from the Stanford foundry, the Axe was first used to decapitate a bear effigy at a rally on April 13, 1899. As the head of our sturdy golden bear rolled into a basket, yell leader Billy Erb, S '99 led the students in a cheer composed a few years earlier by Will Erwin, S '96:
Give 'em the Axe, the Axe, the Axe,
Give 'em the Axe, the Axe, the Axe,
Give 'em the Axe, the Axe, the Axe,
Give 'em the Axe,
Right in the neck, the neck, the neck,
Right in the neck, the neck, the neck,
Right in the neck, the neck, the neck,
Right in the neck,
"It was the greatest of all Stanford battle cries, because it exactly expressed the feelings of the farm toward those superior beings across the Bay," wrote Templeton.
Morale on the Farm had been low. The then-Indians had lost their last baseball match to Cal, 4-1. The team pitcher and captain, George Beckett, had become suddenly ill and was out for the season. But the Axe and ritualistic decapitation inspired the students to bring the Axe to the next day's game against the Bears, at 16th and Harrison Streets in San Francisco. With every Stanford hit, fans swung the Axe, sharpened it on a grinder, used it to shred blue and gold ribbons, and fervently repeated the cheer. After Cal won the game, 9-7, three Cal students jumped the demoralized Stanford guardians and made off with the Axe, probably because they did not want to hear the yell again.
Paul Castlehun, Jack McGee, and Ted Baciagalupi grabbed the Axe and ran, with hundreds of Cal and Stanford students in pursuit. The Axe was passed to Cal quarterback Jimmy Hopper, who rode through San Francisco on a stolen horse and wagon. To make the Axe less conspicuous, Cal track star Billy Drum ran into a hardware store in Chinatown, chopped off the handle, and wrapped the blade in brown paper. By the time they reached the Ferry Building, they were met by dozens of police officers and irate Stanford students. Ticket takers were warned not to allow "the thieves" on the boat. Cliff Miller, the only Cal student with an overcoat, was chosen to carry the Axe onto the ferry. Daunted by the tight security, he hesitated until he saw an old girlfriend from high school and offered himself as an escort. "Like two entranced lovers, they passed through security, arms linked without any shadow of suspicion cast upon them," wrote Templeton. The woman was never identified. Some say it was actually a man in drag.
After days of rallies, parades, and unsuccessful attempts by Stanford to steal it back, the Axe was stored first at the Chi Phi fraternity house, then in a vault at America Trust on Shattuck Avenue. Finally giving up on recapturing the Axe, vengeful Stanford students stole Cal's "senior fence," which was located near the Campanile. In response, Cal students thanked Stanford for ridding them of the "unsightly and worthless piece of junk," and took up a collection to send a few posts down that had been overlooked, according to Templeton.
For the next 31 years, the Axe was brought out only at the annual spring baseball rally. "Yet," Templeton wrote, "the way they bragged about it, and dared Stanford to try and get it, got under the skin of every Stanford man. The smoldering fire never ceased to burn at Stanford University."
Don Kropp, S '26, and his eating club at Stanford's Sequoia Hall, wanted the Axe back.
"Don had been thinking about it for three, four years, " recalled Jim Trimingham, S '29, who drove the getaway car for 21 Stanford students now known on the Farm as the "Immortal [sic] 21."
Kropp and his friends in the Eating Club, and a few others drove to Berkeley the evening of the bonfire rally, April 3, 1930, at which baseball star Norm Horner, '31 would be appointed as the new guardian of the Axe. As the Axe was being transferred from the armored truck to the bank vault, Stanford students posing as newspaper photographers asked for a peak at it.
"We knew a lot of the guards were freshmen, so we said, 'Hey you'll be in the papers tomorrow,' which they bought," said Trimingham. "There were a couple of fellows in our bunch who were camera buffs, so we had them make out like they were taking a picture, but there was no picture."
As the phony flashes went off, "the bank officials got scared and shut the door to the vault. And that was when we let the tear gas go off," he said, laughing.
In an essay published later, Norm Horner wrote, "A man jumped from the top of the car onto my shoulders, carrying us both to the ground. I dropped the handle, which I was carrying in my left hand, and grabbed the blade with both hands tightly against my stomach. Howard Avery, who had jumped from the car, tightened his headlock and held me pinned against the side of the car. It was then that somebody rushed in from the side and wrenched the blade loose from my hands…"
The next day, classes were cancelled at Stanford and the "Immortal 21" became instant heroes. Extensive, sensational news accounts of the theft dominated all Bay Area newspapers for more than two weeks. Copies of both the Daily Cal and the Stanford Daily were sent to graduates across the world. "The headlines were bigger than if war had been declared, " remembers Matt Lehmann, S '31, whose role in the heist was to "distract Cal people."
In the months that followed, Cal made numerous attempts to get the Axe back. "Cal people came over with real bombs," said Triningham. "They were ready to shoot people." Lehmann carried a pipe in his care in case of attack.
In an effort to curb the escalating violence, officials from both universities agreed to make the Axe the trophy to be awarded annually to the winner of the Big Game. Stanford was opposed to this idea: "We had nothing to gain and everything to lose by offering Cal an opportunity to get back what rightfully belongs to Stanford," according to Templeton.
There have been eight successful Axe thefts since then, and countless attempts. Norm Horner died in 1971, after a career as a Navy Commander. Nine of the 21 are still immortal, and are treated like royalty by the Stanford rally committee, with lifetime 50-yard-line tickets to the Big Game.
Templeton wrote, "If it had not been for that yell, there would have been no Axe, no capture, no raids, and it is very possible that the Stanford-California rivalry would by this time have settled down to one of those conventional arguments which means extra occasions to show off new clothes and throw parties."
The Harvard-Yale competition may be older, and Texas-Oklahoma may be rowdier, but Cal and Stanford produce the most creative pranks. One of the greatest took place in 1982, when Stanford students, in an effort to avenge the Play, distributed thousands of fake Daily Californians around Sproul Plaza. The papers claimed that the NCAA had nullified Cal's five-lateral touchdown and awarded the Big Game to Stanford. The newspaper perfectly copied the Daily Cal layout and typographical style, and included phony interviews with a devastated Joe Kapp, '59 and distraught players. Cal had the last laugh, though. After discovering the hoax, Daily Cal staffers collected the bogus issues and sold them for $5 each.
A perennial favorite played on Stanford is the canceling of its bonfire rally. Just about every year, some Cal students will distribute flyers around the Stanford campus proclaiming the cancellation or changed day and time of the bonfire, usually due to "fire hazards." Last year, some enterprising Cal students actually signed former Stanford President Donald Kennedy's name to the fliers and circulated them not just at Stanford, but to every major media outlet in the Bay Area as well. The story was played prominently.
Oddly enough, Cal's bonfire has never been foiled by Stanford pranks. But students from the Farm have compensated with other tricks. One year, Stanford students somehow got into the Campanile and played the theme from the Mickey Mouse Club during midterms. And occasionally someone puts a red football helmet on the kneeling statue of Father Junipero Serra along Highway 280, and a football beneath his outstretched finger.
In June, Stanford students reported that Bill Walsh's head was removed from a Palo Alto billboard advertising Stanford football tickets. Although they immediately suspected Cal students, Russ Ellis, Cal's vice chancellor for undergraduate affairs, denied any Berkeley connection. "It's not the kind of thing a Cal student would do," this upholder of the truth told the San Francisco Chronicle. "It's horribly irreverent, considering who Bill Walsh is. I doubt that we would be responsible for this kind of desecration."
One hundred years of pranks, rivalry, and competition have left their mark on the two universities. The characters of Cal and Stanford have evolved to the point where it's impossible to imagine one campus existing without the other. Stanford is the ying to Cal's yang. The schools are actually very closely related, products of a century's worth of shared esteem, scorn. and history (plus a mutual hatred of USC). Cal would not be the school that it is today without the nagging presence of the pipsqueak campus to the south, and Stanford, as we know, would not exist at all if its founder had made it to the Board of Regents.
As much as we wish failure and humiliation on those who wear red, we also owe them a large debt of gratitude. Without Stanford, there would be no "Stanford Jonah," no Axe, no 1982 Big Game, and our primary competitor might be Hayward State. Here's to another 100 years of hating Stanford. And by the way, the score for the Biggest Game was Cal 25, Stanford 20.