First played in 1892, the annual football game between Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley is one of America’s oldest sports rivalries. Stanford defeated Cal 14-10 in the first Big Game, held in San Francisco. Only team captain John Whittemore had ever played football before. Brief breaks during wartime interrupt a series that Stanford now leads 61-46-11. Prowess, spirit, valor and a bit of mischief surround the series’ perpetual trophy, the Stanford Axe.
Before there was an Axe, there was an Axe Yell, premiered by Stanford in 1896 and still used by both schools. A parody of a chorus in Aristophanes’ The Frogs, it dates from an era when university students were expected to know ancient Greek:
“Give ’em the axe, the axe, the axe!
Give ’em the axe, the axe, the axe!
Give ’em the axe, give ’em 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, right in the neck, right in the neck!
To reinforce the message, Stanford students decided the Axe Yell needed a prop. Cardinal yell leader Billy Erb first brandished the simple woodman’s blade in 1899 at a pregame baseball rally. Cal students stole the Axe two days later, launching decades of what one observer called “Miniature warfare with all of the passions duplicated … the only thing missing is the limitation on the weapons.” In 1930, a group of Stanford students posing as news photographers recovered the Axe from Berkeley and brought it to a Palo Alto bank for safekeeping. The rescue party soon dubbed the “Immortal 21” made news up and down the West Coast. After much high-level negotiation, both schools agreed in 1933 to make the Axe the rivalry’s football trophy. The Stanford Axe is now kept in a secure location by the victor of each Big Game.
From 1906 to 1914, the Big Game played was rugby, which replaced football amid nationwide safety concerns that eventually led to reform of college football rules. Stanford brought in experts from as far away as New Zealand and South Africa to provide tutelage in the new game. By then, Big Game was the largest-attended sporting event west of the Mississippi, and changing its format was not without controversy. The athletes, however, were resilient. Schools fielded fifteen-man sides, and there are reports from less high-stakes contests that players sometimes met unofficially after rugby matches were over, sidelined four men each, and launched right into a familiar American football game.
For decades, Stanford rallied for Big Game with an enormous pregame bonfire. Before the 1912 rally, Stanford’s Gordon Hampton was charged with guarding the pyre. High up in a large oak tree on what is now the southwest corner of Galvez Street at Campus Drive East, near today’s Arrillaga Center for Sports and Recreation, he spied Cal partisans bent on mischief and sounded the alarm. A plaque below the tree explains how Hampton “saved the day.” In 1992, environmental and safety concerns consigned the gigantic pyres in Lagunita’s dry lakebed to the bonfire of history. Recently, Stanford’s Axe Committee resurrected the bonfire rallies using a safer bonfire torch. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Stanford fans each year pass by the Gordon Hampton Oak, symbol of Cardinal vigilance, en route from central campus to Stanford Stadium.
Card stunts began in the early 20th century. Writing instructions for each set of cards in the rooting section took hundreds of hours. In 1961, two Stanford math students ran the task through a Burroughs 220 computer that got it done in 13 hours. Stanford’s 20-7 Big Game victory that year launched one of two six-game winning streaks in the series, the other being the current series capped with Stanford’s 35-22 win in 2015. The Big Game’s longest winning streak, 1995-2001, is also owned by Stanford, and one it aims to tie in 2016.
Stanford men and women had separate rooting sections through the 1950s, as seen in the background of a 1956 Big Game photo of Stanford fullback Lou Valli battling a host of Cal defenders. Spectating was a fairly dressy occasion by modern standards, as the 1953 Big Game program reveals. Female students had to wear “Quad clothes” – dresses or skirts, never jeans or trousers – in Stanford Stadium.
Stanford retired its Indian mascot, long embodied by Timm Williams, in 1972 amid concerns of Native American students. After several referenda and lobbying campaigns for various symbols, the Tree became Stanford’s unofficial mascot. The Big Game Week “Bearial” in effigy of rival mascot Oski goes back decades, though its impalement atop the White Plaza fountain is a relatively recent tradition. So is the sounding of a railroad whistle in the plaza to count down the hours before kickoff, one hour and one whistle for each year of Big Game history.
A classic prank softened the blow of Stanford’s infamous 1982 Big Game loss. On Nov. 24, 1982, Stanford Daily staffers blanketed Berkeley with thousands of copies of a fake Daily Californian in which NCAA officials invalidated “The Play” and awarded the game to the Cardinal. A clue in the faux paper’s flag should have alerted distraught Bears to the hoax: “Serving the Campus Community since 1892” is the Stanford paper’s motto, not Cal’s.