Big Ax Theft of '99
by Jack McDonald, San Francisco Call Bulletin, 18 November 1964

Scarcely a man is now alive who saw that first Big Game, Stanford vs. Cal in 1892, but out at 587 Corbett there's a hale and hearty Dr. Paul CASTELHUN, who comes close enough. He missed by only five years. He still practices medicine at 86 and among his patients this week are doubtless some Big Game fever victims.

He was a Cal tackle in 1897, 60 Big Games ago. Two years later he was a perpetrator of the grand plot to kidnap the storied Stanford ax, symbolic and traditional emblem of the game. A man with an astonishing memory he recalls his famous ax heist vividly. "Let's not say it was stolen," he smiles. "We merely borrowed the ax. It was just a little student escapade I can't seem to live down."

Whenever he achieves something of merit in the field of medicine Dr. CASTELHUN is still identified as the man who stole the ax. Only last year, when awarded the S.F. Medical Society's badge for 50 years' service in the profession, the man who made the presentation introduced him as "the man who stole the ax."

Doctor friends in the audience, familiar with his hard work in behalf of the construction of St. Luke's Hospital Maternity Wing, rushed up, shook his hand and said, "So you're the man who stole the ax! Why didn't you tell us about it before, Paul?"

THERE ARE versions by the bevy of what happened that fateful day, April 15, 1899. Without frill or furbelow, here's the doc's story. It was after a Cal-Stanford baseball game at 16th and Harrison. The Ax had been brandished aloft all during the game in front of the stands, and was swung to earth, cutting off the heads of hundreds of imaginary Golden Bears.

CASTELHUN, Ted BAGIGALUPI and John McGEE, later a Navy captain, watched, red-necked. "Let's steal it," CASTELHUN said. They bided their time. Cal won the game as Stanford rooters slunk from the grounds to get away from Cal taunts, the three followed Carl HAYDEN, later U.S. senator, under the grandstand. He held the ax and had plenty of Stanfordees with him for protection.

Word of what was afoot spread quickly among Cal students. Stanford's ax custodians sensed trouble. On 16th Street the fight was on. Blows were landed. Eyes were blackened. Everett BROWN, later a prominent lawyer, was knocked cold. Police with drawn billyclubs jumped into the fray but their sergeant called them off, saying, "They're just college kids letting off steam. Let 'em fight it out."

It was a student mob now. Those who weren't swinging fists tugged and pushed all the way to 16th and Capp where, in the melee, HAYDEN dropped the ax. CASTELHUN snatched it up and started off on a dead run with BAGIGALUPI. With angry Stanfordees at their heels they tried to hop a trolley car on Valencia, but it was moving too fast. So they ran up an alley, only to find it was a dead end.

Now hemmed in they tossed the ax to Billy DRUM, a Cal sprinter. He outran the pursuing Stanfords, but CASTELHUN caught up with DRUM in a livery stable. They tried to hire a rig but there was none, so they commandeered a passing delivery wagon. They drove to a butcher shop and had the handle of the immense, heavy broadax sawed in two, the better to avoid detection.

THEY MADE their way to the Ferry Building where a mob of Stanfordees and cops were waiting. Cal students passed the ax around like a hot potato. Everybody coming through the ferry gate was being searched. Cal's Clint MILLER grabbed the ax, put it under his coat, saw a pretty girl, grabbed her arm and gallantly whisked her through the gate. They looked like two entranced lovers to the cops, who let them pass without suspicion.

The ax was turned over to Charlie PRINGLE, who hid it under his mattress in Berkeley until it could be borne to the campus in triumph at a gigantic bonfire rally.

Dr. CASTELHUN played at Cal under Coach Frank BUTTERWORTH, who had been imported from Yale to teach the finer points of the game. "He was a Simon LEGREE," the doc recalls. "Getting ready for the Big Game he told us we couldn't knock off practice 'til the varsity scored three touchdowns on the scrubs. Every time we got down to the five-yard line he'd penalize us 15 yards. The moon was out when we finished scrimmage."

BUTTERWORTH's battlecry after a defeat was always, "Back to fundamentals." Coach Stub ALLISON, 50 years later, was to use the same phrase after losing games. Dr. CASTELHUN's first captain was Wolf RANSOME, a 196-pound fullback. "He was considered a giant of a man in those days, and a great kicker. BUTTERWORTH used to keep him on the field for hours, polishing up kicking."

"They called it the Big Game from the start," he says, "but not because of an exaggerated sense of its importance, nationally. In those days we only played about five games a year, two each with the Olympic Club and Oakland Reliance Club. We called Cal-Stanford the Big Game because it was really our only big one of the season."

©1964 San Francisco Call Bulletin




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