100th Anniversary: The Myths and Magic of Cal vs. Stanford
by Carl Nolte, San Francisco Chronicle, 20 November 1997

This week is the 100th Cal-Stanford Big Game, an event that has been around so long that it has become less than big, but more than a game.

The first game was played in 1892, and except for two games that first year and no games during the two World Wars, it has been played every November since. In the golden age of college football, before the 49ers, Giants, A's, Raiders and others took over the market, the Cal-Stanford game was huge — the sporting event in Northern California. "You had to be there," said Stanford radio announcer Bob Murphy. "You had to BE there."

In 1935, 94,000 people were in Palo Alto to see Stanford win 13-0. It still is the largest crowd to ever attend a football game in Northern California.

In 1924, $5 tickets were being scalped for $100 — close to $900 in today's money.

That day is gone, but the Big Game has endured. "It is an event that has grown into the fabric of the Bay Area," said John Erickson, Stanford's bursar and keeper of the legendary Stanford Axe.

"It has become a ritual of place," said Kevin Starr, the historian and author.

Like most rituals, it has evolved around nearly mythical events: totems like the Axe; miracle finishes when victory is snatched from the jaws of defeat, like the amazing 1982 game featuring an event so awesome — or infamous — it is known simply as The Play.

There were also famous teams: Wonder Teams and Thunder Teams for Cal, Vow Boys and Wow Boys for Stanford, and the greatest name of all, Stanford's Thunderchickens, defeated by a no-name Cal team in 1970.

The Big Game is also music, bonfires, rallies, bands, pranks, the tug of memory in college reunions, tailgate parties and lots of drinking. On game day, the Stanford band has its traditional breakfast: doughnuts and beer.

"Forget sports," said Bob Cohn, editor of Stanford magazine. "This is about important things, like history, tradition and lore all in one."

"The Big Game has endured as the colleges have grown," Starr said. "Now these two universities are among the two or three greatest universities on the planet. So you have a great deal of significance and symbolism.

"You have excellence; you have an excellent athletic show; you have marvelous pageantry of college football in the fall." It is an old tradition in a state almost without traditions, a celebration of roots in a place famous for its rootlessness. On Saturday, Stanford Stadium will be filled with people who have known each other for years, who grew up together. It will be the largest football crowd of the year in the Bay Area, and the largest gathering of native Californians, an endangered species.

To others, people like Ed Moose, the San Francisco restaurateur who came west from St. Louis, the idea that a game between two mediocre college teams could possibly be big is absurd. "Not on our radar screen," he says. But those who care, care very much.

One of them is Charles Travers, who is 87. He went to his first Cal-Stanford game in 1912, when he was an infant. In those days, football had been abolished in favor of rugby, but Travers is honest about his first Big Game. "I don't remember a thing," he said.

He has missed few Big Games since and can talk knowledgeably about the glories and defeats of the past. He has seen both: Over the years, Stanford has won 49 games, California 39, with 11 ties. It has been very close — after 99 games, only 109 points separate the two teams.

Travers, a retired Army colonel, Cal class of 1932, is the most loyal of Old Blues, as Cal graduates call themselves. The message on his answering machine ends with "Go Bears," delivered in a voice of a man grown old cheering for the Blue and Gold.

He has been asked to say a few words to the current Cal team before this year's game. "I think I will tell them to take a vow, be determined to win and play their hearts out," he said.

Another is Hiram Lee, now in his 70s, who has followed the Golden Bears since he was 10. His entire extended family comes to the games and they will be there Saturday, determined to crush the Stanford Red.

Some of it goes beyond the grave. When Walter Haas Jr. of the Levi Strauss & Co. family died two years ago, the Cal band attended the last rites, and as the cortege pulled away, they played the "Stanford Jonah": "So it's up with the blue and gold, down with the red...."

Fred Boensch is one of a handful of men who played for both Stanford and California. He started at Stanford in 1941 and played in the 1942 Big Game, a 26-7 Stanford rout. The game was played during World War II; the next thing you knew, Stanford dropped football, and Boensch was in the U.S. Marine Corps training program at UC Berkeley. In 1943, he played for Cal and was captain of the team.

In 1945, he was fighting the Japanese in Okinawa and was wounded; the next year, he was back at Stanford, now captain of the Stanford team. He wore iron mask to protect his wounded jaw, and his team routed the Bears 25-6. It was an awful defeat: The Cal fans rioted, and the coach was fired.

Boensch said he liked Cal, but he has made up his mind about the Big Game. "I am going to stick to Stanford," he said. "I am going to be loyal."

Loyalty, of course, is the essence of tradition, which began with the first Cal-Stanford game, held in San Francisco in March 1892. California had been playing football for some time, Stanford University was brand new.

The schools printed 10,000 tickets and an as many as 20,000 people showed up. They collected the money — a cool $30,000 — in wash tubs. Legend has it that Herbert Hoover, the Stanford manager and future President, forgot the ball, but this turns out to be the first myth of the Big Game. Murphy, who has been connected with Stanford sports for 33 years, says there is no evidence of the Hoover story.

There is little dispute about the Axe, though. It first appeared at a Cal-Stanford baseball game in San Francisco's Mission District in the spring of 1899, when Stanford fans used it to chop up blue and gold ribbons. The Cal men couldn't stand it, waylaid the guardian of the ax, a gent named Carl Hayden, later a U.S. Senator.

They made off with the ax, running down 16th street, Stanford stalwarts in pursuit. The only way back to Berkeley was by ferry, but the Stanfords had called the cops and set up roadblocks at the ferry; the Cal men sawed off the ax handle and smuggled it safely to the East Bay.

There it remained for 30 long years, locked in a bank vault, and paraded on ceremonial occasions. In 1930, some Stanford students, posing as newspaper photographers, sprayed tear gas on the Cal guardians, stole the Axe and sprinted it off to Palo Alto. These heroes are known as "The Immortal 21." Five remain, and three of the immortals will appear at the game this Saturday, like living totems.

The Stanford Axe has been stolen five times since, but not for years. This may the year.

Even in the early days, the Cal-Stanford game was a hit and drew big crowds: In 1893, 18,000 fans "mad with excitement," or so the papers said, showed up. By then, the Oakland Tribune had called it "the great football game" and by 1914, so lore has it, it was called The Big Game.

Of course, the two schools had borrowed the idea. The Yale-Harvard classic was called simply "The Game." Berkeley was founded by Yale people, who brought their color, blue, with them. Stanford's cardinal red is a close relative to the crimson of Harvard.

"When it began," said Starr, "it signaled that the San Francisco region had come of age. It had joined the college football culture. That meant it was on a par with the country's older regions, such as the Ivy League, where football had become a ritual connected with universities, and with the Midwest, particularly Michigan, where football had emerged as an important cultural event."

The 1920s were a pivotal time. It was the Era of Wonderful Nonsense and big time sport, the time of Knute Rockne and Notre Dame, Army and Navy and Yale and Harvard, bathtub gin and boola-boola.

In 1920, Berkeley developed a team so powerful, it was called The Wonder Team, national champions that year. Everybody wanted to see the wonders, and Stanford, too. The schools had a race: In 1921, Stanford built a huge stadium, followed by Berkeley in 1923. Stanford's is still the largest privately owned football stadium in the United States. Cal's is considered one of the most beautiful. Cal's stadium opened with a crowd of 72,500 — nearly three times the population of Berkeley.

For years, college football was the major sport in the Bay Area, and Stanford and Cal were the major players, with powerful teams and a huge following. When they met in the Big Game, the region nearly trembled with excitement.

The San Francisco department stores were decorated with red and white or blue and gold. The college bands came to play in the city and on game day, everything stopped. In the days before television, it was really, truly The Big Game.

The game stayed big after World War II, but it gradually faded as a sports event. The '60s nearly killed it. In 1963, as a new generation came on campus, the old Stanford band metamorphosed into what is now called The Incomparable Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band, specializing in rock arrangements and ribald humor. The Stanford Indian was scrapped, and it looked bad for tradition for a while. In Berkeley, the old ways soldiered on, but in 1966, only 58,000 saw the game, in a driving rainstorm. The newcomers polished off the epitaphs to the former "Big Game."

But it was saved by the game itself. Famous finishes were legion, but in the 70s, they came almost every year: In 1972, 1974, 1976, 1982, 1988 and 1990, all were wondrous. The king was the 1982 Big Game, when Cal won with four seconds left on a kickoff return that was, according to Cal "amazing... incredible... miraculous," and to Stanford, "infamous."

Stanford fans also celebrate a glorious 1947 defeat, when a winless team nearly beat the 8-1 Bears. Only last minute heroics by Jackie Jensen, Cal's Golden Boy, and Paul Keckley, who was injured, saved the day. "Put me in, Coach," said Keckley in the best Hollywood tradition. "I'm OK." He went in, caught a pass, ran 65 yards, and won the game — but Stanford's gallant stand is still honored, 50 years later.

There were other upsets, other heartbreaks over the years. They say anything can happen.

What it really is about, said Dan Stone, Stanford '51, is friendship, old friends on both sides. He is chairman of the San Francisco Bond Club's Big Game lunch, a sellout this year. Despite the bumper stickers

— "Friends don't let friends go to Stanfurd" — and talk about "Berkeley Weenies," the two sides are friendly rivals. "At the Big Game," he said, "we celebrate the best college we didn't attend."

It has endured, said Stanford's Erickson, "like a fine wine that has aged well."

©1997 San Francisco Chronicle

Extremophiles Inc.