The Story of the Stanford Axe
by Sean Rouse, Stanford Axe Committee, 1995

April 15th — On this date in Cal History

Aside from being Tax Day, today marks one of the most important anniversaries in the history of Cal athletics and Cal spirit. Ninety-five years ago, on Saturday, April 15, 1899, an upset in a baseball game occurred, but our story begins a little earlier...

In 1899, the Stanford baseball team was considered to be highly rated. However, other Stanford sports had taken a big slump. Stanford had lost twice in a row to Cal in track, Stanford's '98 Freshman football team lost to Cal, and later the Golden Bears defeated Stanford in Varsity football by a score of 22-0 (Touchdowns were worth 5 points at the time).

The Stanford yell-leading squad decided that it would be a good idea to have something to help rally the student body to cheer their team to victory. A popular yell at the time was the Axe yell (a take-off of a passage from Sophocles' "The Frog"). It was decided that an Axe would be the perfect instrument to help rally the students. The Axe was NOT custom made for the Stanford yell leaders, but was a standard lumberman's axe weighing ten pounds with a fifteen inch blade (it was quite possibly ordered from Sears). When the Axe arrived, the handle was painted red.

In April of 1899, there was a best-of-three game series scheduled between Cal and Stanford. Cal upset Stanford 4-1 in the first game of the series.

On Thursday April 13, 1899, a rally was held on the Stanford campus to whip up spirit for the second game, to be played two days later. The Axe was displayed to the Stanford student body for the first time at this rally, and was used to decapitate a straw man dressed up in blue and gold.

The game itself was played at 16th Street and Folsom in San Francisco. Head Stanford yell leader, Billy Erb (whose nephew Charles would go on to play for The Wonder Teams), brought the Axe with him. Stanford took an early lead, and after every good Stanford play, Erb and the other yell leaders would use the axe to chop up some blue and gold ribbon, and then gleefully parade the axe in front of the Cal bleachers, shouting the Axe Yell. Needless to say, this upset the Cal fans, and convinced two separate groups that they should attempt to steal this annoying instrument.

Anyway, It looked like the yell leaders had succeeded as Stanford led 7-5 going into the ninth inning. However, a four run Cal rally in the ninth dashed Stanford's hopes, as Cal won 9-7.

As fate would have it, the Cal section was the closest to the exit of the field, and so one group of planners decided to wait for the Axe. When it arrived, an "old-fashioned brawl" (or small riot, depending on the account) ensued as the Cal men jumped the Stanfordites with the Axe. At this point, the second group of Cal men jumped into the fray. The Axe was taken by Cal at the cost of a black eye, a torn suit, and a cut finger.

At the same time, a squad of police arrived, and Jack McGee '99, succeeded in confusing the police by trying to convince them that some Stanford students were attempting to steal a California Axe. The Sergeant in charge, Michael Josephy Conboy decided "They are college byes. Let them foight it out."

The Axe was passed on to Cal sprinter Billy Drum '00, who took the Axe along a winding route through the City. At one point, Drum accidently handed the Axe to two Stanford men who pretended to be Cal men, but he and some other Cal men helped retrieve the Axe from the two pretenders after chasing them for two blocks. Eventually the Axe reached a butcher shop at Scott and Oak streets where the Cal men were able to saw the handle off. The Axe and handle were then given to Clint Miller '00, who stuffed the Axe under his overcoat and put the handle down his pants leg. On the way to the Ferry Building, Miller stopped at a Chinese hardware store on Clay St. to make the handle easier to hide.

At the ferry building, the police were searching all UC men taking the ferry to Berkeley. Miller kept the axe as close to his skin as possible, buttoned up his coat and overcoat, and looked quite innocent as he waved goodbye to the Cal men while grabbing the arm of an old girlfriend that he saw was in line to board the ferry to Oakland. Jimmy Hopper '98 noticed what Miller was doing, bought Miller a ticket to Oakland, and handed the ticket to Miller just in time to board the ferry.

That night, the Axe was stored in the safe of Morris the Photographer, and the next night, under the pillow of Al Lean, the trainer of the baseball team.

Then, on Monday April 17th, the baseball team plus the men who helped steal the Axe, elected Loll Pringle as the "Custodian of the Axe", and the first Axe rally was held on the Cal campus.

The Axe was then moved to the Chi Phi house where a few days later, several Stanford students raided the house, but did not find the Axe, which was hidden in a space behind a sliding door. After this incident, the Axe was moved to one of the top floors of the Klaus Spreckels building at 3rd and Market in downtown San Francisco, under the care of Clint Miller.

In the Fall of 1899, a few days before the first Football Axe rally, Clint Miller transported the Axe back to Berkeley in a suit box. Miller, after boarding the ferry to Berkeley, ended up sitting down next to the only Stanford man that he knew. The Stanford man said "See here, Clint, I see by the papers you Berkeley guys are going to bring out that old Axe you've been crowing so much about. Well, if you do, you'll be sorry."

Miller, with his legs starting to tremble, managed to reply, "Oh, by the way, where is the Stanford Axe?"

The Stanford man replied, "Never mind, Clint, we know where it is. You're now warned never to bring it out in public."

After the first football Axe rally, the Stanfordites tried to make good their threat by attacking Clint Miller's home at about two o'clock in the morning.

Miller was given just enough warning by Police Chief August Vollmer to get the Axe out of his basement and deliver it to a banker friend, Frank Naylor, who stored the Axe in a safe deposit box in one of the vaults at the American Trust Company.

The Axe was stored in the vault for 30 years, and was only brought out for Football and Baseball rallies, when it would be transported to and from the Greek Theatre by armored car.

While the Axe was kept in the bank vault, a search warrant for stolen property served on the bank only once. When that happened, the bank manager consulted the bank's attorney, Judge Waste, who said "Pay no attention to the warrant. It has been issued from San Francisco County instead of Alameda County." This prompted the bank manager to ask what he should do if he was ever served a warrant from Alameda County. The Judge replied with "That's easy! Give the Axe to me and I'll put it in my private safe deposit box. They will never think to get a search warrant for my box."

Every year the baseball team would elect a new "Custodian of the Axe". The Axe would be ceremoniously passed from the old Custodian to the new Custodian at the annual Fall Ax Rally. The custodian of the Axe was responsible for displaying the Axe at the two Ax Rallies and safely transporting the axe to and from the bank. At some point in time before 1930, the California Rally Committee was given the responsibility for safely transporting the Axe.

[There is some question as to when this happened, and if, when Rally Committee assumed this responsibility, Rally Committee also assumed the title "Custodians of the Stanford Axe".]

On April 3, 1930, a group of twenty-one Stanford students, four of whom posed as photographers and reporters, stole the Axe as it was being transported back to the bank after the annual Baseball rally at the Greek. One man grabbed the Axe while his well-organized accomplices set off a smoke bomb (or a tear gas bomb, depending on the account of the story). The Axe was taken to three cars which sped off in different directions. Several of the thieves were caught, but the Axe had made it back to Stanford.

In response to the theft, a Cal joke newspaper, "The Raspberry Press", printed an edition with the headline "Rally Committee Stinks".

After several years of attempted raids, and retaliatory strikes, the presidents of the two student bodies signed an agreement stating that the Axe is an annual trophy to be awarded to the victor of the Big Game, and that in the event of a tie, the Axe would be kept by the side already possessing the Axe.

Early on, the Axe was presented to the winning side at a ceremony after the game's conclusion, by the Governor of the State of California. (Oh how times have changed).

When the agreement was signed, the responsibility of displaying and guarding the Axe, while in California hands, was given to the California Rally Committee along with the title "Custodians of the Stanford Axe". The University of California Rally Committee still has this title and the responsibility that goes with it.

Sources for the above story were:

  • Sullivan, John T., The Big Game, a game by game history of one of America's greatest football rivalries, 1982, Leisure Press, New York, NY.

  • Stories told by John Leon Larrisou '75

  • University of California Rally Committee Information Book, UCRC Alumni

  • The 1924-25 Blue and Gold (Yearbook) Sibley, Robert & Carol, University of California Pilgrimage, a treasury of tradition, lore, and laughter, 1952, authors, USA

  • Captain Kidd '00, "The Saga of the Axe", Nov 1951, California Monthly.


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