In 1896, only five years after Stanford opened its doors, yell leaders Will Irwin and Chris Bradley created a new chant they dubbed the "Axe Yell." Its chorus of "Give 'em the axe, the axe, the axe" inspired Stanford athletes to dominate archrival California in many sports.
Three years later, during a three-game baseball series with Cal, yell leader Billy Erb felt that a visual display was needed to excite the Stanford crowd for the Axe Yell. The series was split 1-1, and energetic support for Stanford would surely put their team over the top in the third game. Erb purchased a broadaxe with a fifteen-inch blade, painted on it a Cardinal "S," and used it to decapitate an effigy of a bear clad in blue and gold at the evening's bonfire. The display met with such wild approval that the yell leaders decided to reenact it the next day - April 15, 1899 - at the diamond in San Francisco. Once again, the squad valiantly hacked apart a hated bear, but to no avail. The blue and gold took the game and the series from the Cardinal.
As the crowds dissipated, the yell squad debated the Axe's future. Though it had inspired the crowd, perhaps it was bad luck and should be left behind in the trash bin. Before that could happen, though, a mob of California fans who had been infuriated by the yell leaders' use of the Axe descended on the group and snatched it away. The Axe moved from hand to hand before a group of Californians sawed the long handle off in a butcher shop so that the Axe could be easily concealed. One placed the Axe beneath his overcoat and made his way to the ferry terminal. When he arrived there, the police were helping Stanford students search the Cal men who were waiting to board. By a stroke of fate, a young woman who had been a high school friend was waiting to board as well. The two paired up to cross the Bay and slipped by. (Surely no polite couple would be involved in such foolishness!) For thirty-one years thereafter, the Axe was held captive in Berkeley, appearing once a year at the springtime Axe Rally.
The Immortal Twenty-One
California had won the Axe by conquest, and it was clear that Stanford would have to do the same. Residing in Sequoia Hall were twenty-one men who pledged to do justice. The problem was the protection that Cal's Grand Custodian of the Axe afforded the prized blade. On April 3, 1930, however, that protection was not enough to stop destiny as the Axe was returned to its rightful owners.
The twenty-one made their way to Berkeley and followed the Axe back to the bank after its annual appearance at the Axe Rally. From the Greek Theatre back to the American Trust Company, the plotters stalked their prize. As Grand Custodian Norm Horner stepped from the car, several "cameramen" stepped forward, declaring: "We want to take a picture." Out of a sudden burst of flash powder the photographers lunged forth and grabbed the Axe. The others struggled with Cal protectors and passed the blade like a relay baton. As a tear gas bomb exploded, the twenty-one dropped the Axe into their rented Buick and then spread out for the trip back to The Farm.
The Axe Returns
Upon their return, they paraded the Axe past each residence hall, and an impromptu rally quickly developed despite the lateness of the hour. The group was dubbed the "Immortal Twenty-One." For the next three years, the Axe sat in a Palo Alto bank vault, looked upon as contraband due to the stern warnings of university administrators on both sides of the bay. In 1933, the student governments of the two schools signed an agreement to make the Axe the trophy of Big Game.
The Years Since
In the time since the initial theft and recovery, the Axe has been stolen by Cal twice and recovered by Stanford three times. In 1946, Cal students stole it and returned it after the Chancellor announced that no Cal students were involved and that those who were would be subject to expulsion. Two years later, over the summer of 1948, Stanford borrowed the Axe from its case in Berkeley and later relocated it to more pleasant surroundings (it turned up leaning against a tree near the golf course). In 1953, Stanford went up 3-2 when the Axe disappeared from its display case at Cal again (always well-mannered, the Cardinal visitors left a five dollar bill to pay for the broken glass). After a dry spell, Cal evened up the score in 1967 by heisting the blade from its Stanford case; mysteriously, no visible signs of entry were left on the case. The Axe was subsequently photographed atop the Tribune Building in Oakland.
Most recently, Stanford made the score 4-3 when it pulled off the Ming's theft in Palo Alto in 1973. The "Infamous Three" reclaimed the Axe just days before Big Game by calling the U.C. Rally Committee ("guardians" of the Axe), claiming to be Cal Football Coach Mike White, and asking that the Axe be brought to Ming's for the Northern California Football Writers' weekly meeting. (Why? All together now: "We want to take a picture!") Posing as Cal players, the three snatched the Axe away. Despite the rejection of their demands for $6,000, admission to the Stanford graduate program of each's choice, Thanksgiving dinner with President Richard Lyman, and Law Professor John Kaplan as defense counsel, they returned the Axe in time for Big Game to begin. Stanford regained the prized trophy only a few hours later after winning 26-17. The 1973 "photo-taking session" showed just how much they learn at Cal in 43 years.
A Continuing Tradition
Today the Stanford Axe continues to be a vibrant symbol of a great rivalry, as well as the object of numerous conspiracies. Despite the fact that Cal lays claim to Stanford's rightful heritage in the rare off year, it is telling that Stanford leads Cal both in football-playing (54-41-11) and Axe-stealing (4-3).
text adapted from "The Tale of the Majestic Blade", compiled by the Stanford Axe Committee