Give ’em the Axe, then take it back: the history of Axe thefts

Nov. 22, 2013, 1:50 a.m.

Although the Axe is supposed to reside with the winner of the most recent Big Game, the prized weapon has changed hands illegally eight times in the storied history of the Stanford-Cal rivalry.

Courtesy of Tim Conway and David Suliteanu

The Axe, the physical representation of Stanford’s collegiate rivalry with UC-Berkeley, was first stolen by Cal students on April 15, 1899, only a few days after the emblem was introduced by Stanford yell leaders during a baseball game between the two schools.

Stanford students didn’t attempt to steal the Axe until 31 years later. In its April 5, 1930 issue, The Stanford Daily reported that “while the Blue and Gold horde literally slumbered on its feet last night, a band of 20 intrepid wearers of the Cardinal whisked the precious implement from under the nose of the Berkleyans in whose possession it had rested since that fatal day in 1899.”

Stanford students posing as photographers at Berkeley’s annual Axe Rally shot tear gas into the eyes of unsuspecting Cal students while other conspirators snatched the Axe away from its carrier. That morning, 2,000 students rallied outside of Stanford’s main library in celebration of the deed and the “Immortal 21,” the group of 21 young men who valiantly recaptured the Axe.

At 4 a.m. on Nov. 16, 1945, just 15 years after the Immortal 21 claimed glory, two Cal students attempted to steal the Axe from its comfortable location in the Cellar, a popular diner on campus, sparking a decade-long series of swipes. On that same day, The Daily reported that “the two…students, Hugh Wallace, 20, and Edwin Burrell, 18, were caught by Officer Dan Hickey after they forced their way into the Cellar to get the Axe,” and were immediately arrested. After their attempt was thwarted, the two troublemakers spent the rest of Wednesday night and all Thursday in the Palo Alto jail.

However, on April 29, 1946, embittered Cal students returned to the Cellar in the hopes of snagging the coveted emblem once and for all. According to an April 29, 1946 Daily article, “the thieves came into the Cellar just before closing time. Only student-worker Bill Steif was there, forced into submission by threats of violence. Steif described the husky robbers as “definitely of college age.” Two years later, the Axe was mysteriously found on the Stanford Golf Course, only to be detained by Stanford police and then returned to the East Bay.

In a special summer issue published on June 30, 1948, The Daily wrote that “ASSU Summer President Don Davies and [Police] Chief Davis returned the Axe to Cal yesterday after negotiations for a peaceful exchange were made by Dean of Students Lawrence A. Kimpton. Director of Activities Ed Welch, former ASUC student body president, received the trophy for the Eastbay peasants.”

In 1953, the Axe went missing from its case on Berkeley’s campus for five months until Big Game of that year. Cal recruited a team of its students to investigate the missing Axe, but their search — into Stanford fraternities, dormitories and other institutions — warranted no results.

But on Nov. 24, 1953, the day of the 56th Big Game, the trophy was found. That day’s edition of The Daily reported that “The old blade…was discovered in the automobile of Stanford football team captain Norm Manoogian Saturday a few hours before the Big Game began. Manoogian…said he found the package containing the Axe and an anonymous note.”

Over 10 years passed before the Axe changed hands illegally for the seventh time when it was removed from its display case in Stanford’s student union on May 16, 1967. While many students initially did not think Cal was responsible for the theft, by game time the following academic year, Cal confessed and returned the Axe — if only until it won the game a few hours later.

The eighth and final underhand swipe occurred on Nov. 20, 1973, when the “Infamous Three,” a group of two Stanford Theta Delta Chi fraternity members and one law student, concocted a masterful plan to uproot the Axe from its spot in the Cal Student Union by convincing the general manager of the Cal Student Union that the Axe was needed for a press conference.

Since that time, there have been no successful thefts and the Axe has exchanged hands only when won on the football field. When Stanford has possession of the Axe, it resides in a case in the Arrillaga Family Sports Center, to be taken out only under the careful protection of the Stanford Axe Committee.


Contact Molly Vorwerck at mvorwerc ‘at’

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