The Tale of the Majestic Blade

The Tale of the Majestic Blade

The History of the Stanford Axe

I believe it is somewhere on the west coast of America. There is also another school nearby, and they steal each other’s axes.

Thus replied German physicist Werner Heisenberg when asked if he knew of Stanford University. He was generally correct, though as any student at Stanford (or the other school, for that matter) should know, there is but one axe that is the perennial object of nefarious plots, devilish schemes, and reckless felonies.

That one mysterious blade is the Stanford Axe. It is the physical manifestation of the rivalry and spirit that has always existed between Stanford University and that other school, the University of California (commonly referred to as Cal, Kal, Berzerkeley). As with so many things throughout the years, the story of the Axe shows just how much that other school has always wanted that which belongs to Stanford.

In the Beginning…

Our story begins in 1896, only five years after Stanford opened its doors. Yell leaders Will Irwin and Chris Bradley authored a new chant they dubbed the “Axe Yell.” Based on Aristophanes’ The Frogs, its chorus of “Give ‘em the axe, the axe, the axe” inspired Stanford athletes to dominate the other school in many sports. Although Stanford’s superiority in football was the most noticeable (it took Cal seven Big Game tries to win its first), the baseball team had also gained a fine reputation.

Three years later, during the annual baseball series against Cal, yell leader Billy Erb felt the Stanford crowd needed a visual aid to lift their voices in the Axe Yell. The series was tied at one game apiece; energetic support for Stanford would surely put the Cardinal over the top. Erb purchased a broadaxe with a fifteen-inch blade, emblazoned it with a Cardinal “S,” and used it to decapitate an effigy of a student 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 game. Once again, the squad valiantly hacked apart the hated blue and gold colors, but their efforts were not enough. The Golden Bears 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 abandoned. Before that could happen, though, a mob of infuriated California fans, spurred by the yell leaders’ use of the Axe, descended on the group and snatched it away. The Axe moved from hand to hand, traveling through San Francisco, before a group of Californians sawed the long handle off in a butcher shop, making the Axe easier to conceal. One person placed the blade beneath his overcoat and made his way to the ferry terminal. When he arrived, 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 of the man with the Axe 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 31 years, the Axe remained captive in a Berkeley bank vault, appearing annually at Cal’s spring Axe Rally.

The Immortal Twenty-One

California had won the Axe by conquest, and it was clear that Stanford would have to reciprocate. In Sequoia Hall resided twenty-one men who pledged to restore justice. The obstacle they faced was the protection that Cal’s Grand Custodian of the Axe afforded the prized blade. On April 3, 1930, however, that was not enough to stop destiny, as the Stanford Axe 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 and said, “We want to take a picture for the paper.” Out of a sudden burst of flash powder the photographers lunged forward 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 prize into their rented Buick and then spread out for the trip back to the Farm, leaving the baffled Bears behind. After the Buick left, some of the twenty-one, dressed in Cal attire, led the search party in the opposite direction.

The Axe Returns

Upon their return, they paraded the Axe past each residence hall, which quickly snowballed into a full-scale rally. The group was dubbed the “Immortal Twenty-One” and its members were each given the Block ‘S’ for their service. 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, however, the student governments of the two schools agreed to make the Axe the trophy awarded annually to the winner of the Big Game.

Since then…

In the time since the initial theft and recovery, the Axe has been stolen by Cal twice and reappropriated by Stanford three times. In 1946, Cal students stole and then returned the Axe after the Chancellor announced that no Cal students were involved and that those who were would be subject to expulsion (obviously, experimentation with illicit drugs in Berkeley started much earlier than commonly thought). Two years later, Stanford borrowed its Axe from the case in Berkeley and relocated it to more pleasant surroundings (it turned up on 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, the thieves left no visible signs of entry on the case. The miscreants subsequently photographed the Axe atop the Tribune Building in Oakland.

Slow Learners

In 1973, Stanford made the score 4-3 when it pulled off Ming’s Heist in Palo Alto. 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 restaurant for the Northern California Football Writers’ weekly meeting. (Why? All together now … “We want to take a picture for the paper!”) 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 trophy hours later by winning 26-17. The 1973 “photo-taking session” shows just how much they learn at Cal in 43 years!


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 the other school lays claim to our heritage in an occasional off year, Stanford leads both in football-playing (57-45-11) and Axe-stealing (4-3).

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