Point of contention: The early history of the Stanford Axe
Possession of the coveted blade, now a ceremonial matter, was once quite literally up for grabs



Billy Drum, a Berkeley yell leader and one of the — there’s really no other word for it — thieves of the Stanford Axe, poses with the trophy in an 1899 photograph.
Photo courtesy University Archives

20 November 2002 |

Since 1933, the winning team in the Big Game has taken possession of the game’s most enduring symbol – the “Axe” — along with entitlement to a year’s worth of bragging rights. But for more than 30 years before that largely peaceful, ceremonial exchange was instituted, the Axe – known familiarly as “the Stanford Axe” – was the object of great contention between the campuses … and of not a little clamor between students in Berkeley and Palo Alto.

J. Bart White, a staff member at the Bancroft Library, has detailed the melee that took place following a Stanford-Berkeley baseball game on April 15, 1899, during the playing of which Stanford partisans first introduced the Axe as an instrument of torment. (Prior to that time, “the Axe” had not existed in material form, but was the name of Stanford’s “trademark yell” — that is, a cheer performed at sporting events.) Having used a large axe to decapitate a Berkeley rooter in effigy at a pre-game rally in Palo Alto, a number of Stanford students conveyed the tool to the game itself —played at a now-vanished field at 16th and Folsom Streets in San Francisco – where it was employed to chop up long pieces of blue-and-gold ribbon within plain sight of the Berkeley rooting section.

Berkeley won the game, and along with it the annual baseball championship contest between the two schools (a best-of-three affair). White vividly describes the ensuing action:

After the game, [Stanford yell leader Billy] Erb … “tossed [the axe] down to Tom McFadden in the field.” So dejected was the Stanford yell leader that he assigned another student to assure its removal. Although designed to vanquish the bad luck of previous defeats, the instrument had become, itself, a “hoodoo.” McFadden and two other Stanford students were the only ones guarding the now worthless weapon. Obviously, the small platoon of unwilling but obedient “guardians” was immediately at a serious disadvantage when met by two large groups of covetous California students. The account given by Archie Cloud states that Everett Brown approached the guardians first and yelled, “Give me that Axe!” just before the attack. The mayhem that followed was a free-for-all brawl of legendary proportions. The San Francisco Call described it as a “struggling, heavy, shifting press of college men,” a mingling of “blue, gold, and cardinal” colors. Reports vary as to the size of the attacking California mob, but most accounts agree that the would-be thieves outnumbered the guardians and other Stanford stragglers. … Within that tangled mass of humanity was the razor-sharp axe. It is truly amazing that no one was seriously hurt as the trophy was violently tossed and grabbed for. … As the fighting continued, Paul Castlehun, a strong California football player and later a renowned physician, was the first California man to gain unmitigated possession of the axe. Castlehun lived nearby at 1046 Valencia, and had the idea of taking the axe home, but accidentally ran into a blind alley and had to abandon the idea. Castlehun passed the axe to [Cal rooter] Tadini Bacigalupi who “reversed his field,” heading back out of the alley and east on Sixteenth and straight into and past the crowd of students that had been chasing Castlehun. At some point nearby (probably east of Shotwell Street on Sixteenth), Bacigalupi was ordered by Everett Brown to pass the axe to champion California sprinter William P. “Billy” Drum, who had just arrived on the scene. … [After] running several blocks with the awkward, heavy trophy [Drum] was beginning to fatigue. As a sprinter, he was accustomed to running unhampered, so the weight of the enormous axe had begun to wear on him. So when two friendly chaps ran alongside and offered to help carry it, Drum complied and handed over the axe. Lo and behold, Drum had passed the axe to two Stanford athletes, track man Earnest Strout and football player Charles Gilman, who had been awaiting an opportunity to regain their property. …

And so it went for some time, until the axe – its handle chopped to pieces and the gigantic blade hidden under the coat of a Berkeley rooter – eluded the efforts of Stanford men and San Francisco police to intercept it at the Ferry Building. Following a brief stay in Oakland, the remains of the axe were successfully conveyed to Berkeley. There they were celebrated at a central-campus “Axe Rally” attended by hundreds of students.

A Stanford student who infiltrated the rally informed his peers in Palo Alto of what he had seen, and on the morning of Tuesday, April 18, a delegation of some 40 Stanford students invaded the Chi Phi fraternity house at 2222 Bancroft Way in search of the axe blade, which they believed was being kept there. “The house was ransacked and searched for nearly two hours,” writes White, to no avail.

Faculty from both campus decided to intervene, ultimately deciding (in the face of heated controversy; the Daily Cal’s editors wanted the axe sent back to Stanford) “that Berkeley has a right to keep the Stanford Axe” by conquest. Writes White: “The Stanford axe would remain in the hands of students at the University of California for 31 years [until], in April of 1930, it was stolen by Stanford students in a daring raid on Shattuck Avenue.” Three years later, following further negotiations, the Axe assumed its status as a trophy to be presented to each year’s Big Game winner – and peace has happily prevailed … if you don’t count the three times since then that the Axe has been stolen from Berkeley, and the two times Cal boosters have swiped it from Stanford.

For the full story, see J. Bart White’s essay “Intercollegiate Ruckus: The First Days of the Stanford Axe” in the Spring 2002 number of “Chronicle of the University of California,” published by the Center for Studies in Higher Education (


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