Original Pranksters

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Sure, they pulled the most elaborate Big Game prank ever, but maybe dubbing them the "Immortal 21" was pushing it.

Not according to Big Game fans today - even those from the Cal ranks. According to some, when 21 Stanford students used a fake camera and tear gas to "steal back" the Axe from a Berkeley bank in April of 1930, the true essence of Big Game pranking was born.

"They're immortal in the sense that they'll be talked about as long as the Axe is around, they're part of the story, and the story is passed on from generation to generation," says Kris Andeen, a Stanford senior and chair of the Stanford Axe Committee.

Cal fans agree - sort of.

"The 'Immortal 21' was one thing, but that was really just an answer to what we had done," says Chad Smith, a Cal senior and member of UC Rally Committee. "First the Axe was stolen and we just kept it. When they stole it back was when it really became a symbol of the rivalry."

True to Smith's word, the first Axe theft occurred in 1899, when bitter Cal students mobbed Stanford fans at a Cal-Stanford baseball game in San Francisco, taking the Axe as booty in the ensuing riot. After being smuggled across the Bay in the skirt of a female student, the Axe stayed in Cal hands until that fateful day in 1930.


The "Immortal 21" hiest proved to emerge as the stuff of legends. After years of unsuccessful attempts to recover the Axe, a group led by Don Kropp from the Sequoia Eating Club at Stanford that was bent on reclaiming the prize hatched an elaborate plan that proved winning.

After pledging themselves to secrecy, the conspirators met several times behind closed doors to lay out the plot. The hashers knew that the Axe, which always travelled by armored car, was kept in a safety deposit box at the American Trust Company on Shattuck Avenue. An attempt to snatch the Axe would have take place between the bank and the armored car.

Proving that Big Game violence is nothing new, the Stanford thieves knew even then that brute force would be necessary for success.

"It was important to get the right fellows," Kropp once said. "Among the qualifications we sought were a happy indifference to one's personal well-being and a demonstrated aptitude for reasonable mayhem."

Everything was set for an April 3 spirit rally in Berkeley: a Buick roadster with Berkeley license plate numbers, a camera with a special lens filled with ink, tear gas, and 21 Stanford students strategically placed between the bank and the Greek Theater.

Near nightfall, the Stanford thieves asked unknowing Cal students to pose for a photo as the armored car approached the bank. The Axe custodian, Cal baseball team captain Norman Horner, stepped out of the car and a Stanford conspirator dropped upon him from above.

In less than 60 seconds of full-scale brawling and one blinding flash of magnesium powder from the camera, the Axe was gone - in the seat of the Buick as it sped toward Palo Alto. Meanwhile, pandemonium fell upon the continuing brawl when the remaining "21" at the bank dropped tear gas. After the smoke cleared, Horner was found crying, and one Cal student remarked that it was the first time he ever knew "Cal girls swore."

As cars of fuming Cal fans screeched down the Bay in pursuit, the Stanford thieves passed the Dumbarton Bridge and instead drove around the Bay. The "Immortal 21" had secured the Axe, back from its 31-year purgatory in Berkeley.


Beneath a screaming banner headline that read "Ax Stolen!", The Daily Californian reported the course of events the next day with breathless agony: "A burly Stanfordite plunging through the line that surrounded the armored car-a short struggle with the custodian, who had the ax in his hands-a quick pass to the waiting arms of another colleague-two tear bombs skillfully aimed at the milling mob of freshmen-a gray sedan speeding away, and the Stanford ax is no long in possession of California."

Back at the Farm, euphoria reigned. Classes were canceled the next day and the "Immortal 21" were showered with praise. Carl Hayden, a U.S. Senator from Arizona, sent a telegram to Stanford congratulating the "21" for avenging his reputation - Hayden was one of the Stanford students from whom the Axe was originally stolen.

The Berkeley community, on the other hand, was beside itself with anger. In a stroke of painful irony, the Cardinal demolished the Bears at the 1930 Big Game in Berkeley, 41-0. But despite the loss, one thing emerged clear from the coup: the Axe had become the unequivocal symbol of the rivalry.

Five years later, after repeated and increasingly dangerous attempts to steal the Axe back, both universities agreed to providing the Axe as a Big Game trophy. Stanford University President Robert Swain proudly announced that "the relations between Stanford and California have never been at a higher peak."


Times may have changed since the days of the "Immortal 21," but Big Game fans today say the rivalry remains alive and well. Both Smith and Andeen vigorously recall stories and memories of their favorite Big Game pranks. In 1990, for instance, a Cal fan managed to override a referee's microphone and told thousands in the stands and thousands more of television viewers: "Penalty. Excessive arrogance. Stanford sucks."

"The Cal student section just went nuts," says Smith. "It was brilliant."

Stanford fans would rather remember other pranks, such as the 1960s theft of the stuffed bear statue in the Martin Luther King Student Union. The "liberated" bear sent postcards from across the country during its time away from Berkeley.

But perhaps the most high-profile Big Game exploit was the Phoenix Five fiasco. In mid-October 1999, five anonymous Cal students visited the Stanford Band Shak and stole the school's tree mascot, sparking bitter reaction from the schools' administrations and - for many - firing up that old Big Game rivalry spirit.

"When the Cal guys stole the Tree, even though they stole from my school, I supported it because it kept the rivalry going," Andeen admits. "It's fun to watch that stuff happen because it fills both of our schools' newspapers for a couple of weeks."

But can we expect pranks on the actual Axe? Don't bet on it. Careful not to give specifics, Andeen elaborates:

"The security around the Axe is virtually impeccable," he says. "I'm chairman of the Axe Committee and I couldn't steal the Axe myself."

For Smith, the tone of the pranking season has changed somewhat, as both schools try to keep a tab on harmful pranks. Smith says stunts such as painting the Big C and "altering" Stanford signs (presumably to replace the 'o' with the anti-traditional 'u') will always happen, but ingenious pranks are harder to come by.

"They haven't done anything good in quite a while," Smith says. "The rivalry used to be more than rushing a field at a football game and throwing stuff at each other."

Still, the Axe is the rallying point. No Big Game has started without the Axe on the playing field, and when the trophy is turned over to the winning team, the handoff is ceremonial.

"It represents 110 years of rivalry between Stanford and Cal, that's the whole icon of the rivalry right there," Andeen says. "There's nothing else that symbolizes that quite as profoundly as the Axe."


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