The triumph and the tragedy…the Play and the Revenge of the Play…the Rugby Years? A photographic historical tour of the Bay Area’s most heated football tradition

By Charles Russo

Dating back to the 1890s, the Big Game — the annual Stanford-Berkeley showdown — is the oldest sports rivalry in the West. (Courtesy of the Stanford Historical Photograph Collection)

This weekend will see the 122nd incarnation of The Big Game, one of the oldest, most well-known and contentious rivalries in all of sports—featuring none other than Stanford vs. CAL. At well over a century old, the competition has a long and colorful history: it was originally organized by a young future U.S. president (Herbert Hoover), has had both mischievous hijinks and awful tragedy tied to it, and has showcased some of the wildest and most dramatic moments in football history.

Some have argued that the game is on a down slope and not nearly as spirited or as glorious as it once was. But mindful of the past couple years of epic upsets and dramatic finishes — be it sports or politics — our spidey-senses are tingling at the idea of a potential classic looming before us this weekend.

So The Six Fifty went digging deep in the Stanford Photo Archives to produce a visual tour of this longstanding and entirely epic Bay Area rivalry.

Dress to impress: Big Game spectators circa 1914. (Courtesy of the Stanford Historical Photograph Collection)

Old school origins

The Big Game is essentially as old as Stanford University, with the inaugural match occurring in 1892, shortly after the school admitted its first students the year prior.

This time frame is in itself fascinating to consider: Thomas Edison had just debuted the first motion picture (in Menlo Park, New Jersey), a young Irish writer named Bram Stoker was researching folktales about vampires for an upcoming story, and the City of Los Angeles was still just a quiet cow town (though that was poised to change upon discovery of oil just a couple years prior).

A photograph from the inaugural Big Game in 1892, played in the Haight Street Grounds of San Francisco. (Courtesy of the Stanford Historical Photograph Collection)

As the story goes, young Herbert Hoover — student manager at the time for both the football and baseball teams at Stanford — helped to organize the event, which was held at the Haight Street Grounds in San Francisco (which was located in the neighborhood just south of where Amoeba Music is today). Hoover and his friends printed 10,000 tickets, yet 20,000 spectators showed up, leaving the organizers scrambling to collect admission fees.

An ad from 1903 advertising the Big Game during its final years in San Francisco. (Courtesy of the Stanford Historical Photograph Collection)

Stanford won that inaugural game 14–10, and would either win or tie until 1898 when Berkeley finally won its first match.

The Big Game, as it came to be known by the turn of the century, soon shaped up to be one of the most popular sporting events in San Francisco, played out at the Haight Street Grounds for the initial 13 contests.

In 1900, tragedy struck when a huge crowd of spectators fell through the roof while trying to watch the game from the neighboring Pacific Glass Works building, resulting in 22 deaths and many more injuries. It is often cited as the worst disaster in U.S. sporting event history

Not long after, the game was relocated to its current setting, on the home fields of the two schools: Cal in even years and Stanford in odd.

Scenes from the years when the Big Game was a rugby competition rather than football, roughly 1906–1919. Most of the images featured here were circa 1909 to 1912, notably the “Mud Bowl” (bottom left) which took place in Berkeley. The team portrait is undated. (Courtesy of the Stanford Historical Photograph Collection)

The rugby years (& their curious modern parallels)

In 1906, both Stanford and Berkeley dropped football from its athletic programs at a time when the sport couldn’t have been more popular. Just a year earlier, The Big Game (which Stanford narrowly won in a heated 12–5 match)was considered one of the most exciting and closely fought to date. Yet, there was rising nationwide concern during the era over injury and deaths associated with the game, particularly after Santa Clara High School player Clarence Van Bokkelen died from a hit on the field in a game against San Jose around that same time.

A scene from the infamous 1912 “Mudbowl,” played in Berkeley during the Rugby Years. (Courtesy of the Stanford Historical Photograph Collection)

Amid rising public outcry characterizing football as inherently barbaric, many schools—including Stanford and CAL—soon adopted rugby as a safer alternative that was ultimately more in-line with the values of their institution.

With regards to the Big Game, rugby would act as a substitute for about a decade, with mix results. Coaches, players and spectators were all a bit perplexed by the English sport, even as they gave it a spirited try. But by 1915 CAL had opted out to return to American football and the Big Game didn’t return to the two schools until 1919

Big Game action, date unknown. (Courtesy of the Stanford Historical Photograph Collection)

The heyday

Beginning in the 1920s, the Big Game (now back on track from its rugby excursion) took on a fierce and spirited gravitas, as the late season grudge match would often factor into conference (or even national) championships.

This era saw the rise of iconic football coaches leading both schools: Andy Smith and Stub Allison for Cal; Pop Warner and Tiny Thornhill at Stanford. Win streaks would teeter back and forth during these years, and the rivals would often undermine each other’s goals of larger championships.

(Clockwise from top): Big Game action shot, date unknown; Stanford spectator card stunts in 1924 depicting a skinned bear; and the Stanford “S.” (Courtesy of the Stanford Historical Photograph Collection)

This was also when the Stanford Axe began to factor in as the regular prize of the contest (after residing in a vault at Berkeley for three decades). The axe head, once used by Stanford students in 1899 to chop an effigy of a Cal alum, had been stolen and largely locked away until 1930, when Stanford students carried out an elaborate caper to recapture it. Beginning in 1933, it became the prize for whoever wins the Big Game.

Cal’s Kevin Moen goes triumphantly airborne as he scores the winning touchdown in the legendary 1982 Big Game. Gary Tyrrell, the trombonist that Moen will land on, is not pictured, as he is located near the photographer. (Courtesy of the Stanford Historical Photograph Collection)

The Play (and the Revenge of The Play)

“The Bears have won! The Bears have won! The most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heart-rending, exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football…” — Cal Bears announcer Joe Starkley at the conclusion of the 1982 Big Game.

After both possessing lackluster football programs in the 1950s and 60s, Stanford and Cal reignited their rivalry again throughout the 1970s, with dramatic victories and upsets marking the Big Game throughout the decade. Then, in 1982, one of the most legendary finales in sports history came to mark the competition.

The “Rooting Section” posing with the Stanford Axe prior to the game in ’82; these poor lads have no idea what they’re in for. (Courtesy of the Stanford Historical Photograph Collection)

After Stanford phenom quarterback (and future NFL Hall of Famer) John Elway put Stanford ahead on a final minute drive to go up over the Bears 20–19, Cal got the ball with 4 seconds remaining and stitched together a wild (and over the years — highly contested) series of lateral passes to run the ball 55 yards into the end zone, where the Stanford Band was already on the field. In a final exclamation point of triumph (or, tragedy) Cal’s Kevin Moen steamrolled trombonist Gary Tyrrell to finalize their last moment victory.

The incident was so legendary, that in time it simply became known as “The Play.”

Stanford responded with victories throughout the decade, but never fully exacted a proper revenge until 1990, when they overcame a 25–18 deficit by somehow scoring nine points in the remaining 12 seconds.

Similar to the notorious band incident in ’82, this game saw Cal fans swarming the field prematurely thinking they had won, only to watch a last second field goal moments later that sealed their loss.

Stanford Football’s only Heisman Trophy winner (and future NFL Hall of Famer) Jim Plunkett plays in the Big Game of 1969. (Courtesy of the Stanford Historical Photograph Collection)

In recent years, the Big Game has been marked by long streaks in favor of one school or the other. Stanford has dominated the action recently and is poised to claim the longest running winning streak of eight in row. This dominance has — arguably — tempered the excitement of the event in recent years (not unlike the lulls of the 1950s and 60s).

Where it currently stands today, Stanford leads in victories with a record of 63–46 (with 11 ties). Yet, if the 121 game history of the rivalry has shown anything, it is that there are no sure bets when it comes to the Big Game.

Team picture, on site in Berkeley, date unknown. (Courtesy of the Stanford Historical Photograph Collection)

The 121st annual Big Game will take place this Saturday, November 17th, at 4:30 pm, in Berkeley’s California Memorial Stadium. For tickets, click here.

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Sometimes our work is a collaborative effort, hence the "staff" byline. The best of what to eat, see and do on the SF Peninsula.

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