1899 was one of Cal’s greatest years ever. It began with Cal liberating the Axe from Palo Alto, saw Cal star "Locomotive" Smith put on the most awesome display of football prowess yet in the Big Game, and ended with Cal playing in what was arguably the very first national championship football game. Join me in remembering the immortal 1899 Golden Bears.
1898 had been an outstanding season for Cal football. The Bears had been undefeated, with an 8-0-2 record, outscoring their opponents by a total of 221-5. Best of all, Cal had finally beaten Stanford in the Big Game, 22-0. (Click here for my post on the 1898 Big Game.) But despite their success, the Bears had achieved little notice outside the west coast. There was a certain "bias" among easterners, who did not believe that quality football was being played out west. In 1899, the University of California Golden Bears would make those easterners think twice.
The magic of 1899 actually began during the spring semester, on April 15, 1899, to be exact. On that date a baseball game was played in Palo Alto between the University of California and Leland Stanford Junior University. The Stanford fans, still unhappy about their Big Game loss a few months earlier, were expecting to get revenge through a baseball victory by their heavily favored team. Stanford fans brought an Axe to the baseball game. They waved it the faces of the Cal fans, and even had the gall to use it to chop pieces of blue and gold ribbon whenever Stanford made a good play – doing so right in front of the Cal rooting section. By the time Stanford went up 6-0 in the sixth inning, chunks of blue and gold ribbon were scattered everywhere, and the Stanford fans were gloating mightily.
But then Cal began to scratch its way back into the game. By the end of the eighth inning, Stanford’s lead stood at only 7-5. In the ninth, the Bears loaded the bases. Cal pitcher – and football star – "Kangaroo" Pete Kaarsberg came to bat and promptly hit a triple to drive in three runs and give Cal the lead. Kaarsberg scored on a single by the next batter. Then Kaarsberg took the mound in the bottom of the ninth and set the Stanford batters down one-two-three. Final score: California 9, Stanford 7. In the jubilation that followed, the Cal fans seized the Axe and headed for Berkeley. The story of the wild chase up the Peninsula, through the streets of San Francisco, and across the Bay by ferry boat is a subject for an entire post in itself. Suffice to say that, after a thrilling, if sometimes confused, chase, the Axe finally arrived in Berkeley.
The Axe was given into the care of Cal football star Charles "Lol" Pringle, who was henceforth known as the Custodian of the Axe. The Axe spent its first night in Berkeley hidden under Lol Pringle’s bed at the Chi Phi fraternity house.
The following Monday, April 17, a campus-wide celebration was held in honor of the Axe, with Lol Pringle carrying it through the campus in the first Axe Parade. That night, thirty Stanford students stormed the Chi Phi house and ransacked it, looking for the Axe. Fortunately, the intrepid Lol Pringle had hidden it in the space behind the sliding doors leading into the dining room, where the Stanford students did not think to look. The Axe remained safe and secure in its rightful home in Berkeley.
Charles "Lol" Pringle carries the Axe through campus in the 1899 Axe Parade.
When classes resumed in the fall of 1899, the Cal football team was determined to match the feats of the 1898 team, and prove itself worthy of the Axe. Most of the ‘98 team was returning to Berkeley, along with head coach Garrett Cochran, who had brought an entirely new level of skill and enthusiasm to Cal football. He had turned the winless Bears of 1897 into the undefeated 1898 team (8-0-2), which had earned Cal’s first Big Game victory in dramatic fashion with a 22-0 shutout of Stanford.
1899 was another great year for the Bears. It began with a hard-fought victory over the Olympic Club, with the only score coming on a 20 yard run by Kangaroo Pete Kaarsberg, the hero of the previous spring’s baseball victory over Stanford. Cal played the Olympic Club twice more that year, with one game ending in a 0-0 tie, and the other a solid 15-0 victory for the Bears. The season was also noteworthy for the addition of three new college rivals to the Cal schedule. On November 15 the Bears played the University of Nevada for the first time, coming away with a convincing 24-0 win. Just three days later, Cal played a school from a little town called Eugene, Oregon, for the first time. Cal stars Warren "Locomotive" Smith and Percy Hall each scored a touchdown (then worth five points) and Kangaroo Pete Kaarsberg added the extra points, for a 12-0 Cal win over the University of Oregon. In their next game, Cal decimated a small school from the South Bay, then called State Normal and now known as San Jose State, by a score of 44-0.
But the game everyone had been waiting for took place on Thanksgiving Day in San Francisco. The Stanford team was highly motivated going into the Big Game. They were still smarting from the prior year’s loss, and they were furious about the loss of the Axe. As further motivation, in 1898 the mayor of San Francisco, James Phelan, had offered a highly-regarded statue called "Football Players" by renowned sculptor Douglas Tilden as a prize to whichever school won two of the next three Big Games. Since Cal had won in 1898, another Cal victory in 1899 would bring the prized statue to Berkeley.
The 1899 Big Game was played at 16th and Folsom Streets in San Francisco, with 15,000 fans in attendance. Stanford kicked off and, for one of the few times that day, Cal could not move the ball on its first possession. After Kaarsberg’s punt, Stanford lost yardage on its possession and had to punt back to Cal. The Bears then took the ball on a 67-yard drive, with Percy Hall, Lloyd "Wrec" Womble, "Locomotive" Smith and Kaarsberg all carrying the ball. Locomotive Smith scored the touchdown, and Kaarsberg added the extra point for a 6-0 Cal lead. The Bears never looked back.
After an exchange of kicks, Cal went on a 70-yard drive, with Kaarsberg scoring the touchdown and adding the extra point himself. Then Cal marched down the field on a 65-yard drive, with Locomotive Smith scoring his second touchdown, and Kaarsberg adding another conversion.
On its next possession, Stanford was once again unable to move the ball, and punted. This time it looked like Stanford had gotten a break, as the ball was downed at Cal’s own 2-yard-line. Because the field was 110 yards long, this left the Bears very far indeed from their opponent’s goal line. But the Bears were undaunted. They marched relentlessly down the field on a 108-yard scoring drive, with Percy Hall carrying the ball over for the touchdown. This remains the longest touchdown drive in Cal history – and in light of the modern 100-yard field, it will never be surpassed. With that touchdown, Cal took a 24-0 lead into halftime.
Stanford did play a bit better in the second half. Their coach, Burr Chamberlin, later said, "our team learned the game in the first half and played it in the second." Nevertheless, Stanford never came close to scoring. Cal, on the other hand, added a fifth touchdown in the second half on a 75-yard drive which began when Kangaroo Pete Kaarsberg ran 40 yards on a fake punt, and ended with Locomotive Smith scoring his third touchdown of the day. With that score, Smith became the first player to score three touchdowns in a Big Game. This was the last score of the game, which was the most lopsided Big Game to date: California 30, Stanford 0.
In 1899 Warren "Locomotive" Smith became the first player to score three touchdowns in a Big Game.
Because of the Bears’ wins in the 1898 and 1899 Big Games, San Francisco Mayor Phelan awarded the Tilden statue of "Football Players" to the University of California. Inscribed on the base of the statue are the words: "The Prize of Superiority in Football Won by the University of California 1898 and 1899," along with the names of the Cal players who won those games.
For the second year running, Cal had ended its football season undefeated, this time 7-0-1. The Bears had shut out every one of their opponents, outscoring them by a total of 142-0. But there was one more challenge left for the Bears. Cal’s coach, Garrett Cochran, announced to the press that Cal was the finest football team ever to come out of the west, and that the Cal team could hold its own with any of the eastern teams. Cochran’s challenge was taken up by the coach of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, a young man named Glenn "Pop" Warner. Carlisle, the alma mater of Jim Thorpe, was recognized as the greatest football team in the country. It had already upset Penn 16-5 and pulverized Columbia 45-0. Warner and Cochran agreed to play a game on Christmas Day in San Francisco.
The Cal-Carlisle game was the first game ever played between east coast and west coast schools and was, arguably, the first "national championship" game. The game was closely followed by the national press, which dubbed it "the East-West Championship." The consensus was that Cal would be unable to keep the powerful Indians from scoring at will. An east coast "slaughter" of the upstart Bears was predicted. The Carlisle players took the transcontinental railroad across the country for the game, keeping fit on the trip by getting off the train and racing the steam engine uphill in the Rockies.
Cal was not able to pull off the big upset, but the Bears surprised the east coast skeptics by making the game very close indeed. Carlisle’s offense was not able to score against the Bears, and the game turned into a defensive struggle. But in the second half disaster struck the Bears. Kaarsberg went back to punt from Cal’s 28-yard line, mistakenly thinking a fake had been called. Accordingly, he flipped the ball back to quarterback Frank Ellis, only to realize after the ball left his hands that no fake had been called and so Ellis was not there. Kaarsberg and a Carlisle player raced back for the ball, which Kaarsberg recovered at the one-yard-line. But then the Carlisle player hit Kaarsberg so hard that he was knocked back across the goal line into the end zone. The referee called a safety. That was the only score of the game came, which ended: Carlisle 2, California 0.
Although Cal lost the game, the 2-0 final score was considered a Cal upset by the national press. Cal was recognized as a true national football power – the first western team to achieve recognition on the east coast. After the game, Carlisle coach Pop Warner told the press, "The two best football teams in the country today beyond any doubt are Carlisle and California."
Although the 1899 season ended with a heartbreaking loss, it had been a great year. Cal’s record was 7-1-1, and not a single point had been scored against the Bears’ defense. The Bears’ string of 10 consecutive shutouts was broken only by the safety scored by Carlisle. Cal had beaten Oregon in their first meeting ever, had given Stanford the worst drubbing yet in the Big Game, and had been recognized as a national football power.
And, best of all, WE GOT THE AXE!
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Sibley, Robert (ed.), The Romance of the University of California, H.S. Crocker Co, Inc., San Francisco, CA (1928)
Sibley, Robert (ed.), The Golden Book of California, California Alumni Association, Berkeley, CA (1937)
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