In the spring of 1892, Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley met for their first football game as rivals. This historic moment, along with subsequent encounters between Cal and Stanford through 1900, is chronicled in Jack F. Sheehan and Louis Honig’s book “The Games of California and Stanford.”
In 1892, seven years after Stanford was founded, the University’s football team was still in its infancy — playing an incomplete season in the spring quarter and going strong in the fall. Meanwhile, Cal established its sports teams seven years ago.
The first ever game between Cal and Stanford was played on March 19 at Haight Street Park in San Francisco. Sheehan and Honig captured the “unique sense of bottled American excitement that thrilled the 8,000 people in cardinal and blue and gold that day.” This feeling is very familiar to modern readers; nothing compares to the energy that a good, traditional football game brings.
Sheehan and Honig set up the second game between Cal and Stanford as a touch-and-go from the start: Stanford ended the first half with a 6-0 lead, but Cal caught up quickly. According to the authors, “If the first half is excitement the second half is football ecstasy” for the entire audience. You don’t have to be a sports fan to call that excitement. The close game ended in a last-minute tie, with a score of 10-10.
Even for those who are not particular sports fans, “The Games of California and Stanford” intrigues with vivid depictions of the dynamic history of rivalry between the two universities.
The Thanksgiving Day game in 1894 was a test of endurance, with the Stanford team taking an early lead with a touchdown and trying to hold off Cal for the rest of the game. Then, in the fourth quarter, Cal’s team made a break for the end zone, narrowly missing the score when they dropped the ball. If Cal had managed to score a touchdown, the game would have been tied for the third time in a row between the two teams. This narrow victory made “Stanford burst into the sky with a shout of victory.”
Sheehan and Honig impressively translate the feel of each game onto the page through photos and words. No two episodes are alike, and the book recreates the mood of each by setting the scene with contextual and visual details. Readers can clearly imagine those “wonderful” or “figurative” days many years ago.
I found the most amazing moments in the descriptive language of the authors and use of images to describe the joys from the spectators, the effects of the weather or the emotions of the bleachers. Sometimes “(g) determination and not saying anything is the unique character under the two college flags,” and in one particularly exciting moment, the Stanford player “Murphy electrified the crowd by adding to further glorify his record.”
Don’t mistake me for being a sports super fan. However, I was never compelled to become one like I was after reading “The Games of California and Stanford.”
In anticipation of the Big Game, “The Games of California and Stanford” reminds us of the thousands of students who stood where we did more than a century ago, cheering on our teams and our peers.