When its gates opened on November 24, 1923, it was called “the House the Andy Built.” Rightly so, since the impetus for the construction of California Memorial Stadium was the tremendous enthusiasm and fan support created by Coach Andy Smith and his Wonder Teams, which rendered venerable old California Field far too small, and required the construction of a new, state-of-the-art facility.
Well-dressed fans stream into California Memorial Stadium the day it opened, November 24, 1923.
Memorial Stadium is actually the third football stadium on the Berkeley campus. On February 14, 1885, California played the first football game ever on the campus. The opponent was a football club from San Francisco, called the Merions. The game was played on a field at the site of what is now the Life Sciences Building, drawing an unprecedented crowd of some 450 spectators. The Bears triumphed 13-0. And they beat the Merions twice more the next two Saturdays. A month later, some members of the Merions joined with the best players of other San Francisco football clubs to challenge the Bears to a game. This all-star club, calling itself the Wasps, tied the Bears on March 14, before a crowd of 350. It was decided that a re-match was in order, and it was scheduled for March 28, 1885. Such excitement had been generated that Cal constructed bleachers around the field to accommodate the anticipated crowd. Every seat was filled long before game time, as a crowd of 750 fans showed up in Berkeley — by far the largest crowd ever at a Bay Area football game. The Bears pulled off a 2-0 victory and ended their season 4-0-1.
Fans packing the bleachers at West Field in 1899.
Over the following years, the playing field acquired bleachers seating some 5,000 fans, and it was given the formal name of “West Field.” The seating capacity was insufficient for the annual Big Game against Stanford, however. That game regularly drew 15,000-20,000 fans, and continued to be played on neutral turf in San Francisco. But when the Bears were awarded the prestigious “Football Players” statute for triumphing over Stanford in the 1898 and 1899 Big Games, that statue was placed next to West Field, where Cal fans could admire it before every home game. It remains there to this day, now rather incongruously near the Life Sciences Building and far from the football stadium.
A 1903 football game at West Field. In the background is the original Harmon Gymnasium, which is now the site of Dwinelle Hall. Old Harmon was torn down in 1933.
By 1904, interest in Cal football had grown to the point that tiny West Field was no longer adequate. The University decided to build a stadium seating in excess of 20,000 fans. This would allow the Bears to play important games, including the Big Game, at home in Berkeley. The new stadium, called California Field, was closer to the center of campus, at the site where Hearst Gymnasium is now located.
California Field in 1910, during the years when the Bears played rugby instead of football.
Photo of California Field taken from the Campanile during the 1920 Big Game. It was published in The Oakland Tribune.
The state of the art scoreboard at California Field showing the final score of the 1920 Big Game.
California Field would have a notable history, as the place where Cal football came into its own as a nationally recognized power. The Bears started things off right by winning their first game at California Field, a 10-0 victory over the Olympic Club on October 8, 1904. And on November 12, the Bears met Stanford in first Big Game ever played outside San Francisco. Stanford had at first been reluctant to travel to the Berkeley campus, but finally agreed. Sadly, heavily favored Stanford beat the Bears 18-0. However, the game drew a sell-out crowd of 21,500, the largest ever to witness a Big Game, and the schools were able to split a profit of $20,000, which was a small fortune in 1904.
There were many colorful moments in the history of California Field. In the spring of 1906, the stadium found itself home to a tent city of earthquake refugees from San Francisco:
California Field in April 1906. The roof of South Hall can be seen at left and the clock tower of Bacon Hall at the right.
And in 1910, California Field was the spot where the Cal student rooting section introduced the world to card stunts.
Gave ’em The Axe, of course!
It was also at California Field where Cal fans developed the tradition of storming onto the field to “serpentine” around the goal posts after a Big Game victory. It was this tradition which gave rise to the lines in the California fight song, Big C: “And when we serpentine, Their red will turn to green, In our hour of victory.”
But by 1920, California Field, which had seemed so huge when it opened in 1904, was bursting at the seams with Cal fans. From 1906 to 1914 Cal had stopped playing football and turned to rugby instead, because of concerns over the extreme violence and injuries involved in American football at that time. But in 1915, the Bears began playing football again, and the following year California hired Andrew Latham Smith as its head coach, with hopes that he could return the team to football glory. They were not to be disappointed.
The Cal coaching staff at California Field in 1922: Head Coach Andy Smith and Assistant Coaches “Nibs” Price, Walter Gordon and Albert Rosenthal.
Smith had good success during his first four years in Berkeley, taking a school which was just re-learning the game of football to a combined 24-13-3 record from 1916 to 1919. But in 1920, Andy Smith and his Bears really hit their stride, compiling a perfect 9-0-0 record and outscoring their opponents by a combined score of 510-14. The 1920 season included victories of 79-7 over Nevada, 63-0 over Utah, 49-0 over Washington State, 38-0 over Stanford, 127-0 over St. Mary’s, and a 28-0 win over Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. The Wonder Team was born.
Suddenly, everyone wanted a ticket to see the Bears play, and demand only grew as the Bears went unbeaten again in 1921 and 1922. 28,000 fans had jammed into California Field for the 1920 Big Game, overcrowding the stadium to the danger point. Meanwhile, Stanford had built an enormous new stadium in Palo Alto. Begun in 1919, Stanford Stadium was completed two years later at a cost of $570,000. The first game to be played there was the 1921 Big Game. Although Stanford Stadium had a seating capacity of 60,000, interest in the new stadium, combined with interest in Cal’s Wonder Team, was so great that 62,740 fans squeezed in to see the Bears destroy Stanford 42-7, ruining the dedication of Stanford’s new stadium.
And Palo Alto did not have the only grand new stadium in California. In 1922, the Bears were invited to play the University of Southern California in a regular season game to inaugurate the brand-new Rose Bowl (resulting in a 12-0 Cal win). And the following year, Cal played U.S.C. again, this time at the brand-new Los Angeles Coliseum (a 13-7 Cal win). The Bears wanted a stadium to match those in Palo Alto, Pasadena, and Los Angeles. While Stanford and U.S.C. were having trouble selling out their enormous stadiums, the Bears were drawing sell-out, standing-room crowds of 25,000-plus to their games at California Field, and having to turn thousands of fans away.
Because of the size difference between California Field and the new Stanford Stadium, the schools agreed that both the 1921 and 1922 Big Games would be played in Palo Alto, while Cal sought to build a new stadium in Berkeley. Thus the Bears’ 1920 shellacking of Stanford would be the last Big Game played at California Field.
Cal’s Wonder Team defeated Stanford 38-0 in the last Big Game at California Field
With the Bears by far the most successful team ever seen on the west coast, and other schools obtaining spectacular and enormous new stadiums, it was now critical that the Bears get a new stadium for themselves. This was especially true since the Big Game could no longer, as a practical matter, be played at the now small and outdated California Field.
There was general agreement in the University community on the need for a new stadium. In fact, the inclusion of a major stadium on the Berkeley campus had been a goal since 1897, when it was included in the Hearst Architectural Plan, sponsored by University patron Phoebe Hearst and president Benjamin Ide Wheeler. At that time, University architect John Galen Howard (designer of the Campanile, Sather Gate, Wheeler Hall, and most of the rest of the classical center core of the Berkeley campus) had submitted a plan for a large classical style stadium on the site where California Field was later built. Following the 1920 Big Game, the proposal for a new, much larger stadium was revived. The Executive Committee of the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC), which was then in charge of intercollegiate athletics, proposed building a 60,000-seat stadium. Under this proposal, the stadium would be funded by $1 million raised in a state-wide campaign, and would be dedicated as a memorial to Californians who had been killed in World War I.
John Galen Howard, still the University’s primary architect, was given responsibility for proposing a site for the new stadium. He considered several on-campus locations: the site of California Field; the southwest area of campus now occupied by Evans Baseball Diamond and Edwards Stadium; and Strawberry Canyon at the base of the hills on the east end of campus. He also considered several off-campus sites. Fortunately, the University Regents opted for an on-campus stadium, because they believed it would enhance the enthusiasm and attendance of students and bring alumni back to campus.
John Galen Howard, architect of California Memorial Stadium.
At first, the Regents rejected the Strawberry Canyon site as too small, and also because it was also being considered as a possible location for future student housing. Accordingly, in December 1921, Howard was told to begin plans to build the stadium in the southwest corner of campus, where Evans Diamond and Edwards Stadium now sit. Howard began drawing up plans for an oval, double-deck coliseum, which would hold 60,000. But almost immediately, the Regents reconsidered. Edward Carpenter, one of the engineers then working on Stanford Stadium, had suggested that a similar earth-fill bowl structure would work in the Strawberry Canyon site, at less cost and with greater seating capacity than Howard’s proposed double-deck coliseum. Then another engineer, George Buckingham, came forward with a proposal to combine an earth-fill bowl structure on the east side of the stadium with a coliseum structure on the west side. Money could be saved by building the east side directly into the hill, leaving only the west side to require the use of large amounts of steel and reinforced concrete. At the same time, the west side would provide the dramatic and impressive exterior facade that the Regents and the University community desired. The stadium would be designed for 73,000 spectators. In August 1922, the Regents adopted Buckingham’s plan and appointed a Stadium Commission consisting of the architect Howard, as chairman, the two engineers, Carpenter and Buckingham, and Robert Gordon Sproul, the secretary of the Board of Regents.
Strawberry Canyon around 1910.
There was considerable controversy over the Regents’ selection of the Strawberry Canyon site. John Galen Howard opposed it, possibly because his contract with the University paid him a percentage for all work done west of Piedmont Avenue, and he would not receive that payment for the Strawberry Canyon site. And, this being Berkeley, there was also opposition from the community. A group calling itself the Campus Protective Association was formed, protesting the Strawberry Canyon site on the grounds that it would ruin the beauty of the canyon, destroy the canyon as a natural biological laboratory for the University, and create traffic and transportation problems. The group also complained that the location lacked room for the expansion of athletic facilities. There were also objections from homeowners in the Strawberry Canyon area, whose homes would have to be demolished, or who feared that their views would be impaired by the new stadium. It being 1922, the Regents were able largely to simply ignore their opponents, and there is no record of anyone taking to the trees in protest.
Funding the project turned out to be much less controversial. The ASUC proposal to fund the stadium through the sale of premium seats was an instant success. $1 million was raised almost immediately, with the sale of 10,000 preferential seats at a cost of $100 each, in the space of 10 days. There was even a promise that the subscribers’ names would be engraved upon their chosen seats. This was never done and, in that much less litigious day, the subscribers did not protest. The final cost of the stadium project, $1,437,982, was funded entirely through these seating subscriptions.
To generate publicity and support for seating subscriptions, the starting eleven of the Wonder Team pull a replica of the proposed stadium in front on Wheeler Hall, toward Sather Gate.
Members of the University’s ROTC units spell out “STADIUM” to publicize the subscription drive to fund the new stadium, which was to be a memorial to those Californians killed in the World War.
With funding secured, the University acquired seven properties via eminent domain, and excavation began in January 1923. Blasting and hydraulic force were used to cut out portions of Charter Hill and Big C Hill. The debris was removed using steam shovels and wagons pulled by horses.
Sections of Big C Hill (“Tightwad Hill”) and Charter Hill were cut away for the east side of the stadium (note the houses on Charter Hill at right – these neighbors opposed the construction of the stadium from fears of traffic congestion and the ruining of their views of the Bay).
Horse-drawn wagons bringing construction materials to the stadium site.
A concrete culvert, 4 feet wide and 1,450 feet long, was built to carry Strawberry Creek underneath the new stadium. The Stadium Commission, aware that the new stadium was directly atop the Hayward Fault, designed it in two halves, with an expansion joint at both the north end and south end, allowing it to move in a major earthquake. The east side of the stadium was built directly into the hills, while the west side contained the neoclassical Roman arches and appearance of John Galen Howard’s original coliseum plan.
More than one million feet of lumber was used in constructing the stadium, and another 800,000 feet of lumber was used for the seats. 600 tons of steel and 12,000 barrels of cement were also used. 2,500 pine trees were planted on Big “C” Hill, which has since become known as Tightwad Hill. And a few rather unremarkable trees were planted on the west side of the stadium to provide shade to fans as they entered and exited.
Construction of the Coliseum-style west side of the stadium.
Although excavation for the stadium had not begun until January 1923, the Bears were anxious to have it ready for the Big Game in November, only 10 months later. They had already been forced to play two consecutive Big Games in Palo Alto, and most certainly did not want to have to travel to the Peninsula for a third straight year. So while Andy Smith’s team was having another great year at California Field, work continued furiously up in Strawberry Canyon. As the Big Game approached, the Bears appeared to be heading for their fourth consecutive unbeaten season, the only blemish being a 0-0 tie with Nevada. This left Cal with a record of 8-0-1 heading into the Big Game.
The new stadium, to be christened California Memorial Stadium, was ready for the great day, and on November 24, 1923 the Bears were ready to play the first game there. Rumors started circulating from Palo Alto that there was a curse on new stadiums, in that numerous home teams had lost their first game in such stadiums. When Cal head coach Andy Smith was told this story, he laughed. “Why, of course they did,” said Coach Smith. “It was always California they invited to help dedicate their stadiums.” And, indeed, the examples given – including losses by Stanford at the opening of Stanford Stadium, and by U.S.C. at the opening of both the Los Angeles Coliseum and the Rose Bowl – had all been losses at the hands of the California Golden Bears.
A crowd in excess of 73,000 showed up for that first game at Memorial Stadium (hundreds more than the stadium’s official capacity of 72,609). Another 7,000 fans perched on Big C Hill, which began to earn its new name of “Tightwad Hill” that day. This crowd of more than 80,000 was the largest ever to see a sporting event in the western United States. The undefeated Bears were the favorite. But the game was expected to be close, since most of Cal’s Wonder Team players had graduated, and because Stanford also had an excellent team that year. The only blemish on Stanford’s 7-1-0 record was a 14-7 loss to U.S.C.
California Memorial Stadium was filled beyond capacity on its opening day, November 24, 1923
The original dedication plaque unveiled on opening day at California Memorial Stadium.
The game itself was rather disappointing. The local papers described it as “dull, dull, dull,” and “a stinker.” As was to be expected of a Cal defense which had only given up 7 points the entire season, and a Stanford defense which had only given up 37 points, the game turned into a defensive stalemate, featuring lots of punting. Cal gained only 81 yards of total offense on the day. But Stanford managed to do even worse, gaining only 66 total yards. Cal’s Bill Blewett missed five field goal attempts, including one from Stanford’s 4-yard-line. The only scoring came on Stanford punts. In the second quarter, Cal’s Edwin “Babe” Horrell blocked an Ernie Nevers punt into the Stanford end zone, where Horrell recovered it for a Cal touchdown. And in the fourth quarter, another Nevers punt was blocked by what was recorded as “the entire Cal line.” Stanford recovered the ball in its own end zone, for a Cal safety. Final score: California 9, Stanford 0.
One of the many punts during the first game played at Memorial Stadium on November 24, 1923.
The scoreboard at Memorial Stadium showing the final score of the 1923 Big Game. It is hard to read in this photo, but the upper left shows “C” with 9, and “S” with a blank.
Although the game had been less than scintillating, the Bears had posted their fourth consecutive undefeated season under the leadership of Coach Andy Smith. And they had done so in a beautiful new stadium, which owed its existence to the spirit and enthusiasm generated by Andy Smith and his Wonder Teams.
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