Sitting in the foyer of the Frances C. Arrillaga Alumni Center, 94-year-old Art Miller proffered a scrapbook he had lugged from his home in Fresno, Calif. He opened it, turned a few pages, and paused to look at a yellowed newspaper photograph. “That’s me,” he said, pointing to a handsome, dark-haired young man. He is pictured along with 20 fellow students, one of whom holds the ax head that inscribed their names into Stanford lore.
Miller is the last survivor of the “Immortal 21,” the group of Stanford men who, on April 3, 1930, wrested the Axe from the clutches of UC-Berkeley, whose students had stolen it 31 years earlier. He attended this November’s Big Game, which marked the 70th year that the Axe has been used as a prize for the winning school. “This may be my last Big Game,” says Miller, ’31, who has donated his memorabilia to the University.
When Miller and his mates concocted their nervy plan—several previous attempts had failed—the Axe was kept in a bank vault and removed once a year for display at a Big Game rally at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre. The 21 struck as the Axe was being returned to the bank after the rally. Several of them hopped onto the armored car, pretending to be “guards” from Cal. When the car arrived at the bank, Cal’s Norman Horner emerged with the Axe and Stanford’s Howard Avery, ’30, pounced, putting him in a stranglehold. Bob Loofbourow, ’30, seized the Axe and Miller tossed a tear gas canister loaned by a friend in the San Mateo County Sheriff’s office to dissuade pursuers. The 21 scattered to nearby cars and raced back to campus, where they were acclaimed as heroes. Two years later, the schools agreed to make the Axe a permanent traveling trophy to avoid further escalation of thievery and dirty tricks.
The story is well-known, but a few details have gone unreported, says Miller, a former high school teacher and principal. He recalls that two days after the Axe theft, Stanford faced Cal in a baseball game electrified by the recent events. Stanford won, 3-2. The losing pitcher: Norman Horner.
Afterward, Miller, Stanford’s catcher, ran into Horner in the locker room. “I didn’t let on that I was one of the guys who had stolen the Axe. He was bigger than me.”