Stanford-Cal Big Game

by Matthew Schaefer

"A unique portrait of Herbert Hoover as formed by the cheering section of the University of California during a Cal-Stanford football game." 11/27/1928
“A unique portrait of Herbert Hoover as formed by the cheering section of the University of California during a Cal-Stanford football game.” 11/27/1928

While every region has its natural collegiate rivals in football—think Auburn-Alabama, Michigan-Ohio State, Texas-Oklahoma—only one rivalry comes complete with capital letters.  The Stanford-Cal Big Game [always capitalized by the cognoscenti] dates back to 1892, when Walter Camp coached the Stanford team to a 14-10 victory over their rivals across the bay.  As a student, Herbert Hoover played a small role as financial manager for the 1894 Big Game [won by Stanford 6-0], a tale he relates in fine detail in the first volume of his memoirs.

Lou Henry Hoover did not write memoirs regarding her engagement with the Big Game.  We are left with two folders in box 83 of her Subject Files.  Not surprisingly, the folders are titled ‘Big Game, 1933-1939.’  These folders contain Lou Hoover’s invitations, guest lists, correspondence and summary of finances related to the Big Games of 1933, 1935, 1937 and 1939.

At this time, the Hoovers had returned to private-ish life in Palo Alto.  As prominent Stanford alumni, the Hoovers hosted large luncheons prior to the Big Game.  Given the conventions of the time, this entailed invitation letters, written letters of acceptance and regret, and documentation of logistical details for hosting scores of people for lunch.  Among the invitees were prominent figures from both Cal and Stanford.

In 1935, William Henry Crocker, a long-time friend of the Hoovers who was also a member of Cal’s Board of Regents, accepted Lou Hoover’s invitation to lunch with tongue firmly planted in cheek.  Crocker wrote that while one coffee and one sandwich would suffice for him, his guest [a large man] would need two of each.  He continued: ‘I am sorry indeed that I am so bound up with the traditions and connections with the University of California that I shall not be permitted to root for Stanford.’  Lou Hoover took the gibes in stride, buoyed later by the game’s outcome—a 13-0 Stanford victory.

The Big Game folder for 1939 contains scores of letters, showing Lou Hoover’s deft diplomacy as she invited 80 guests from both sides of the Big Game divide.  In writing to her Stanford mates, Lou is frank: ‘They tell us it is not going to be a good game… But you might have an amusing time anyway.’  On the Cal side of the divide, Lou invited Robert and Ida Sproul, President and ‘First Lady’ of Cal from 1930-1958.  Ida Sproul sent regrets, explaining that she and her husband had already accepted a luncheon invitation to the home of Ray Lyman Wilbur, the President of Stanford who shared a decades-long friendship with the Hoovers.

Leave to the ever gracious Lou Henry Hoover to deflect and defuse the deep antipathies of football rivalries.

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