Top 50 Cal Sports Moments – No. 17: Stadium Debut, 1923

Cal's powerhouse football teams led to the construction of The House That Andy Built over 100 years ago
Memorial Stadium in the 1930s
Memorial Stadium in the 1930s / Photo courtesy of Cal Athletics

As the Pac-12 Conference era comes to a close after more than a century, we count down the Top 50 moments involving Cal athletics.

THE MOMENT: In the early afternoon of Saturday, November 24, 1923, the kickoff of the 29th Big Game between Cal and Stanford marked the official opening of Memorial Stadium, which remains Cal’s home football venue today. More than 73,000 people jammed into the stadium that had an official capacity of 72,609 to be present at “The House that Andy Built” to see the powerhouse Golden Bears beat a strong Stanford team 9-0 and finish unbeaten.

THE STORY: Cal had gone 27-0-1 and had played in two Rose Bowls under coach Andy Smith from 1920 through 1922. The standing-room-only crowds in excess of 28,000 at California Field in the center of the Cal campus were becoming dangerous while forcing Cal to turn away thousands of would-be spectators.  Plus Stanford and USC had recently built huge new stadiums, and the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena had just been completed as well.

So in December 2022, Cal began building its new stadium at a cost of $1,437,982, financed entirely through donors’ subscriptions for premium seats at $100 per seat. The site was picturesque Strawberry Canyon despite complaints from homeowners in the area.  The stadium was built directly atop the Hayward Fault, requiring the structure to be built in two halves, with an expansion joint at both the north end and south end to allow it to move if a major earthquake struck.

Amazingly, the stadium was ready for use in just 11 months, allowing it to make its debut in the 29th Big Game on November 24, 1923, between an 8-0-1 Cal squad and a 7-1 Stanford team.  A crowd of more than 73,000, most of them dressed in their Sunday finest, jammed into a stadium that had an official capacity of 72,609. Approximately 7,000 additional fans viewed the game from the hill adjacent to the stadium, christening Tightwad Hill on Memorial Stadium’s very first day. This total crowd of more than 80,000 was the largest ever to see a sporting event in the western United States. 

The kickoff for the 1923 Big Game marked the official opening of the stadium, which had an inscription in the tunnel at the north end saying the stadium was dedicated to those who died in “The World War,” assuming there would never be a second such world conflict.

The game itself was a bore, and the newspapers the next day characterized it as such. Cal managed just 81 yards of total offense, and Stanford had just 61.  The only touchdown was scored when Cal’s Babe Horrell blocked an Ernie Nevers punt and recovered it in the end zone.  The Bears later added a safety for a 9-0 victory that completed the fourth of five consecutive undefeated seasons for Smith and the Bears.

Memorial Stadium has been Cal’s football home for 100 years, with some pauses for renovations to modernize it and stabilize it against earthquakes.

The largest crowd at Memorial Stadium came on September 27, 1947, when 83,000 people squeezed into the stadium to see Cal beat Navy 14-7. The record was tied on November 22, 1952, when 83,000 watched Cal beat Stanford 26-0. Interestingly both Cal and Stanford had losing conference records heading into that 1952 game.  But college football was seldom televised in those days, and almost never on the West Coast.

The Oakland Raiders hosted the Miami Dolphins in a regular-season NFL game at Memorial Stadium in 1973, and Paul McCartney performed two shows at Memorial Stadium in 1990.

Seating capacity at Memorial Stadium now is 63,000, with average home attendance in 2023 being 38,684. But every game is televised.

*Top 50 Moment No. 18: Discus Prodigy, 2024

*Top 50 Moment No. 19: Riley’s Run, 2007

Only specific acts that occurred while the team or athlete was at Cal were considered for the Top 50 list, and accomplishments spanning a season or a career were not included. 

Leslie Mitchell of the Cal Bears History Twitter site aided in the selection of the top 50 moments.

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Jake Curtis


Jake Curtis worked in the San Francisco Chronicle sports department for 27 years, covering virtually every sport, including numerous Final Fours, several college football national championship games, an NBA Finals, world championship boxing matches and a World Cup. He was a Cal beat writer for many of those years, and won awards for his feature stories.