American Football in Cuba: L.S.U. vs. University of Havana, 1907

By Michael T. Wood

As 2015 comes to a close, we are entering the home stretch of the college football postseason. By the end of the day (or in the first moments of the New Year), thirty-one of the record forty bowl games will be completed, including the two semifinal games of the College Football Playoffs. A quick glance at the bowl locations reveals that the majority of the games took place or will take place in Sunbelt states, such as California, Florida, and Texas. There were a few exceptions like the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise, Idaho, the New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in New York City, and the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit. Of all the bowl game locations, the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl stands out from the rest.[1]

Entering its second year, the Bahamas Bowl is the latest college football postseason game held outside the United States, but it is by no means unique. From 2007-2010, the International Bowl took place in Toronto, and beginning in the mid-1970s, there were various preseason, regular season, and postseason games in Australia, Bermuda, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Tanzania, and the United Kingdom. Since this topic intersects with my dissertation research on American football in Cuba, for this blog post I will focus on the first international postseason game: the 1907 game between Louisiana State University (L.S.U.) and the University of Havana.[2]

1

LSU Photograph Collection, 1886-1926, Louisiana State University Archives, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, LA.

Commonly known as the “Bacardi Bowl,” L.S.U. played a football game against the University of Havana on Christmas Day, 1907, at Almendares Park in Havana, Cuba. In front of an estimated crowd of 4,200 spectators, the “Louisiana Tigers” easily defeated the University of Havana squad by a score of 56 to 0. Right end George E. “Doc” Fenton, who would later be inducted into both the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame, starred for the visitors, returning punts, rushing and passing the ball, and kicking extra points. His spectacular open-field runs and the difficulty opponents had tackling him earned Fenton the local nickname “El Rubio Vaselino” or “the Greased Blond.” The Havana Telegraph describes his play as: “He was as slippery as a greased pig and it usually took three players to stop him.” The Cubans “put up a fierce fight,” but they could not overcome Fenton’s brilliant play and the Tigers’ overall size advantage and offensive execution. Despite the lopsided score, several reports praised the good sportsmanship displayed by each team on the field with one Cuban newspaper noting that, “The best of feelings prevailed at all times.”[3]

2

George Ellwood “Doc” Fenton Photo from National Football Foundation profile of Doc Fenton. http://www.footballfoundation.org/Programs/CollegeFootballHallofFame/SearchDetail.aspx?id=15. Accessed: 23 December 2015.

The importance of this encounter between L.S.U. and the University of Havana goes beyond it being the first American football game between U.S. and Cuban teams and the first international postseason game. It is also an opportunity to examine broader themes relating to the relationship between the United States and Cuba in the first decade of the twentieth century. Using a new cultural sport history methodology, inspired by the interpretative approach employed by Michael Oriard in Reading Football (1993) and King Football (2001), accounts of the game will be treated as “cultural texts” through which we will observe how the game reflected participation in modern travel, the spectacle of the game, and North American perceptions of race and ethnicity, but we will start with motivations for the game from the L.S.U. perspective.[4]

In late-November 1907, L.S.U. head football coach Edgar R. Wingard accepted the invitation from the University of Havana to play the postseason exhibition game. This opportunity followed a relatively successful 6-3 season for his team. Even though the 1907 L.S.U. Tigers were not the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association (S.I.A.A.) champions, the Atlanta Constitution describes them as “one of the best teams of the season in the southwest in point of fast, open and spectacular play.” The chance for his team to practice, to gain more game experience,  and to make history as the first North American college squad to play in Cuba were enticing enough for Wingard, but there was another motivation.

On November 25, an announcement of the game in the L.S.U. student newspaper emphasized the importance of sports in higher education, particularly in the recruitment of students from Latin America. The author begins by stating, “That the spirit of athletics, especially football, permeates even the very life-blood of the University is well authenticated by the latest developments in that line, or rather the latest rumor.” Supporting the significance of the game, the author follows with a quote from a former L.S.U. player: “Boys, a winning team is worth more to a college than all the catalogues ever printed; for would not our name and fame then be scattered all over the land of our Southern neighbors and loom up so prominently as to show them all the possibilities that we offer?” The notice concludes that the game is “sure to bring us into closer touch and friendship with our Spanish-American friends and conduce immensely to the increase of the attendance at this university from Latin-America.” At the time, L.S.U. drew thirty to forty students from Cuba annually, with many attending the Audubon Sugar School. Here, as early as 1907, we see football as an integrated part of higher education and its use as a possible recruitment tool for international students.[5]

On the morning of December 21, the L.S.U. football traveling party took the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad from Baton Rouge for New Orleans. That afternoon, they departed New Orleans on the Morgan Line Steamship, S. S. Chalmette, for Havana. An account from the Daily Picayune reveals that some of the players had reservations about the voyage: “Most of the boys had never been to sea before, and while they had all heard of sea-sickness it was all theory with them. They began questioning the officers of the boat just what to was to be expected. The answers to this question were anything but palatable to the sense of humor or the stomachs of the uninitiated, and when it began to spit rain just before sailing most of them wore worried expressions.” The prospect of rough seas did not seem to have a lasting effect on the team. Upon their arrival, the Cuban newspaper La Lucha describes them as “a bright, healthy, well-behaved, good looking lot of young men.” Even with the players’ inexperience and doubts about sea travel, the team’s trip by rail and steamship shows the speed, efficiency, and greater access to modern modes of transportation offered between the United States and Cuba in the early twentieth century.[6]

3

L.S.U. Football Team in Havana, Cuba, 1907. From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1907_LSU_Tigers_football_team#/media/File:LSU-Bacardi_Bowl_1907.jpg. Accessed: 23 December 2015.

The game between L.S.U. and the University of Havana replicated many of the rituals associated with the sport in North America. One L.S.U. account compared the Christmas Day encounter in Cuba with the Tigers’ 1893 game against Tulane in New Orleans. The Cuban newspaper Diario de la Marina describes preparations for the contest and the anticipated atmosphere, “There will be plenty of college spirit shown, and the Havana University students are practicing their yells, their college songs, and various institutions of noise making which will convey enthusiasm to the players, while the colors of the colleges will be seen on all sides.” The Municipal Band also contributed music for the event.  The sights and sounds of the game mirror college football on campuses and in cities across the United States in the early 1900s. Afterward, despite the game’s outcome, a Cuban account of the game stressed the newness of the sport in Cuba and that it was “rising in favor.” Here, we see that the result was of secondary importance to the fact that Cubans participated in American football and, more broadly, modern North American sport culture.[7]

So, who attended the game? A preview of the clash from Diario de la Marina notes that sailors from two U.S. Navy gunboats and soldiers from Camp Columbia attended the game in support of the Tigers, and that invitations were extended to all state, province, city, and military officials in Cuba. It also hints that even the U.S. governor of Cuba, Charles Magoon, might attend the contest. A description of the game from the Daily Picayune observes that, “the event attracted the elite of Cuban society.” Similarly, the L.S.U. student newspaper quotes a report from the New York Herald by stating, “A crowd larger than any other ever seen before here at any public entertainment, from the highest American and Cuban officials to representatives of all classes of Cubans, were present” and that, “Society turned out in force to see the Louisiana heroes, and on every side could be seen the ‘swellest kinds’ of rigs occupied by the cream of southern beauty.” That U.S. military personnel and administrators attended the game in support of L.S.U. hints at the heavy U.S. presence in Havana during the second occupation of the island from 1906-1909, but most sources emphasize the presence of the “elite” of Cuban society at the game, including women. Overall, the contest and the composition of the crowd replicate the “big-game” atmosphere from college football played across the United States. Again, a Cuban school staging this athletic and social event with a team from the U.S. South signifies participation within modern North American sport culture.[8]

Although the teams displayed good sportsmanship and “The greatest cordiality, friendship and enthusiasm were shown for the American boys,” several sources expose North American racial and ethnic prejudices. Prior to the game, the Daily Picayune portrays the L.S.U football team’s confidence, believing “they will wallop the natives to a ‘fare you well.’” The same article relates the terms of the game as “the dark-skinned natives could play anybody they wanted on their team excepting negroes and Americans.” First, the author refers to Cubans as “natives” and “dark-skinned natives.” The use of these terms casts Cubans as uncivilized “others,” and by extension it also undercuts the school’s hope of using the game as a means of recruiting Latin American students. Second, L.S.U. refused to play against players of African descent. The language used in this article was consistent with general racial and ethnic attitudes of North Americans toward Cubans and maintained institutionalized segregation of sports in the Jim Crow South.[9]

4

L.S.U. vs. University of Havana, 25 December 1907, at Almendares Park, Havana, Cuba. From: “L.S.U. Football Traditions,” L.S.U. Football Media Guide (Kansas City, MO: Universal Printing, 2006), 58.

Peter Finney, longtime New Orleans sportswriter and author of numerous books on Louisiana sport history, gives another example of how race and ethnicity played a role in this game. He frames his account of the encounter as in the shadow of the War of 1898, and questions how it “failed to touch off a second war with Spain.” With the wreckage of the U.S.S. Maine still visible in Havana’s harbor, Finney notices the presence of U.S. servicemen in Cuba and the tensions between the U.S. military and the local population. As mentioned above, a large number of sailors and soldiers attended the L.S.U.-University of Havana game, but Finney adds that as the sailors supported their fellow Americans, they shouted a provocative cheer:

Lick the Spicks, Kill the Spicks!

Rah! Rah! Rah! Louisiana!

Additionally, W. F. “Pat” Ryan, a player on the 1907 team recalls, “Every time we made a touchdown you’d have thought there was a flock of blackbirds flying across the field. Those sailors from the Paducah and the Dubuque would toss their blue hats in the air and chant their ‘lick the spicks’ battle cry.” The L.S.U. student newspaper mentions the servicemen’s behavior, but omits details of the cheer: “Sailors, too, there were from the American vessels at Havana, and to such an extent did they indulge in that good old American custom of ‘rooting’ that when the game began to grow monotonous on account of it being so one-sided, they attracted as much attention as if they had been a special attraction.” Besides the somewhat historical confusion regarding the Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino War from Finney’s account, the use of racial slurs in the cheer again casts Cubans as “others,” and while the sailors’ behavior could be dismissed as mere exuberance, when coupled with language from the Daily Picayune, they reflect the general racial and ethnic attitudes of white North Americans toward Cubans in the early twentieth century.[10]

In sum, beyond it being the first international postseason game and the first American football game between U.S. and Cuban teams, we see an argument stressing the importance of sports, especially football, to universities and in the recruitment of international students. Nearly 110 years later, conference presidents, university administrators, and athletic directors are circling back to the same basic argument. L.S.U’s football team traveled roundtrip from Baton Rouge to Havana by the latest in modern transportation, highlighting the advances made in availability and convenience. The spectacle surrounding the game, with its “big-game” atmosphere and the composition of the crowd (especially among Cubans), gives an example of L.S.U. and the University of Havana participating in modern North American sport culture. Good sportsmanship and goodwill notwithstanding, some sources expose negative North American racial and ethnic attitudes toward Cubans through the language employed in newspaper articles and in the sailors’ cheer, and the exclusionary terms of the game. This case study only scratches the surface of the subject, but it provides a good example of how using a new cultural sport history approach can give a broader understanding of the 1907 L.S.U.-University of Havana game and greater insight into the relationship between the United States and Cuba and college football history in the first decade of the twentieth century.

Michael T. Wood is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History and Geography at Texas Christian University. His research focuses on American football played between U.S. and Cuban teams from 1900s to 1950s. He currently teaches sport-related courses as an instructor for the Department of American Studies at the University of Alabama. You can contact him at: m.t.wood@tcu.edu, michael.t.wood@ua.edu, or bacardibowl@gmail.com.

Notes:


[1] ESPN.com staff, “2015-2016 College Football Playoff and bowl schedule,” http://espn.go.com/college-football/story/_/page/bowlschedule2015/2015-16-college-football-playoff-bowl-schedule. Accessed: 21 December 2015.

[2] List of International College Football games. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_college_football_games_played_outside_the_United_States. Accessed: 23 December 2015. While referencing a Wikipedia page contains obvious limitations, including inaccuracies about some of the Cuba games, it serves as a good starting point for further investigation.

[3] Even though this game is commonly called the “Bacardi Bowl,” that title is misleading at best. See my previous blog post for more details; Most accounts incorrectly give 10,000 as the game’s attendance; Game description, Havana Telegraph quote, and next to last quote from: “The Louisiana Tigers Again Win by the Sensational Score of 56 to 0 Over the Havana Boys,” The Reveille, 10 January 1908; George “Doc” Fenton’s Cuban nickname from: Peter Finney, The Fighting Tigers II: L.S.U. Football, 1893-1980 Revised Edition (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980), 28; Last quote: “Louisiana, Six To Havana’s Zero,” Diario de la Marina, 26 December 1907.

[4] Jaime Schultz, “Leaning into the Turn: Towards a New Cultural Sport History,” Sporting Traditions 27 (November 2010): 49-50, 53-59; Michael Oriard, Reading Football: How the Popular Press Created an American Spectacle (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 10-17; Michael Oriard, King Football: Sport and Spectacle in the Golden Age of Radio and Newsreels, Movies and Magazines, the Weekly and the Daily Press (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 2.

[5] “Team Goes To Havana For Christmas Game,” Atlanta Constitution, 22 December 1907; “Havana-L.S.U. Football Game,” The Reveille, 25 November 1907; “Chapter 2: Cubans,” Andrew Sluyter, Case Watkins, James P. Chaney, and Annie M. Gibson, Hispanic and Latino New Orleans: Immigration and Identity Since the Eighteenth Century (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2015); Michelle Melancon, “The Science of Sugar: Audubon Park Sugar School and Experiment Station,” 14 January 2015. http://news.blogs.lib.lsu.edu/2015/01/14/science_of_sugar_lsu/. Accessed: 23 December 2015; The relationship between football and higher education supports Brian M. Ingrassia’s thesis in The Rise of Gridiron University (2012) and perhaps extends it to an international/transnational context.

[6] “Football: L.S.U. Team For Havana Game,” Daily Picayune, 20 December 1907; “L.S.U. Leaves,” Daily Picayune, 22 December 1907; According to several accounts, the L.S.U. football traveling party included: head coach Edgar R. Wingard and his wife; Professor A. Guell, a native of Puerto Rico and instructor of Spanish at L.S.U.; left end John Seip; left tackle Marshall H. “Cap” Gandy; left guard William M. Lyles; center R. L. “Big” Stovall; right guard Harry E. Baldwin; right tackle Oren H. Noblet; right end George E. “Doc” Fenton; quarterback Beverly B. Handy; left halfback R. F. “Little” Stovall; right halfback Charles E. Bauer; fullback Rueben O. Gill; and substitutes H. C. Drew and W. F. “Pat” Ryan; Quote from La Lucha from: “Foot Ball La Atracción de Hoy,” Diario de la Marina, 25 December 1907; Eric G. E. Zuelow, A History of Modern Tourism (London: Palgrave, 2015), 44-59.

[7] Finley, The Fighting Tigers II, 26; “Foot Ball La Atracción de Hoy,” Diario de la Marina, 25 December 1907; “Louisiana, Six To Havana’s Zero,” Diario de la Marina, 26 December 1907; Descriptions of the game are comparable to those of the Intercollegiate Football Association’s Thanksgiving Day championship games in New York City in the late nineteenth century. See: Ronald A. Smith, Sports and Freedom (1988), 78-80; Or for a primary text, see: Richard Harding Davis, “The Thanksgiving-Day Game,” Harper’s Weekly 37 (December 1893): 1170-1171.

[8] “Foot Ball La Atracción de Hoy,” Diario de la Marina, 25 December 1907; “Cubans Overwhelmed By Tigers; Enemy Never Crossed Goal Line,” Daily Picayune, 26 December 1907; “The Louisiana Tigers Again: Win by the Sensational Score of 56 to 0 Over the Havana Boys,” The Reveille, 10 January 1908.

[9]“L.S.U. Leaves,” Daily Picayune, 22 December 1907.

[10]Finney, The Fighting Tigers II, 26-27; “The Louisiana Tigers Again Win by the Sensational Score of 56 to 0 Over the Havana Boys,” The Reveille, 10 January 1908.

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