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The Red Cup Chronicles: 1921 Ole Miss Football heads to Havana, Cuba

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Bacardi is not just a rum, it’s a bowl game. Who knew?

Cultured.com

As summer rolls around and the COVID-19 global pandemic continues to move our days away from patio dinners, weekend barbecues and pool parties toward evening sanity walks and Zoom happy hours, we are spending a lot of time inside on the internet scrolling mindlessly through brain-numbing nonsense.

Scroll no further, it’s time for some brain-engaging nonsense!

With the 2020 college football season seemingly inching closer to existence and an on-time start, there is no better time than the present to expand your knowledge and learn a new anecdote for whenever tailgating and watch parties come back into fashion.

I, Grayson Weir, will be your resident Red Cup historian over the next 15 weeks. Come along!

Where are we going?

We begin our first journey in Havana, the capital, largest city, province, and commercial port of Cuba. It was founded by the Spanish in the 16th century and quickly became the center of their conquering of the Americas, as a stopping point for treasure-laden vessels headed home to Spain. Basically, once the conquistadors over-powered a bunch of people in Latin America and took all of their money, Havana was a nice break to smoke a cigar and drink some rum before crossing over the (very large) Atlantic Ocean.

Today, Cuba is a communist country of the Marxist–Leninist model with a tropical climate that seldom dips below 50 degrees Fahrenheit and attracts tourists with its unique culture, delicious food and stuck-in-time, colorful architecture.

It is a highly-regulated country in regard to travel to and from the United States, after fairly recent times of tension amongst the two governments. But that wasn’t always the case. Let’s go back 122 years to 1898.

When the government sunk a U.S. battleship in the harbor in April of that year, the Spanish-American War began. Not chill, Spain. The conflict lasted just under four months and the United States helped Cuban and Philippine revolutionaries wipe the floor with the Spanish forces. Both the U.S. and Cuba were cool with one another after the conclusion.

This is where our Ole Miss story begins.

What brings us there?

Ole Miss football was founded as Mississippi’s first football team in 1893 and has fielded a team every year since, except for 1897 amidst the yellow fever epidemic and during World War II in 1943. The Rebels have had extreme peak-and-valley success over the last 127 years and have an all-time record of 671–524–35 with three claimed national titles, six conference titles and 12 consensus All-Americans.

Though the 2016 Sugar Bowl seems like an ever-distant memory, the team holds a 24-13 overall record in bowl games. Most fans would believe that Ole Miss’ first post-season game was in the 1937 Orange Bowl against Catholic University, but it was not. Nearly 100 years ago, on Christmas Eve in 1921, Ole Miss boarded an ocean liner to cross the Gulf of Mexico and compete in the Bacardi Bowl.

The Bowl, played eight times at Almendares Park and La Tropical Stadium in Havana, Cuba, pitted an American university from the deep south against Cuban universities or athletic clubs to conclude Cuba’s annual National Sports Festival.

Alamandares Park in Havana, Cuba
TheCubanHistory.com

The first game was played in 1907 and saw LSU lay the hammer on the University of Havana, Tulane partook in 1909 and Mississippi A&M took the field two years later. The 1912 addition was scheduled for a two-game series with Florida. The first game was held on Christmas Day, but the second game brought controversy and was never finished.

During the first quarter against the Cuban Athletic Club, the Gators’ head coach George E. Pyle quickly realized that officials were using college football’s pre-1906 rules, which didn’t allow the forward pass. Oh, and the head referee was a former Athletic Club coach. Because, Cuba.

Pyle immediately pulled his players off of the field, as anyone would. Cuba had him arrested for violating a law that prohibited a game’s suspension after spectators’ money had been collected. Seems like they probably could have given the fans their money back, but what sense does that make when you can just arrest the coach instead?

Pyle was released on bail that evening and the Gators headed home to Florida, an exit that warranted a “fugitive from justice” label from Cuban authorities. Run, George, run!

Perhaps the mishap caused a riff between the two countries, because the game would not be played again until 1921, nine years later.

How’d it go down?

Well, the Rebels weren’t very good in 1921. The team went 3-6 on the year, but still received an invite to play in the school’s first ever postseason game. The campus newspaper first reported (Shoutout to the DM!) that both the football and the basketball teams were set to play the Havana Athletic Club over the New Year holiday. Ole Miss decided to send 18 players to Cuba, 16 of which to play football. Three of the team members would join two others to make up a complete basketball lineup. Both teams were coached by R.L. Sullivan.

Honestly, that sounds exhausting. I’ll pass and smoke a Cuban cigar instead.

Football captains Arthur Scruggs and Howard D. Robinson were joined by Calvin Barbour, Johnny Montgomery, O. M. Whittington, Claude Smithson, Dooley Akin, Bennie McDaniels, Wayne Smith, Oscar Gober, Grayson (gang gang gang) Keeton, O.G. Eubanks, Sollie Crain, Frank Leftwich, and John Stovall.

Remember too, athletes did not receive scholarships in 1921. If you wanted to play football, all you had to do was show up. Coach Sullivan gave each player fifty cents to spend on food, but they all had to bring their own money to cover the expenses (outside of team-issued transportation and room) for the trip. Most players brought about $8.00, which could cover a Chipotle burrito today.

The 18 athletes and staff left Oxford on December 23rd, spend the night in New Orleans and left for Cuba on the Aetna, a ‘Great White Fleet’ naval ship, on Christmas Eve.

The Great White Fleet
Naval History and Heritage Command

The team was given sleeping quarters on the second deck with two men to a room, but the Gulf of Mexico soon took its toll and much of the players got seasick. Fortunately, the game was scheduled for a week later back at Almendares Park.

Hake’s

Five thousand Cubans gathered at the park, which was primarily used for baseball, to watch a football game on a picture-perfect, eighty degree New Year’s Eve day. After three consecutive (future) Southeastern conference wins in the Bacardi Bowl, Ole Miss did not complete any of its 12 pass attempts and lost 13-0. The result did not come without controversy. Because, Cuba.

A photo believed to be from the 1921 Bacardi Bowl
TIME Magazine

While not to the same extent as in 1912, the referees blatantly call the game in favor of Havana. Decisions were given to each side in their native language, and always went against Ole Miss. The Rebels scored three touchdowns, but all three were called back by for offsides, holding, and other penalties. Because, Cuba.

Print the 1921 Bacardi Bowl Champion* t-shirts, in my opinion.


Thank you for joining me on this first addition of the Red Cup Chronicles, it is my hope that you end today 1,000 words smarter than you were this morning. Stick with us each week (maybe bi-weekly?) for your small dose of summer learning!