Auburn (7-2-1). Villanova (7-2). Tropical Stadium. Havana, Cuba. New Year’s Day, 1937, the second to last day of the week-long first “Cuban National Sports Festival.” They called it the Bacardi Bowl. Or the Rhumba Bowl. Or the Cigar Bowl. (The New York Times called it a the “battle of the palms.”) But mostly the Bacardi Bowl. It was the first bowl game for both teams, the first time two American football teams actually from America played against each other outside America, and “the first attempt to stage a large-scale college football game between two North American teams in Cuba.”
Despite the monumental occasion—it was also the first time the Cuban Navy Band played a sporting event, so that’s something—not many showed up. But the exact number varies on who you ask. James Edson, author of 1952’s “History of Auburn Football,” as well as Michael T. Wood, a Ph.D candidate in history writing his dissertation on “American football games played between U.S. and Cuban teams in the first half of the twentieth century,” have the attendance as 9,000. But the New York Times says it was 12,000, and that it was “the largest turnout of the entire sports week”—only 3,000 people saw Jessie Owens (Owens and the Auburn players road the same boat over) win $2,000 for beating a horse in a 100-yard race the day before—and that everyone got there well before it started, except Cuban dictator Fugencia Batista, and his recently impeached puppet president Miguel Mariano Gomez–Gomez was the brains behind the event, got a standing ovation—who arrived few minutes after kickoff.
David Housel suggests the numbers, whatever they were, were partly affected by politics.
“Just before Auburn arrived… Batista led a coup d’etat and seized control of the government,” Housel writes in the Auburn Football Vault. “When his lieutenants realized Batists’a picture wasn’t in the program, they decreed that the game would not be played until his likeness was included.”
Apparently you could get gameday programs reprinted pretty quick back ’37. The photo was added. The game was played. The teams were evenly matched. But most folks thought Auburn would win.
“Auburn was a slight favorite in the betting, but this was attributed to the fact that its followers were here with money to wager,” the New York Times wrote. “Villanova had few home-town supporters on hand. The odds ranged from to 5 to 9 to 5, depending upon the enthusiasm of the individual Auburn fans.” It was also anticipated that the weather—it was a sunny 85 degrees—would give Auburn an edge.
But despite the heat, humidity, Auburn’s superior stats, and a great performance by Billy Hitchcock, brother of Auburn’s first All-American and then assistant coach Jimmy Hitchcock, the game ended in a 7-7 tie. According to Edson, “Auburn played in bad luck and should have won by two touchdowns.”
That bad luck culminated in a blocked quick kick in the final minutes. The ball bounced into the end zone. Villanova fell on it.
Before that, there were a couple of fights. Auburn’s Sam McCrocksey and Villanova’s Joe Missar exchanged punches in the second quarter. Both were ejected. There was another scrap in the fourth. But the real threat of violence was actually off the field.
According to Auburn All-American Walter Gilbert, there were armed guards on hand “to make sure the game didn’t become a cover for a counterrevolution.”
Guerrilla War Eagle!
More rare photos from Auburn’s trip to Cuba:
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