Ninety-four years ago this Christmas Eve, the Ole Miss football team was on an ocean liner in the Gulf of Mexico on their way to play the first ever postseason game for the University of Mississippi. Most alumni and fans of Ole Miss believe the first post-season game was the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day 1937 with Catholic University of Washington, D.C., but it was not the first. On New Year’s Eve 1921 Ole Miss played the Cuban Athletic Club in the capital of Cuba, Havana.
The 1921-football season for Ole Miss had not been very successful. The team had won three games and lost six, but they were still invited to play their first post-season game ever. The only thing different about this game was that it was not a regular season bowl game in America. It was to be played in Havana, Cuba. On December 16, 1921 the campus newspaper, The Mississippian, reported that the football and basketball teams were invited to play the Havana Athletic Club and the university had decided to send eighteen player to Havana. Sixteen of the players were to play football, with three of the football team joining the two basketball players to make up a basketball team.
The captains of the football team were Arthur Scruggs and Howard D. Robinson. They were joined by Calvin Barbour, Johnny Montgomery, O. M. Whittington, Claude Smithson, Dooley Akin, Bennie McDaniels, Wayne Smith, Oscar Gober, Grayson Keeton, O.G. Eubanks, Sollie Crain, Frank Leftwich, Mosely, and John Stovall. At this time no football scholarships were given to the football players. If you wanted to play all you had to do was to tryout for the team. You had to pay your own tuition and room and board just like any other student. “We all paid our way to go to school’” Calvin Barbour stated. “We played for love of the school. It wasn’t just putting in a day’s work.”
The players left from the Oxford Depot on December 23, 1921, for New Orleans. They were to spend the night in New Orleans and leave by ocean liner on the 24th for Cuba. They boarded the Great White Fleet ship, Aetna, at the Port of New Orleans for the trip down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico and then on to Cuba. They would arrive in Havana on Christmas Day.
Coach Sullivan had given each of the players fifty cents to spend on food during the train trip to New Orleans. Each player was to bring his own spending money for the trip. “I took eight dollars to spend in Havana,” said Calvin Barbour, “but it cost more that fifty cents to eat on the way to New Orleans.” His teammate, Johnny Montgomery of Hattiesburg, recalled, “I think I took $7.50 to spend.”
As the players ship moved through the Gulf of Mexico, on its way to Cuba, the sight of the salt water and sun soon lost it beauty. Most of the players got seasick. “Someone told us to eat, eat, and eat,” said one player, “and you won’t get sick. Some must not have eaten enough. I ate and I ate and I didn’t. I ordered everything. It was a lovely trip. We had sleeping quarters on the second deck—two men to a room. We were supreme people.”
Five thousand Cubans gathered at Almenfares Park in sunny, eighty degree weather to watch the game. The game had its comic moments. Dr. Bernardo LaTour, the referee, gave his decisions in Spanish to the Cubans and in English to the Ole Miss players. This confusion in language seemed also to be reflected in confusion in officiating. We scored three touchdowns,” said Calvin Barbour, “but they didn’t let them count. We were always offside, holding or something. We had a real battle in the second half, and it was a lot of fun.”
When the game ended, Ole Miss had lost 14 to 0. The players admitted they could have done better. They had thrown twelve passes and completed none. The Mississippian reported on January 13, 1922, “You’ve heard, no doubt, that the best way to beat a man is to best him at his own game. A certain athletic club in Havana seems to have heard the same thing, Judging by the 14 to 0 defeat which they handed out to an American team in an American game, played on December 31.” Most of the Cuban players had gone to school in America where that had learned how to play football.
One interesting sidelight is the nickname of one of the Ole Miss varsity captains. Donald D Robinson’s nickname was Santa Claus. Perhaps there is destiny in names. There was the Ole Miss football team on an ocean liner on Christmas Eve with a captain on the team nicknamed Santa Claus.
Another interesting fact is that the team returned to the United States, not on an ocean liner, but on a banana boat.
Jack Lamar Mayfield is a fifth generation Oxonian, whose family came to Oxford shortly after the Chickasaw Cession of 1832, and he is the third generation of his family to graduate from the University of Mississippi. He is a former insurance company executive and history instructor at Marshall Academy in Holly Springs, South Panola High School in Batesvile and the Oxford campus of Northwest Community College.
In addition to his weekly blog in HottyToddy.com Oxford’s Olden Days, Mayfield is also the author of an Images of America series book titled Oxford and Ole Miss published in 2008 for the Oxford-Lafayette County Heritage Foundation. The Foundation is responsible for restoring the post-Civil War home of famed Mississippi statesman, L.Q.C. Lamar and is now restoring the Burns Belfry, the first African American Church in Oxford.