Friday, March 1, 2013

Alabama Polytechnic Institute (Auburn) vs. Villanova College (1937)

Cover of the Cuban National Sport Festival Program, 1936-37.
On New Year's Day 1937, Auburn and Villanova played to a 7-7 tie in the closing game of the Cuban National Sports Festival. It was the first post-season game for both schools and the first attempt to stage a large-scale college football game between two North American teams in Cuba. The game, later labeled the "Bacardi Bowl," did not become an annual event, but it was intended to compete with the Rose, Orange, Sugar, and Cotton Bowls. Many Cuban football enthusiasts hoped a Cuban team would participate in the game in the future, creating an annual U.S./Cuban match-up.

In the fall of 1936, Carlos L. Henríquez, Jr., the Cuban Commissioner of Sports, organized an international sports festival to be held in Havana, Cuba, from December 26 to January 2, 1937. The festival included basketball, boxing, and tennis tournaments, a swim meet, athletic exhibitions, and two American football games opened and closed the event.

Villanova and Auburn captains, Tony Sala and Walter Gilbert,
shake hands before the game, 1937.
Columbia University, Henríquez's Alma Mater, participated in the basketball tournament along with Louisiana State, Club Atlético de Cuba, and National Autonomous University of Mexico. Amateur fighters from Hearst All-America, Miami A.A.U., Cuba, Panama, and Mexico competed in the boxing tournament. North American tennis players, such as Ray Thomas and Bobby Malloy, competed against the Cuban and Mexican Davis Cup Teams for the "America's Cup." A few athletic exhibitions were held: 1936 Olympic star Jesse Owens raced against a horse in a 100-meter dash, a mixed boxing/wrestling match pitted George Godfrey (an African American boxer) against Jack Sherry (wrestler), and a jai alai match. The Cuban professional baseball championship game between Almendares and Havana was also played.

Action photo taken during the Auburn-Villanova game, 1937.
Villanova punt forced to punt, 1937.
On December 26, the Cuban National Sports Festival opened with an football game between Club Atlético de Cuba (CAC) and the Cuban Navy at Tropical Stadium. The CAC won 7-6 but the highlight of the game was Jesse Owens defeating a horse in a 100-meter dash. Owens had a 40-yard head start and won by a 15-yard margin.  

Both Auburn and Villanova arrived in Havana on December 27. Even though the two schools had never met on the field, Auburn's head coach Jack Meagher and Villanova's head coach Maurice "Clipper" Smith were familiar with one another. In 1933, Smith's Santa Clara squad defeated Meagher's team at Rice, 13-0. Despite the head-to-head edge, Smith's respect for Meagher is apparent when he said, "Well, Jack Meagher is a Notre Dame man, so their attack is somewhat like ours; and they certainly seem to be a very alert, aggressive club," and, "They play a hard, tricky game and should give us all the opposition we'd ever need" (Villanovan, Dec. 15, 1936, p. 6-7).

Auburn team photo 1936. Glomerata, Vol. 40, 1937, p. 180. 
On January 1, in front of a crowd of about 9,000 spectators at Tropical Stadium, Auburn and Villanova met for the first and only "Bacardi Bowl." Auburn halfback Billy Hitchcock, brother of Auburn's first All-American Jimmy Hitchcock and future major league baseball player and manager, scored the first touchdown of the game on a 40-yard run in the first quarter. Auburn converted the extra-point and led the game 7-0. In the second, third, and most of the fourth quarter, the two defenses controlled the game. Late in the fourth quarter, Matty Kuber of Villanova blocked an Auburn punt that was recovered in the end zone for a touchdown. Villanova's Bill Christopher kicked the extra-point to tie the game, 7-7. Although this meaning ended in a stalemate, it became the first of a series of games played between Auburn and Villanova. From 1937-1942, the two schools played seven times with Auburn holding an 4-1-2 edge in the series.

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