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Early Major League Ventures into Cuba

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  • Early Major League Ventures into Cuba

    Early Major League Ventures into Cuba


    The first American professional team to visit Cuba played its first game on the island in Havana on December 21, 1879. The club called itself the Hop Bitters. It was led by Cincinnati promoter and recently-named manager of the National League’s Worcester (Massachusetts) club Frank Bancroft. Bancroft would led future tours to the island as well and play an instrumental role in bringing the first Cubans to the major leagues, Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida.

    The Americans easily won.

    The American club was composed of mainly the soon-to-be Worcester NL club of 1880 which was ascending from the minor National Association where it had played in 1879.

    The following players took part in the tour, leaving the U.S. in late November:
    George Wood
    Alonzo Knight
    Charlie Bennett
    Art Whitney
    J. F. “Chub” Sullivan
    C. J. “Curry” Foley
    A. J. “Doc” Bushong
    Arthur Irwin
    Frederick “Tricky” Nichols

    The players arrived back in the U.S. via New Orleans on December 31. The trip was financed by a Mr. Soule of Rochester, New York and was not a financial success. They may have played as little as two games in Cuba.


    The first U.S. ballplayers to play in the Cuban League were Jimmy Macullar and Hick Carpenter during the 1879-80-season for the Colon Baseball Club.


    Lew Simmons, manager of the 1886 American Association Philadelphia Athletics took 19 men with him to Cuba at the end of the season. They sailed for Cuba on November 6, 1886. They were scheduled to play two exhibition games a week through the end of the year.

    Simmons brought enough men for two nines which would compete against each other. The following major leaguers were among the contingent:

    Wilbert Robinson
    Ed Greer
    Chippy McGarr
    John Irvin
    Denny Lyons
    Cyclone Miller
    Ed Flanagan
    Sam Wise
    Ed Crane
    Ed Knouff
    Tony Cusick
    Cub Stricker
    Art Irwin
    Tom Poorman

    The unidentified others include:
    James P. Scott
    J. Tate – perhaps Pop Tate
    A. Nash – perhaps Billy Nash
    T. Shaffer – perhaps John Shaffer
    A.T. Stuart

    The men returned to the U.S. prematurely on November 22 complaining of a bleak financial disaster. They played only a few games before cutting the trip short.


    Al Lawson and a young John McGraw went to Cuba in early 1891 with a barnstorming club dubbed the All-Americans. The tours actually occurred in two parts, one in January and February. Lawson planned another tour for December 1891 but he backed out; the tour went on though. McGraw was the only player on both tours. The American roster had to be filled out with Cuban talent.

    In January/February a mixture of major and minor leaguers defeated Matanzas, Progreso, and Almendares, but lost to Habana, Fe, and an all-star team known as the All-Cubans.

    Bill Dahlan joined McGraw in December 1891. The club cruised to five straight wins by the scores of 17-0, 14-0, 11-4, 14-3, and 10-1. Cuban Antonio María García was lent to the All Americans; he led all hitters in the series. Supposedly McGraw tried to sign him for the Orioles, but Garcia refused citing better pay in Cuba.


    From Jacksonville's team, Lawson enticed veterans Ed Mars (Syracuse, American Association), George Kurtz (Cleveland, Player's League), and S. E. Stratton (Michigan League) for his Cuban tour. Lawson also found Jake Wells, formerly with the St. Louis Browns; Roger Connor Jr., a teammate from Cobleskill in the New York State League; Pat Luby, a starting pitcher from Anson's Chicago Colts; and Dan Minnehan, who later made the Louisville Colonels roster. Rounding out the troupe were Milt West and Will White, a veteran of the Cincinnati Red Stockings. From Ocala the All-Americans caught a steamer from Tampa to Havana, Cuba.

    Lawson’s Ocala All-Americans played a series of games against Cuban League clubs, with uneven results. On January 31, 1891, the All-Americans lost a close game against Habana (Havana). They won the next three games from Matanzas, Progreso, and Almendares. On Feb. 5, they lost to Fe by the lopsided score of 17-6. This was followed by a loss to a team of All-Cuban stars by an embarrassing 11-0 tally. Lawson had judged correctly that his team’s bright yellow uniforms would create a sensation (everyday fashions in Cuba’s upper crust society were very conservative.) John McGraw’s scampering style at shortstop earned him the nickname of “El mono amarillo,” the Yellow Monkey.

    The series drew respectably sized and enthusiastic crowds, but Lawson miscalculated the total expenses of the trip, because they soon found themselves without enough funds to get back to Tampa. It does not take a great deal of imagination to conjecture how they raised the money to get back to the States. The temptation to lay bets against themselves and throw games would have been irresistible. After making enough to get from Havana to Key West, the squad was split in two and recruited other American and local players to form two complete teams and played games there. Once again, within a few days they had raised enough to get back to Tampa. On their arrival, Lawson found himself being asked questions by the Tampa papers about his team’s drinking and wagering—his denials were indignant, but the printed charge that they had thrown three games on purpose seems too specific to be spurious.

    After arrival back in Florida in Late February, 1891, the team did not return to Ocala.

    In November, 1891, Al Lawson tuned up his rested arm pitching for Mobile, Alabama; but he was soon involved in a scheme to round up another team of players to tour Cuba. The team he formed included more seasoned major leaguers than had made the Cuba trip ten months earlier: Billy Alvord, a third baseman most recently with NL Cleveland Spiders; also from Cleveland were Ed Seward and Big Ed McKean; John Dolan, a pitcher from the Cincinnati Reds; and Billy Earle, of the St. Louis Browns. Earle’s nickname was the “Little Globetrotter,” and had been one of the “All-Americas” on A.G. Spalding’s baseball world tour in 1888. The teams’ second baseman was John Newell, who broke into the majors earlier in 1891 on the Pittsburgh club. Newell brought along his teammate Doggie Miller. Also on the roster were Johnny McGraw, Bob Champion, Charlie Frank, and Lawson himself. Three other newcomers were invited: Bad Bill Dahlen was persuaded to come south to rendezvous with the others in New Orleans; John Dolan from the Columbus club was brought on to alternate pitching duties with Lawson; and Joe Neale, a lightly-used pitcher most recently with St. Louis. John McGraw was the only player on this second Cuba tour roster who had been with Lawson on his first tour. The ballplayers met in New Orleans in late November. They played a few exhibition games against Lawson’s recent Mobile teammates; the local New Orleans club; and Pensacola to get in shape. They then waited while Lawson arranged booking to Cuba from Mobile.

    Lawson’s Cuba trip hopes were pinned on advance backing from a shady New Orleans investor named P. H. McTague. Lawson had arranged to meet McTague at his hotel in New Orleans on the day following McTague's withdrawal of the trip funds from the bank. According to Lawson, McTague failed to appear, and Lawson investigated and found McTague drugged and robbed. Lawson told the players about the loss, and they were understandably upset. Lawson contacted his recent manager at Mobile, John F. Kelly, to ask for help in backing the trip. Kelly told Lawson that he would be willing to front one-way tickets to Havana. Lawson relayed that offer to the players, but they had heard the story of Lawson's first Cuba trip and demanded round-trip tickets. Lawson washed his hands of the affair at that point and packed his bags, and took the first steamer he could find going to Tampa, Florida. Kelly, meanwhile, talked to the owner of the Mobile team, oyster magnate J. E. "Jack" Hooper, who agreed to fully fund the trip. The ballplayers sailed from Mobile on Dec. 4, 1891 as "Hooper's All-American Base Ball Club," with John F. Kelly as their manager.

    These "All-Americans" were much more talented than the Ocala All-Americans that Lawson had brought to the island eleven months earlier. They had little problem defeating the Cuban League teams. Against Habana, the score was 17-0. Against Fe, the game ended 11-4. In a second game against Habana, the All-Americans won 10-1. Kelly’s men beat Almendares, 14-0; and finally beat the All-Cubans 14-3. To solve the problem of being shorthanded playing under the Cuban League's ten-man rule, Kelly recruited their biggest star, batting champion Antonio Maria Garcia, to play right field for the All-Americans. Garcia’s nickname was “El Ingles.” He spoke flawless English and had refined tastes, and was considered the best Cuban player of the nineteenth century.

    The Hooper All-Americans returned from Cuba with a tidy profit. News of Lawson's abandonment of the team spread through the community of major league players, and was recalled in later years as the first public example of Lawson’s tendency to solve his troubles by leaving the area where they occurred. Lawson tried to defend himself with impassioned letters to editors of sporting papers: Sporting News published one under the headline "Honorable (?) Al Lawson." Lawson argued, in fact, that he was due some thanks for paving the way for a venture that, after all, ended profitably; and for putting the players in touch with John F. Kelly. He claimed that he was bringing suit against McTague.

    John McGraw returned from Cuba and pleaded with Baltimore team owners to sign the man most responsible for the popularizing what came to be known as the "American Series" in Cuba. The player that McGraw was lobbying on behalf of was not his mentor Alfred was Antonio Maria Garcia. The recruitment failed. For his part, Garcia claimed he could earn more playing in Cuba; but it should be noted that it would be several more years before the first Latino player appeared in the major leagues.

    Pittsburgh National League manager Al Buckenberger announced plans in March 1892 to organize a barnstorming tour of Cuba at season’s end. I found no indication that the trip occurred.

    Charlie Duffee accompanied a ball club of lesser players to Cuba in November 1892; they were still there in January.


    Likewise, Jim Hart of the Cubs planned a similar trip for early 1893 but it was cancelled.


    Frank Bancroft planned another trip to Cuba in January 1895. He gathered Bid McPhee, Short Fuller and Jack Boyle among others to play their way to Cuba, first stopping in New Orleans and Florida.

    The team played one game in New Orleans and abandoned the tour by January 4 due to the cold and a bleak financial outlook.


    On September 17, 1898 Ted Sullivan announced his intentions of forming two teams and traveling to Cuba to put on an exhibition tour at the end of the season. He was eying potential profits due to the fact that 50,000 Americans soldiers were now stationed on the island. I found no indication that the tour took place.


    A group of players calling themselves the All-American Baseball Club left New Orleans for Cuba on December 28, 1899. The club was made up of talent from the majors and minors and one man named Beecher that they picked up at the last minute in New Orleans to play shortstop.

    The major leaguers included:
    Harry Steinfeldt
    Jake Beckley
    Cupid Childs
    Dan Phelan with New Orleans at the time
    Jim Delahanty with New Orleans at the time
    Sporty McAllister
    Doc Nance with New Orleans at the time

    Johnny Gonding, a New Orleans local, catcher with Reading in the Pennsylvania League

    Abner Powell, skipper of New Orleans of the Southern League, managed the club. The All-American club played the Havana Reds and other clubs.


    Twenty-two members of the Brooklyn and New York National League clubs took off for Havana from New York on October 27, 1900. The trip was a financial failure in Havana, prompting ten members of the group to return home to New York on November 17. They are:
    Tom O’Brien
    Jesse Tannehill
    Tom Daly
    Pop Foster
    George Davis
    Cy Seymour
    Willie Keeler
    Mike Grady
    Charlie Hickman
    Pop Schriver

    The rest returned home on November 30, among them:
    Jim Sheckard
    Win Mercer
    Bill Donovan
    Bill Dahlen
    Bill Gleason
    Shad Barry
    Harry Howell
    Hughie Jennings
    Thomas C. Simpson

    From Steven Holbrook:

    In November of 1900, a more prominent group ventured to the island. Led by Thomas C. Simpson, secretary of the Brooklyn National League team, who arranged the trip, the Brooklyn and New York National League ball clubs played a series of games against each other in Cuba. Hughie Jennings played first base and managed the trip for the Brooklyn team while George Davis managed the New York team and played shortstop. The tour was in jeopardy shortly after the arrival of the U.S. teams, when Abel Linares, the Havana newspaperman who had offered the Americans $5,000 for the tour, did not live up to the contract in making arrangements for games and game sites. The Cuban players were engaged in a labor dispute with their local team owners and did not initially support the tour. The Americans were ready to leave, but a payment of “$2,000 in American gold” to Simpson kept the tour going. The $5,000 total never materialized and the Americans decided to split the receipts with their Cuban hosts and the tour ended with the U.S. team losing about $500. Ten of the touring team returned home early, disappointed with the experience. But those who stayed found the Cubans to be enthusiastic about seeing the top American professional players. The Americans also played some games against the best Cuban teams and at least two games against the U.S. troops still stationed on the island.
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