The Cuba Trip of 1911
It was October 1911 and the New York Giants had just lost the World Series to the Philadelphia Athletics in six games. The National League’s Philadelphia Phillies had finished their regular season at home on October 9th, losing both ends of a doubleheader to the Boston Rustlers. Both clubs though had games remaining on its schedule as the two teams agreed to travel to Cuba and play local club teams in a series of exhibitions.
The Giants and Phillies weren’t the first major league baseball teams to barnstorm Cuba. Frank Bancroft led a team called the ‘Hop Bitters’ down to the island for the first time in 1880 and since, many other major league clubs or all-star clubs have made the trek for a series of games in Cuba.Â In 1909, the American League champion Detroit Tigers won only 4 of the 12 games against Havana and Almendares. The Tigers, playing without Ty Cobb or Sam Crawford, were also no-hit on November 18th by pitcher Eustaquio “Bombin” Pedroso. The next year, the Tigers returned to Cuba, this time with both Cobb and Crawford, and reversed their record, going 7-4 despite Cobb cutting his trip short. At the same time, the Philadelphia Athletics toured the island and won 4 of their 10 dates.
Each team would play a series of 12 games against Cuban teams from the Havana region (Philadelphia only played nine games). The Phillies were the first of the two teams to leave, departing on Halloween night by train for Miami. Philadelphia finished with a 79-73 record during the 1911 regular season, finishing 4th in the National League. However, they left for Cuba a bit shorthanded. Veterans Red Dooin and Mickey Doolan would not make the trip nor would 28-game winner Pete Alexander. Sherry Magee was the only outfielder on the Phillies roster who committed to the trip so Philadelphia had to borrow centerfielder Mike Mitchell from Cincinnati. Cy Rigler, a National League umpire, would accompany the Phillies on their trip and would also umpire the games involving the team in Cuba.
The Giants, winners of the National League with a 99-54 record, departed for the island on the 10th of November. Like the Phillies, John McGraw’s team would not have their full roster. First baseman Fred Merkle and outfielder Red Murray declined to take part in the trip for unknown reasons while catcher Chief Meyers told McGraw he needed to attend to his fruit farm in California while also admitting he needed a rest from the game of baseball. Pitcher Rube Marquard also would not take part in the series. However, the Giants would still be bringing a good core of their lineup with them, including Christy Mathewson (26-13, 1.99 ERA) and Larry Doyle (.310, 14, 77).
The Phillies played their first game against the Almendares club on November 5th and were quickly introduced to Cuban ace Jose Mendez. Virtually every major league team that came to Cuba had an encounter with Mendez and it seemed like every time, it was the Cuban hurler that came out on top. Mendez eventually came over to the States in 1918 to pitch for Chicago in the Negro League but his best pitching days were behind him. On this day though, he was still in the prime of his pitching career, picking up the victory in a 3-1 win over Philadelphia.
The Phillies defeated Havana 5-3 the next day but it would be their last win until the 19th. A string of three losses, including a 4-0 shutout at the hands of Almendares left the Phillies with a disappointing 1-4 record on the trip. But the offense finally began to get started on the 19th, when they beat up Almendares by a score of 8-1. Two days later, they squeaked by Havana 7-6. The Phillies would win two more contests before leaving the island on the 24th with a 5-4 record.
Just as the Phillies were leaving, the Giants were arriving. McGraw’s men arrived in Miami on the 20th to take part in a pair of exhibition games with a Miami baseball team before departing for Cuba on the 23rd. New York easily won both contests by scores of 11-3 and 8-2. The National League pennant winners won their first contest on the 26th over Havana by a score of 4-1 but dropped a contest the next day to Almendares, 6-4. The team split its final two games in November to enter the final month of the calendar year with a record of 2-2 on the trip. On the 3rd, the Giants improved their record with a 5-2 victory over Havana but trouble with the law would soon accompany a member of the ball club.
After the victory over Havana, manager John McGraw and umpire Cy Rigler, who had stayed back with the Giants, went to grab dinner at a Havana cafe. Inside the restaurant, McGraw and Rigler began making loud, derogatory remarks towards Cubans, calling them “merely Negroes.” A complaint was issued and the police were called in to arrest the two baseball men. However, McGraw and Rigler resisted the arrest because the officer who responded to the comment, was himself black. The officer requested more backup and finally, the two men were cuffed and booked in a Havana jail. The next morning, they were imposed fines of $20 apiece by the courts and were back on the field in time to take part in the Giants 3-2 victory over Almendares.
The trip was much more of a success for the Giants than the Phillies who preceded them. The New York team took 9 out of the 12 games from the Cuban clubs and members from the team began arriving back in the city on the 19th. McGraw arrived back in New York on the 22nd and answered many questions to reporters about the trip:
On the Cuban baseball players: “These Cubans are only fair ball players. They are as fast as lightning on the bases and they can throw to beat the band. They have picked all the knacks of fielding, but they cannot bat. They do not play what we call brainy baseball. They perform the manual part of the game very well, but not the keen, crafty headwork we see in the game here.”
On the Cuban ace, Mendez: “I must say a good word about Mendez. He is a fine pitcher, sure enough, with as fast a ball as you’d see anywhere. He burns it over like a rifle ball and depends entirely on his great speed.”
McGraw also was more amused than angry when asked about his arrest on the island, saying the whole thing was a misunderstanding and that he and Rigler made the remarks between themselves after being taunted by Cuban baseball fans. McGraw himself was not a popular person amongst the Cuban fans because of his team’s style of play and found himself being regularly taunted by Cuban fans. One Giant who loved the Cuban fans was Christy Mathewson. The Giants star pitcher beat Cuban idol Mendez head-to-head during one of the games and was immediately crowned as the best pitcher ever to set foot in Cuba by a Havana newspaper.
The last real major league team to make a winter trip down to Cuba were the Brooklyn Dodgers, who won 10 of 15 games from the Cuban clubs during a three month trip in 1921. The last major league club to play an extended series of exhibition games in Cuba were the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1953, when they went 6-4 in the month of March.