Alabama football is renowned for dominating teams stateside but in the 1940s the junior varsity team scored a victory against international competition. On November 9, 1946, Alabama's "B" team, which consisted of a mix of freshmen, sophomores, and juniors, played against the University of Havana in Dothan. Known by several nicknames including the "Bees," the "Baby Tide," and the "Crimson Ripple," they made easy work of the Caribes, crushing them by a score of 53-18.
The University of Havana weren't newcomers to the sport. By the mid-1940s they had been playing the game for more than three decades. The first contest between the Caribes and a North American school came in 1907 when LSU traveled to the island. Over the next forty years, the University of Havana football team regularly played other squads in Cuba, such as the Cuban Athletic Club, as well as North American teams, especially teams from Florida.
In the 1940s, the Caribes took a few trips in the Southeast. In 1944, they traveled as far north as South Carolina to play a game against Presbyterian College. On this trip, the University of Havana team played a few games in Georgia before meeting the Alabama "B" team in Dothan.
Former Alabama player Joe Kilgrow, who was a star half back for Coach Frank Thomas’s teams during the mid-1930s, coached the Alabama "B" team in 1946. The roster included a couple of notable players such as Wayne Walker, the starting left tackle, who made Alabama’s varsity squad in 1944 and played in the Sugar Bowl at the end of that season. The late Clem Gryska was also a member of this squad.
Alabama tied the University of Georgia and won games against Mississippi State, Fort McClellan’s football team, and Ole Miss. The University of Havana played four other Cuban teams, winning their matches against Camaguey, Santa Clara, and Santiago de Cuba, and tying their game with Matanzas. Even though the local paper favored the Crimson Ripple, they expected a good showing from the Cubans.
In the lead-up to the game, this advertisement appeared in the Dothan Eagle. Looking past the obvious ethnic stereotype, I wonder if the chance to see the "Hot-Blooded Spanish" in person had something to do with the fact a local movie theater was showing "Cuban Pete." The musical comedy stared Desi Arnaz as a Cuban bandleader finding success in New York (before his years playing Ricky Ricardo along side his wife Lucille Ball on "I Love Lucy"). If not, seeing a Cuban team play football in a town in South Alabama would definitely be an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The Dothan Lions’ Club organized the contest as a charity game with the proceeds to benefit its fund for the blind, but the event evolved into a spectacle fitting a post-season bowl game. The Lions’ Club appointed "sponsors," or hostesses, for each team. Miss Martha Jean Nordan served as Alabama’s sponsor and Miss Evelyn Vann served as the sponsor for the University of Havana. A parade preceded the game that included four high school bands, a fire truck, the city commissioners, cars carrying the team sponsors, and floats funded by the Lions’ Club.
At halftime of the game, the four high school bands performed a patriotic song program that included the "Washington Post March," the "Footlifter’s March," and the "Victory March." At the close of the performance, the bands spelled out "U-S-A" and a "V" for Victory. While there are clear nationalistic overtones to their program, it probably had less to do with the fact there was a foreign team in the game and more likely a continued celebration of the end of Second World War and the upcoming Armistice Day on November 11.
The nearly four thousand at Wiregrass Memorial Stadium witnessed a high-scoring but mostly one-sided game. The Alabama "B" team won 53-18. The Crimson Ripple built a large lead in the first half with big plays, but the Caribes scored a few big plays of their own in the second half, including a third quarter score on a triple-reverse. The celebration continued after the game with fireworks, speeches by the organizers and local officials, and a couple of socials for the high school bands and the football teams.