Long before Fidel Castro began his dictatorial reign in Cuba, the Cardinals visited that country to play spring training exhibition games.
The Cardinals’ trips to Cuba were marked by baseball _ and even a bit of romance _ and not controversy.
The Cardinals visited Cuba in 1936, 1937 and 1940, playing exhibition games in Havana.
Mike Gonzalez, a Cuban native born in Havana in 1890, was a coach with the 1936 Cardinals, and resided in Havana during the big-league off-season. He was instrumental in helping arrange the Cardinals’ four-game exhibition series in March 1936 against two longtime Cuban League clubs, Habana and Almendares.
(Gonzalez had a 17-year career as a big-league catcher, including three stints with the Cardinals. He played winter ball in the Cuban League from 1910-1936. Gonzalez was a Cardinals coach from 1934-46. He twice served as the Cardinals’ interim manager, replacing Frankie Frisch in 1938 and Ray Blades in 1940, and compiled a 9-13 record overall in that role.)
Under the headline, “Cards’ Spanish Bad, So Is Their Playing,” The Sporting News reported on the arrival of the 1936 Cardinals in Havana:
A big crowd was at the dock when the S.S. Florida nosed into Havana Bay and, what is more important, there was a tremendous crowd at the beautiful Tropical Park, a sunken garden baseball field, when the Cardinals put on their uniforms to play the Habana team of the Cuban winter league.
Habana won the first and third games against the Cardinals by scores of 13-8 and 2-1 in 11 innings. In the first game, The Sporting News reported:
An aviator flew so low over the field that the bleacherites pulled in their necks. He was dropping handbills and it was reported the next day that he drew a $1,000 fine for endangering the crowd, besides scaring hell out of the Cards.
The Cardinals won the second and fourth games, against Almendares, by scores of 5-4 and 6-1. (In Game 2, outfielder Pepper Martin had a ninth-inning RBI to tie the score and then scored the winning run for St. Louis.)
More than 30,000 attended the four games, with the final two attracting near-sellout crowds to Tropical Park, a setting so spectacular The Sporting News described it as “playing a ballgame in the orchard room of a big greenhouse.”
A year later, March 1937, the Cardinals returned to Cuba for a two-game exhibition set against the New York Giants, who were using Havana as a spring training base. The Cardinals and Giants split the two games, with the Cardinals winning 4-3 in the opener and the Giants winning 5-4 in 10 innings in the second game. (Cardinals manager Frankie Frisch stroked a two-run pinch-hit single in the seventh inning of the first game.)
The trip became more noteworthy for what happened off the field for 24-year-old first baseman Johnny Mize.
Jene Adams, a 19-year-old aspiring concert contralto singer from St. Louis, and her mother had been spending the late winter of 1937 in Daytona Beach, Fla., the Cardinals’ spring training base. They became acquainted with Mrs. Sam Breadon, wife of the Cardinals’ owner, and Mrs. Robert Hyland, wife of the Cardinals’ physician. Mrs. Breadon and Mrs. Hyland invited Jene Adams and her mother to accompany them to Havana for the Cardinals’ games with the Giants.
The Sporting News, in a 1940 feature, described what happened next:
At the Plaza Hotel in Havana one morning, Jene was talking to Mrs. Hyland in the lobby when Mize strolled by. Mrs. Hyland introduced him to Miss Adams.
We could hang out a tropical moon here for trimmings, but nothing happened in the way of romance until the team returned to Daytona Beach. There the young pair became better acquainted. Dan Cupid gradually worked into the picture. The engagement of the National League’s No. 1 slugger and Miss Adams came early in the summer of the same year, 1937. On Aug. 8, they were married.
In March 1940, the Cardinals returned to Havana for a four-game exhibition series against a Cuban all-star team. The all-stars were managed by Havana native Adolfo Luque, who pitched in the big leagues for 20 years (primarily with the Reds and Giants) and earned 194 wins, and featured left-handed pitcher Luis Tiant Sr., father of the future major-league pitcher of the same name.
The Cardinals’ batting order for the opening game was third baseman Don Gutteridge, second baseman Stu Martin, right fielder Enos Slaughter, first baseman Johnny Mize, catcher Don Padgett, center fielder Terry Moore, left fielder Pepper Martin, shortstop Marty Marion and pitcher Mort Cooper.
St. Louis won the first three games by scores of 5-4, 6-0 and 5-3. Left fielder Joe Medwick, who had been a holdout from spring training because of a contract dispute, made his first official appearance of the spring as a pinch-hitter in the third game. The Cuban all-stars won the finale, 4-2, behind the four-hit pitching of Agapito Mayor.
Previously: The top 5 Cubans to play for the Cardinals