On the outskirts of Mobile, up a quiet oak-lined avenue, past a lane of azalea bushes, you’ll find the birthplace of Cuban baseball: Spring Hill College.
The oldest institution of higher learning in Alabama, Spring Hill was founded in 1830 by the area’s Catholic bishop. It set up its first baseball field in 1839. From early on, administrators reached out to recruit students from areas with large Catholic populations, including nearby Cuba.
Two Cuban brothers, Nemesio and Ernesto Guillo, attended with a friend in the 1860s. Nemesio returned to the island in 1864 with a baseball and bat. By 1868, the duo and pals formed Cuba’s first baseball team, the Havana Baseball Club. The team gained attention by allegedly winning a game against the crew of a U.S. schooner that had anchored in Matanzas for repairs, according to “The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball” by Yale University professor Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria.
Spanish leaders disliked the spread of the U.S. sport in their colony, and in 1869 during Cuba’s Ten Years War for independence, they banned the game. But islanders later brought it back and further developed their skills. Today, Cuban players are mainstays of U.S. Major League Baseball.
At Spring Hill, students still love the sport. The leafy campus boasts the oldest U.S. college baseball field in continuous use for inter-collegiate games: the Stan Galle Field, active since 1889. Fans for the visiting team sit on a small set of bleachers, but home-team fans to this day sit above and near the dugout. Many revel in the intimacy of being so close to the field and players.
Frank Sims, head baseball coach for Spring Hill’s Badgers team for 32 years, takes pride in the rich baseball heritage and the startling Cuba connection. “I think the importance of baseball in Cuba is huge,” Sims told Cuba Trade. “To know we were the school where these young men learned baseball, then took it back to Cuba and started a game that is now part of the culture there, I must say is a very proud moment in Spring Hill College history.”
Spring Hill now hosts some 1,500 students, who mostly live on campus. Yet at its veteran field, the Cuba link remains news to some. On a recent weekday, art teacher Jason Outlaw, 36, was coaching a children’s baseball camp when he learned that fellow alum from Cuba had brought baseball to their homeland. “I got chill-bumps now seriously,” said Outlaw, curious to know more about the Guillos. “I had no idea that connection was there. That’s crazy.”