TAMPA – The Tampa Smokers won another baseball game Saturday after a long dry spell. The Smokers hadn’t picked up a W since early in the 1954 season, just before the Florida International League folded.
Saturday the Smokers beat the then division-leading St. Louis Cardinals 5-1 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, certainly the toughest opposition ever faced by the Smokers. The win knocked the Cardinals back into a first-place tie with the Milwaukee Brewers.
OK, it wasn’t really the Tampa Smokers on the field Saturday, just the Tampa Bay Rays decked out in the uniforms of the 1951 Tampa Smokers for something called “Turn Back the Clock Night.” The Cardinals got into the act too, wearing the road uniforms of the 1953 Red Birds, the uniform they wore on the baseball cards I collected as a pre-teen.
The game brought back great memories. The first baseball games I ever saw featured the Smokers vs. various FIL opponents, and especially the Smokers’ main rival in those pre-Castro days, the Havana Cubans (the reason for the I in the FIL.) My father, from whom I inherited my deep love of the Grand Old Game, took me to Smokers games as soon as I was old enough to stay awake until the seventh-inning stretch.
It was a grand and gaudy time for minor league baseball during those post-war days, with hundreds of teams across the fruited plain. Baseball was truly the national pastime then, and every town had its team. (Can you fathom the Palatka Azaleas?) The boys were back from the war, buying homes, starting families. Minor league ball was a popular and inexpensive night-time entertainment in those pre-television days. Without it, the Baby Boom generation would have been even larger.
One of the keenest rivalries then was between the Smokers, named after Tampa’s then thriving but now defunct cigar industry, and the Cubans. It was a natural with all those Cuban-American cigar workers in Tampa, many with relations still in Cuba. Fan enthusiasm was intense, both in Tampa and Havana. Sometimes too intense, with some Cuban-Americans pulling for the Smokers and others for the Cubans. They whooped and rang cow-bells. Occasionally fist fights broke out in the stands. The games lasted well into the Tampa summer night as the Cubans were disposed to argue every call that went against them. Whatever FIL umpires were paid to call these raucous games, it wasn’t enough. I loved it.
It was a similar scene in Havana’s Gran Stadium, which could seat 25,000 and was usually full for Smokers games. (This great baseball venue would later be defiled when Castro used it to deliver speeches that lasted as long as a double-header, and were a lot less fun.) It could even be dangerous; they sold bottled beer in Gran Stadium.
“If you didn’t do right, they threw the empty bottles at you,” I was told years back by “Beltin Benny” Fernandez, the Smokers’ first baseman and bus driver for the duration of the team’s history.
“I’m surprised there weren’t any brawls,” late Tampa resident and 15-year Major league infielder Tony Cuccinello told me when I visited him at his home a couple of decades back. “We went back to the hotel in Havana in an open bus. If we won, they bombarded us with fruit,” said Cuccinello, who managed the Smokers in 1947.
The Smokers’ home base was Plant Field, which could seat about 4,000 in its grandstand. This was more than ample when the Smokers took on such FIL competition as The Miami Tourists, the Lakeland Pilots, the Key West Conchs, the St. Petersburg Saints, or the West Palm Beach Indians (no connection with the Clevelands). But when Havana came to town extra bleachers had to be added down the first and third base lines and extra standing room was allowed to accommodate crowds north of 7,000.
Both teams played good baseball for their level. Either the Smokers or the Cubans won the FIL championship every year of the league’s existence. But the struggles, which seemed epic to me then, were of mostly local interest. This was when there were more levels of minor league ball, and most teams were not affiliated with a Major League Club. The FIL started out as a class C league and finished up at B, still deep in the bus leagues.
Smokers’ pitcher Chet Covington (31-9 for the ’46 Smokers) and shortstop Bitsy Mott both spent parts of one season with the Philadelphia Phillies during the war, when nearly all but the halt, the lame, and fathers of 12 had been drafted. The only Smoker to make it to the bigs after playing in Tampa was fan favorite Carlos Bernier, a speedy outfielder from Puerto Rico who spent the 1953 season with the Pittsburgh Pirates where he hit an anemic .213 and ultimately had to get a real job. Bernier was always a base-stealing threat. Misfortunately, baseball rules don’t allow weak hitters to steal first.
Tampa had almost as many Cuban players as Havana. The team’s owner recruited heavily on the island. Much of Tampa’s pitching staff could not speak English. Tampa’s catcher, Manual Fernandez, (Beltin Benny’s brother), was Cuccinello’s translator in mound conferences.
But the fun couldn’t last forever. The first problem for the Smokers, and for all of minor league baseball, came when the one-eyed monster invaded most American living rooms, and otherwise sensible Americans decided they would rather stay home and watch Milton Berle on television for nothing than to pony-up 35 to 75 cents to watch a ball game. There’s just no accounting for taste.
The final blow came when Havana was notified it had been granted what it had been trying to get for years, a AAA franchise. So when the Cubans, the biggest draw across the FIL, dropped out of the league a bit into the 1954 season, attendance plummeted and the league soon adjourned, sine die.
The Havana Sugar-Kings went on to play in the AAA International League, at least until El Jefe Maximo came down out of the mountains in 1959 and made a prison out of Cuba. After the FIL, pre-teen boys in Tampa had to get their baseball fix with spring training games and watching Dizzy Dean’s Game of the Week broadcasts on Saturday.
Seeing the clunky red and white Smokers uniform again Saturday was a pure pleasure for me, evoking the team and the players who started my baseball addiction more than a half century ago, an addiction I’ve not even tried to shake.
There was one difference. The lighted cigar stitched into the Smokers legend on the old uniforms was missing, a politically correct gesture to the anti-smoking zealots who hectored Tampa’s cigar industry out of existence. But I refused to allow this further instance of major league sports’ craven devotion to political correctness to dampen my enjoyment of the game, which was a lot more than I would have gotten from a Milton Berle retrospective.