It's Saturday night, and everyone's waiting for the numbers to come in. Several little white balls will be selected, each ball bearing a number. A substantial monetary return is available if your ticket matches the selected ball. Sound familiar?
When Floridians voted for and approved a state lottery system in 1986, it must have seemed like déjà vu to the people of Tampa. With its little white numbered balls, the government-sanctioned Florida Lotto is strikingly like another game of chance, one responsible for gangland shootings and rampant corruption. The game was bolita, and for over 60 years, Tampa's criminal underworld battled for control of the illegal lottery and its profits.
Bolita, meaning little ball, was a game of chance imported from Cuba around the turn of the 20th century. Numbers were sold throughout the week at various Ybor City and West Tampa locations. You could buy a ticket at corner grocery stores, local restaurants, or barbershops, while bolita peddlers often visited cigar factories on paydays to sell numbers to the workers. If you live outside one of these predominately Latin barrios, "runners" traveled throughout Tampa's neighborhoods, selling numbers door to door. Sellers received a portion of the payout, financed by a "bank," a larger criminal enterprise usually involved in illegal activities such as bootlegging or narcotics.
The game's origins lie in Tampa's historic Cuban connection; cigar workers brought it with them when they relocated to Tampa. According to several historians, Tampa's first bolitero was operated by Manuel Suarez, a Spaniard nicknamed El Gallego, who owned a gambling house on the corner of 14th Street and 8th Avenue in Ybor City. Initially controlled by Cuban and Spanish "syndicates," Charlie Wall, the son of a well-to-do Tampa family with local political connections, soon gained control of bolita. By the 1920s bolita houses operated in numerous locations around the city, the success of which relied on the collaboration of local officials.
Newspaper accounts cite some 300 bolita operations underway by 1927, and although this number is difficult to verify, corruption consumed the city, earning Tampa a dubious reputation. A Jacksonville paper labeled Tampa "the most wicked city in the South," while other publications called it a "hell hole." Gambling houses operated in the open; evidence suggests local officials were fully aware of what was happening.
Tony Pizzo, a prominent local historian, and Ybor City native, recalled walking into a known gambling house when he was just a young paperboy.
"I was going to grammar school," recalled Pizzo, interviewed in 1985. "And I would sell the Tampa Times in the evening up and down 7th Avenue…In those days, there were several casinos in Ybor City. The best known were the Lido, and the Imperial was a regular Las Vegas type of casino. It was plush, full of people, and there was bolita throwing."
The following excerpt from Charlie Wall's 1950 testimony to the Kefauver Committee on Organized Crime outlines the origins of bolita this way:
Committee: What was your first gambling activity, what did you do, and how did you first become involved?
Charlie Wall: I think I worked at a gambling house.
Committee: And where was that?
Charlie Wall: In a place we used to call Fort Booke.
Committee: And what was your job there?
Charlie Wall: Craps dealer.
Committee: And then what happened?
Charlie Wall: Well, then, as the years went on, I was still in that, and, in addition to that, we had bolita.
Committee: When would you say that bolita developed in the area, approximately?
Charlie Wall: The first bolita that I remember was, oh, in 1894 or 1895 and 1896 and 1898, a little Spaniard conducted one.
Charlie Wall went on to describe the game in detail: "We took 100 balls and spread them out where everyone could see them, and then we put them in a sack–and he would shake the sack, the man that was handling the bolita. And when you put them to it, to catch the ball, you would throw it to him. He would catch the ball in the sack, grab the round thing, and take the other 99 out, which was the number that won." Wall testified that the odds paid in those early days were 90 to one, with a daily throwing.
A 1939 Works Progress Administration report described the game as follows:
"A hundred balls, consecutively numbered, are tied in a bag and tossed from one person to another. One ball is clutched through the cloth, bearing the winning number. Played by negroes and whites alike in Jacksonville, Key West, Miami, Tampa, and surrounding towns, bolita has sponsored a great variety of superstitions. Some of these, traceable to the Chinese who brought the game to Cuba, include Oriental [sic] interpretations of dreams."
Within the Latin neighborhoods of Ybor City and West Tampa, numbers on bolita balls were often associated with symbols or animals. For instance, a horse, or caballo, was #1, a cow or vaca, was #43, a clock or reloj, and #67. For instance, if you dreamed of a cow wearing a clock, you might play the numbers 43 and 67. Many people purchased "dream books," which assigned numbers to various symbols. This may be the "Oriental interpretation of dreams" to which the 1939 WPA article refers.
Though the published odds may have been 80 or 90 to one, other factors worked against bettors looking for a quick payoff. Bolita drawings were often rigged, tipping the odds further in favor of the house. One popular technique was to alter the balls' weight by adding lead or cork. A few of the ivory balls were hollowed out, making lighter balls sit on top of the pile. Or balls could be weighted with lead, making them drop to the bottom of the bag. Balls could also be frozen, directing the selector's hand to the chilled ball.
Charlie Wall remained in control of bolita–in addition to prostitution and bootlegging–until the 1930s. His rather anti-climactic retirement from organized crime created a power vacuum as various groups battled to control the lucrative gambling trade. As a result, the 1930s and 1940s saw a marked increase in gangland violence in what is sometimes called "The Era of Blood."
The stain of bolita continued to weigh on Tampa into the late 1940s. Years of political graft and voter fraud controlled by Tampa's gambling interests resulted in a corrupt political structure in which powerful criminal syndicates guaranteed votes in exchange for lenient enforcement of gambling laws.
In an article on bolita and its political influence, Tampa's current mayor, Pam Iorio, identified the illegal lottery as one of early Tampa's defining characteristics. She writes, "Tampa's growth and development was shaped, in part, by its reputation as a gambling city with a political system based on cronyism, factional politics, and fraudulent elections." She concludes that voting law reforms and improved voting technology helped loosen bolita's grip on the city. Additionally, the negative publicity generated by the Kefauver Hearings on Organized Crime in December of 1950 forced Tampa residents to face the realities of illegal gambling and its long-term adverse effects.
Today, bolita is part of Tampa's historical lore. The Tampa Mafia Tours guides tourists with tales of bolita drawings and Charlie Wall's murder. In contrast, the story of bolita and organized crime has been added to some high school curriculums on Florida history. And, of course, you can tune in every Saturday night, check your ticket, and hope your lucky numbers pay off.
Click HERE for more information on the Tampa Mafia Tours to learn more about bolita. It's considered to be one of the best tours in Tampa Bay!
CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE- JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2008
Art & Photography Contributors: Hillsborough County Public Library, Tampa Bay History Center, The Florida State Archives, The Tampa Tribune/Tampa Bay Times, University of South Florida Department of Special Collections, Ybor City Museum Society, private collections and/or writer.
Manny Leto is the Executive Director for the Preserve the 'Burg in St. Petersburg, Florida. He also worked as Director of Community Outreach for the Ybor City Museum Society, then became the managing editor of Cigar City Magazine and Director of Marketing for 15 years with the Tampa Bay History Center.
FOLLOW CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE