If Ybor City's backbone was its cigar factories, Cuscaden Park was its heart. The park still exists today, though it is a faint shadow of its former self. Its 500-seat capacity grandstand was demolished, and its baseball fields gave way to soccer fields. To drive past the park today, some would never know that this field was once Ybor City's Field of Dreams.
Emeterio "Pop" Cuesta knows. He sits before me at Amarilly's Sandwiches & More, off Tampa Bay Boulevard. For 38 years, Pop Cuesta has been the head varsity baseball coach at Jefferson High School. It would be virtually impossible to find another high school coach in the country who has stewarded as many of his players into the major leagues as Pop Cuesta. And no other high school coach in any sport can claim to have had two of his players square off against one another in any major professional championship. In the 2001 World Series, Tino Martinez and the Yankees lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks on a walk-off hit by Luis Gonzalez. Both Gonzalez and Martinez played for Coach Cuesta at Jefferson High School. Pop answers my questions over coffee, and his stream of thought is interrupted by friends who offer to buy him a café Cubano or stop by our table to share amusing bon mots.
Today, parents coordinate daycare, babysitters, nannies, after-school karate, and the YMCA–they engage a whole industry built around supervising their children. In the 1940s and 50s, parents in Ybor City had Cuscaden Park. "My mother would give me a brown bag lunch, I'd buy a Coke, and she'd tell me to make sure I was back by dinner. We'd spend the whole day out there," Pop told me. "We'd walk, or if we took a bicycle, we'd pick someone up on the handlebars and go play."
Former Yankeesgreat Tino Martinez credits a Cuscaden Park creation called "corkball" with improving his hand-eye coordination. Indeed, "cork ball" is a Cuscaden Park original. Pop Cuesta had employed this childhood game into his practice regimen at Jefferson High School. "You'd get a cork, and you could use different fingerings to make the cork move," Cuesta said. Sometimes, there would need to be more players to field one, let alone two, entire teams to play a baseball game, and other times, they needed more equipment. So, the kids out at Cuscaden Park would make do."
"During games at Cuscaden Park, we'd get into two-man teams; you swing a broom handle at it, and if you hit it past the pitcher, it was a single. There'd be a marking for a double and a home run. If you hit it past the homerun mark on the ground, it was a triple; in the air, it was a homerun." Each game consisted of three innings. "It made a baseball seem large when you got up to bat, “Coach Cuesta told me,” And it made the bat seem thicker, but I remember that my parents would come home and be upset at finding all the broom handles gone."
There are still others here who know that some of the earliest organized baseball began in Ybor City, and the park nestled between Columbus Drive and East 21st Avenue was the training ground for more future major league players than any other park in the country.
I had an opportunity to sit with a group of men with a long history with Ybor City and baseball as they gathered at the Saladino Baseball Tournament Luncheon at Brandon High School. The food is as authentic as the conversation. Julian Acosta and Augustine "Marty" Martinez are 92 and 93 respectively. Marty Martinez has racked up quite a few friends in his lifetime. But he remembers those he met at Cuscaden Park most vividly. That's where he grew up, after all. His grandmother used to call him "Tsine," and that's how he introduced himself to the other boys at Cuscaden Park. If you call him "Tsine," he knows he met you at Cuscaden Park, whereas if you call him "Marty" (short for Martinez), he knows he met you sometime later. Beside them sits a man who wears a black baseball cap with his first name, "Camilo," emblazoned in yellow across the front. At a mere 85 years of age, Marty and Julian affectionately refer to Camilo Bello as "the young guy."
A retired state circuit court judge and former Intersocial League pitching ace, Judge Ralph Steinberg, joins us, as does former Tampa mayor and governor of Florida, Bob Martinez. They joke with and tease one another as they recall their childhood experiences around Cuscaden Park. "We'd use a regular baseball if we had one, or we'd put a rock inside a sock and wrap it around several times with cloth or another sock," Marty told me. "We'd use a broomstick for a bat. And we'd all share about four gloves. The catcher, the first baseman, and the shortstop would all have the gloves. When we batted, we left the gloves on the field for the other team, and then they'd leave them for us.
The kids from Ybor City would often make up their own games at Cuscaden Park, but the big draw was the instruction of Coach Andrew Espolita. Judging by the fruits of his coaching, Coach Espolita ranks amongst the finest coaches in baseball history. Coach Espolita taught Pop Cuesta. Coach Cuesta coached Tino Martinez, Luis Gonzalez, and Fred McGriff, amongst others. Coach Espolita helped found the Intersocial Leagues, in which players like Lou Piniella and Tony LaRussa played. According to Pop Cuesta, Coach Espolita didn't just teach baseball; he taught kids about life. "Coach Espo was a good man. He taught us how to steal, bunt, and slide–all the important skills," according to Cuesta. And there were rarely any disciplinary issues because, as Pop recalls, "If you got in trouble, Coach Espo would tell you to get your things and go home. But he'd always take you back."
Whereas Coach Espolita may have barked occasionally, the real disciplinarian was "El Filipino," Manny de Castro. He was something of a renaissance man in Ybor City. Not only was he Cuscaden Park's security guard, but he was also the pool lifeguard, a boxing coach, and a local musician. In his quest to keep order, he employed a favorite disciplinary trick. "He'd see you trying to sneak into the stadium or get into trouble and say, 'You can run all you want. I know your parents! What was your name?'"
John Cuesta, a catcher for the Tampa Smokers in the 1950s and the only Tampa Bay coach to win a Little League Senior World Series in 1970, explained, "He didn't know our parents!" When a batter hit a foul ball into the street, the neighborhood kids sometimes tried to make off with it, but Manny de Castro was tasked with tracking it down. Marty Martinez once commandeered a foul ball and made it all the way home with it before Manny de Castro knocked on his door. "I told him that I was only doing what all the other kids were doing, and he said, "I only saw you do it!'" Martinez recounted. Eventually, it got to the point that the Parks and Recreation Department began paying the neighborhood kids for retrieving foul balls. Martinez remembers, "They paid me $2 per game to return balls. That's pretty good for both sides because a ball cost about $2 back then."
While the boys would play baseball, Camilo Bello noted several times that "back then, only the boys played baseball. The girls never played!" The one possible exception was Senaida "Shu Shu" Wirth. She is currently the only female Tampa native to have made the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League Hall of Fame (AAGPBL). The AAGPBL achieved some notoriety from the movie A League of Their Own. It played mainly during World War II when Shu Shu played for the South Bend Blue–making it clear that at least some Tampa girls ignored convention and played baseball. Most, however, attended classes with the curiously named "Ms. Mexico." She organized arts and crafts projects and sometimes had the girls shoot baskets or play volleyball. While no one is certain about the origins of her name, the consensus is that she wasn't of Mexican descent.
Sgt McGaughin hands the first baseball of the Intersocial League season to league president Antonio Castro. Castro served as league president for 5 years in the 1940s. Far left is Mickey Hernandez of the Italian Club team. In the background are members of the Centro Asturiano team, including brothers Manuel and Benny Fernandez, who went on to play professionally with the Tampa Smokers.
The Intersocial Leagues began playing at Cuscaden Park in 1938. No semi-professional league anywhere in the country has produced as many major league players as the Ybor City Intersocial Leagues. Bitsy Mott, Al Lopez, Chip Clemente, Lou Piniella, and Tony LaRussa, to name a few. But while every young boy in Ybor City may have aspired to play in the majors, their most proximate goal was to play for one of the Intersocial League teams. Usually, the players aligned with ethnic affiliations–the Spanish mostly played for Asturias, the Italians for the Loyal Knights or the Unione d'Italiana, and the Cubans for Circulo Cubano.
After the success of "El Senor," Al Lopez, it seemed to Ybor's young boys playing at Cuscaden Park that their dreams were less like fantasies and more like real possibilities. Tony Saladino, a former Intersocial League player and Ybor City native, has founded the annual Saladino Baseball Tournament. He remembers "being a little kid, and I'd put my hands on the rail and look over the fence. I dreamed of one day playing on that field."
Most of the Intersocial League talent was homegrown. Governor Bob Martinez noted, "We only had three high schools back then in the late 1940s-1950s, so we all knew each other and played against each other from at least Legion ball." Tampa's children would begin playing baseball at one of their local parks. In West Tampa, they started at MacFarlane. In Ybor City, they first learned from Coach Espolita at Cuscaden, while in the African American sections, they played at Belmont Heights. Then, they would play high school baseball and Legion ball simultaneously and, after that, Intersocial League ball. The consensus was that by any standard, the competition was tough. A good Intersocial League pitcher could throw upwards of 75 mph and usually possessed at least two pitches–a fastball and some type of off-speed pitch. But not all of the Intersocial League players were local products.
Judge Ralph Steinberg pitched a no-hitter for Centro Asturiano in 1951 against the MacDill Hawks but lost because of 13 walks and four errors. He got his baseball education in Freehold, NJ. After a brief stint at Rutgers, he left for Tampa in 1949 to try out for the Reds. "All I knew about Tampa was that the Reds trained here, so I hopped a truck hauling potatoes down south with $25 to my name. I worked out with the Reds, played for the University of Tampa, and then played semi-pro ball for the Cotton States League."
Steinberg hurt his arm after being drafted and playing two years of "service ball" in the military. "I still wanted to play, and my wife was from Tampa, so I got involved in the Intersocial League through a catcher, my buddy Lou Alfonso. I had the G.I. Bill, so I enrolled at Stetson University and loved it so much. Everybody here was so friendly, and I decided I wanted to spend the rest of my life here."
In 2008, on a visit to Ybor City, I purchased a painting from the Arnold Martinez Gallery titled "Cuscaden Baseball Park." It depicts a centerfielder's view of a baseball diamond, with a building and a water tower in the background. I can't explain why the painting spoke to me, but it did, and I bought it and hung it in my home.
CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE- SPRING 2013
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.
Mark Panuthos has been a teacher and coach at Admiral Farragut Academy since 1996. He teaches Advanced Placement United States History, Advanced Placement Microeconomics, American government and Intro to Economics. Mark aslo teaches part-time at St Peterburg College and recently won a Silverberg Grant for a project which will film the stories of Tampa Bay area World War II and Korean War veterans and archive them with the Library of Congress. He was also recognized as a Part-Time Faculty Mentor through the SPC Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL). Mr. Panuthos designed the first totally online courses in American History for St Petersburg College. He has taught at SPC since 1996. When not teaching, Mr. Panuthos has contributed original histories to numerous publications including ABC Clio–Daily Life in the Civil War Encyclopedia, and the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). He is also a frequent guest-lecturer at historical societies throughout Pinellas County.
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