Tampa and Baseball are like café and leche: one strong, pungent, hot, steady, ageless, fresh; neither quite as good apart as they are together. It is hardly possible to find a moment in the city's history when the game was not being played, when it didn't matter, particularly to Tampa's Latin working class. Baseball's economic benefits have also been considerable: today, the estimated total impact of the nine teams training in the Tampa Bay area surpasses $227 million. Tampa and Baseball have been good for one another.
Until recently, organized Baseball could not reach the amount of fans that it does today. This was particularly true in the South, where its significant exposure had been spring training. But during the Second World War, even that ended as teams like the Cincinnati Reds, who trained in Tampa, relocated their camps to the north due to fuel and travel restrictions. Would Baseball survive the pending Spartan Seasons? In Tampa, baseball fans, many working tiresome shifts at shipyards or in cigar factories, knew the answer. It was right there in front of them, had been for years, played by neighbors, brothers, fathers, and friends–the Inter-Social League.
The Inter-Social League consisted mainly of Latin players living in Ybor City and West Tampa. The games were played on Sunday afternoons at Cuscaden Park in Ybor City before crowds of 1,500 to 2,000. The league had four teams, Centro Asturiano, Cuban Club, Loyal Knights, and the Italian Club, all sponsored by local mutual aid societies and social clubs of the same names. League play had begun in 1938, and the Italian Club proved dominant, winning three of the first four championships.
The 1943 season featuring the Italian Club promised to be another great year. The Italians, however, had lost many of their top players to the service and other defense-related endeavors. As such, when the start of the season was bugled in the Tampa Tribune, the Cuban Club and Centro Asturiano were listed as co-favorites. It was an apt forecast as the two teams raced to early season victories, exchanging the lead time and again. By mid-summer, the clubs were locked at identical 6-2-1 records, the lone tie coming in their first head-to-head encounter.
The campaign was packed with player shifts and managerial changes due to conflicts in work schedules. The Loyal Knights suffered through two such changes in the season's early months. When the Knights original manager was compelled to resign, Marcelo Maseda, Centro Asturiano's second baseman who later played for the Atlanta Crackers, assumed the reigns briefly before returning to the Asturians.
In early August, Arnold Holmes, who had taken over the Knights from Maseda, left town to join the Marines, and Louis Piniella, the Asturians square-jawed "nothing baller," became the team's new leader. Piniella had a mind for the game. And it helped that his brother-in-law was Joe Magadan, an outfielder who came along to provide needed offense. The additions improved the Knights' record considerably as they ended the season strong. Piniella and Magadan were also gifted in rearing baseball-playing sons as Chicago Cubs manager "Sweet Lou" Piniella and Dave Magadan, hitting coach for the Boston Red Sox, grew into outstanding major leaguers.
The regular season ended on September 26, with the Asturians securing the top spot. The Asturians rugged catcher, Manuel Fernandez, was named the regular season outstanding player. Fernandez could not participate in the post-season as he was inducted into the Navy. As a catcher, Manuel was terrific with the bat and the glove and, upon returning from the service, would play for the Tampa Smokers and other minor league clubs.
As the 5th Army sent the Germans reeling in Italy, league playoffs commenced with the second and third-place teams vying to win a best 3 out of 5 games, the winner moving on to face the Asturians in a best of seven "Little World Series." The games were played only on Sunday afternoons, so the tournament lasted past Thanksgiving.
In the playoffs, the Cubans, relying on strong pitching by their duo of Charlie Cuellar and Alston McGahagin and the slugging of first-baseman Benny Fernandez (Manuel's brother), bested the Italians, earning the right to face the Asturians in the series. Charlie Cuellar, who in the playoffs rebounded from a hard-luck season and a sore arm, won over 250 games in his lengthy minor league career. This "Marco Polo of the Minors" eventually had a brief stint with the Chicago White Sox. Benny Fernandez, who also played that fall on the city softball champion Tampa Shipbuilding team, later played and managed in the minor leagues as well.
Left to right: Charlie Cuellar & Adolfo Luque. Charlie Cuellar spent some seasons playing winter baseball in Cuba. The two big rivals of that time in Havana were the Reds (Habana Leones) and the Blues (Almendares Alacranes). The Reds were managed by major league catcher and Coach Miguel Gonzalez, while the Blues were headed by Adolfo Luque, the tough veteran hurler who was a teammate of Al Lopez on the 1930 Brooklyn Dodgers.
The championship set between the Cubans and Asturians was trumpeted locally as a natural given the bitter rivalry existing between the two squads. In the six seasons that the league had existed, these two teams had managed to get through a nine-inning affair just once. The Asturians had been the much better team in head-to-head matchups during the season, winning 6 of 8 with a tie, but Manuel Fernandez was gone, taking with him a singular knack for beating the Cubans. And with their catcher out, the Asturians had only two .300 hitters left: Chi Clementi and Michi Fernandez. Meanwhile, the Cubans sported four–Bitsy Mott, Ray Rodriguez, Benny Fernandez, and Joe Fernandez–and were the hotter team coming in. Add to this their considerable edge in pitching, and most favored the Cubans to win.
At 2:30 p.m. on Guavaween–October 31, in Ybor City, publisher Victoriano Manteiga threw out the game's first pitch, and the series began. Centro Asturiano, with Willie Paz behind the plate in place of Fernandez, claimed the opening contest 2-1, besting Cuban ace Charlie Cuellar in the process. The Asturians took the lead in the 4th when Clementi walked, stole second, was sacrificed to third, and was driven home with a Paz single. But the Cubans had come back on a Gus Leavine homer in the 6th. In the 9th, Chi Clementi singled but was forced at second by Ralph Fernandez's fielder's choice. Paz followed with his third hit of the day, moving Fernandez to third. Michi Fernandez then doubled over the right fielder's head, driving in the winning score. Cesar Fernandez also had three hits for the Asturians.
The following week, the Cubans evened the series, winning 7-2 behind Alston McGahagin's pitching, a Benny Fernandez homer, and the pocket-sized Mott's inside-the-park home run. McGahagin scattered ten hits with five strikeouts, frustrating the Asturians and holding them to a pair of runs. Game three was much the same, the Cubans winning 4-2 on the pitching of Tanner, McGahagin, and Ray Rodriguez's three hits.
A week later, the Cubans made it three in a row, besting the Asturians 7-4 in a sloppy affair. McGahagin was again the difference doling eight nondescript hits. Bitsy Mott paced the offense with three hits, including a homer, his second of the series. Mott, the future Phillies shortstop, had gone from "Goat to Hero" in the series, swatting the ball hard and playing great in the field, redeeming his poor performance a year earlier.
On November 28, amid reports that the Army and Navy planned to call up 300,000 young men by January, the Cubans, with Charlie Cuellar on the bump, won the "Ybor Baseball Crown," posting a 9-2 victory. They were led at the plate–again–by Benny Fernandez with three hits, Bitsy Mott with two, and Gus Leavine, who added a homer, double, and a single. Fernandez and the Asturians Willie Paz led both teams in hitting, going 8 for 19 or .421. The Asturians, sloppy in the field and indifferent at the plate, could not find an answer to the crafty Cuellar, who scattered six hits among them. It had been a great season, and the Cubans, celebrating their first Inter-Social League trophy, were easily the best team.
Baseball survived World War II, emerging stronger than before–and the game endured in Tampa. The Inter-Social League saw to it, providing respite, entertainment, and good play, distracting locals from wartime coverage and sacrifice. The league made heading off to work on Monday not quite as taxing, and that, in itself, was a purpose well spent. And like politics, it fostered a neo-adage that all Baseball is local.
CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE- MARCH/APRIL 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.
Wes Singletary's first novel, Big Guava, written under the pen name Doc Charles, is due out in Spring 2023. Wes is the author of three books of non-fiction: The Right Time: John Henry "Pop" Lloyd and Black Baseball; Al Lopez: The Life of Baseball's El Senor; and Florida's First Big League Baseball Players: A Narrative History. He is also a contributing author on The Pride of Smoketown: The 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords. Wes earned a Ph.D. in history from Florida State University and currently teaches AP United States History. He also serves as an adjunct history professor at a local community college. Wes is married to the former Toni Zarate, and they have two adult children, Patricia and Nelson. Wes can be found on Twitter @TampaGuy6.
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