From 1946-1953, Tampa residents were elated by the Florida International League’s Class B baseball club, the Tampa Smokers. They hit their peak during the post-war boom.
The Smokers packed Plant Field–today’s Pepin/Rood Stadium on North Boulevard–when the Havana Cubans came to the Cigar City to play before boisterous, stogie-chomping fans. The Havana Cubans had a Tampa contingent of supporters with broad-brimmed straw hats to cheer them on.
Clutch-hitting first baseman, Benny Fernandez became the first topic of conversation at Ybor City and West Tampa coffee houses over flan and café con leche. Probably the best-starting lineup the Smokers could muster consisted of Fernandez on first base; Carlos de Sousa on second; shortstop Bitsy Mott, who would later have a stint with the Philadelphia Phillies and was later Elvis Presley’s bodyguard; third baseman Joe Turmanello; left fielder Lamar Murphy; center fielder Carlos Bernier, who last played with the Pittsburg Pirates; right fielder Lenny Pecou; and catcher Manny Fernandez, Benny’s brother.
The lineup also included Charlie Cuellar, one of the league’s top pitchers who later played for the Chicago White Sox; pitcher Chet Covington; pitcher Jim Bagby Jr., who, with the Cleveland Indians, stopped Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak; Octavio Rupert; and Comilo “Little Potato” Pasqual.
The 1946 Tampa Smokers. Back Row, L-R: Jack Sinnett, Benny Fernandez, Charlie Cuellar, Manuel Fernandez, Bob Dindinger, Monty Lopez, Jose Salgado, Jose Feo. Front Row, L-R: Lamar Murphy, Wiley Nash, Gene Elliott, Frank Arevalo, Bitsy Mott, Tony Cuccinello, Fernando Solis, Filipe Jimenez, and Catsy Gonzalez
Pasqual later gained fame as a pitcher for the Washington Senators, where he was a five-time 20-game winner. Outfielder Claro Duani played with Benny Fernandez in Cuba and with the Tampa Smokers. Owner Tom Spicola sent Duani to Cuba for Camilo Pasqual on the advice of Benny Fernandez. Fernandez often gave Spicola sage advice on buying players.
The most popular Smoker skippers were Tony Cuccinello, who later was on Al Lopez’s coaching staff with the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox; Art Rebel; Ben Chapman; and Joe Abreu. The Smokers’ special assistant was Marcello Maceda, who had pitched for Jefferson High School and the University of Tampa. The Smokers first manager was Vince Grannell.
Tampa- its Latin community in particular–went crazy when the Havana Cubans came to Tampa to play a series as many as 8,000 fans packed Plant Field. Tommy Spicola III, nephew of Tom Spicola, said, “People went berserk when the Cubans came to play the Smokers. The seats were full. This was a natural, popular, and intense rivalry.”
When the Smokers traveled to Havana for a series with the Cubans between 1946 and 1953, they played before as many as 30,000 fans at each game.
A prior Tampa Smokers team played in the Florida State League following World War I from 1919 to 1926. The late J. Rex Farrior, well-known as a state attorney in the 1930s and 1940s, played on the 1919 team. Al Lopez, Tampa’s only Hall of Famer, also played for the earlier Smokers team in 1925 and 1926 under manager Charlie Allen. Lopez played on a pennant-winning Smokers club for half a season before climbing to the major leagues.
The Tampa Smokers played a significant role in Tampa’s sports history. In later years, they were followed by minor-league teams, the Tampa Tarpons, and today’s Tampa Yankees.
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.
RALPH LAZZARA, III
Ralph attended OLPH, Memorial Junior High, and Hillsborough High School. While at Hillsborough, he was president of the Senior Class and the National Honor Society. He received the American Legion Award and was designated an All-State baseball player. He started his college education at the University of Florida. He later graduated from the University of Tampa with a bachelor’s in English and a master’s in Public Administration from Golden Gate University. He began his career as a high school teacher, followed by a stint as a CIA intelligence analyst. He then worked for two Tampa mayors, assisting Dick Greco as a scholarship coordinator and helping Bob Martinez in the Ybor City development program. He retired as an employee of the Hillsborough County Courthouse. Of Ralph’s many passions, few rivaled baseball and writing. He lettered in baseball and basketball at Hillsborough and played baseball as a freshman walk-on at UF. Ralph was also a proud member of the Sigma Nu fraternity.
Ralph passed away in 2018. A custom baseball caricature drawn by Lamar Sparkman will be displayed at the Ybor City Museum to recognize his contributions to local sports.
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