Florida is proud of its major league baseball teams, the Miami Marlins and the Tampa Bay Rays, but let’s not forget it has also been home to a number of minor league teams over the years. Today we get a look at the Tampa Smokers, a Tampa team whose name reflects its close relationship with the longstanding cigar industry in the area.
The Smokers got their start in 1919 as a charter member of the original Class D Florida State League. They played their games at Plant Field, built in 1899 by railroad magnate Henry B. Plant to house various entertainments for his guests at the nearby Tampa Bay Hotel. Plant encouraged the growth of baseball in Tampa Bay, but squads using his field often found themselves sharing their space with automobile and horse racing, events for other sports, and even the Florida State Fair.
The Smokers experienced both feast and famine years in their experience as a franchise. At one point in 1924 the team folded entirely due to a lack of funds, and President Al F. Lang of the Florida State League appealed directly to fans during a game to help save their home team. “I gave it to them straight from the shoulder,” Lang said later in an interview. In short order, Lang had $600 in donations, which combined with a small existing reserve to pay the team’s bills for a while.
The Smokers went on to develop several major league players. The first, who was also the first major league player from Tampa, was Al Lopez. Known as “El Señor,” Lopez played catcher for 1,918 games over the course of his career, establishing a record that went unbroken until 1987. When he first began playing with the Smokers in 1925, Lopez was asked how much money he wanted in return for his services. He replied that he didn’t know anything about contracts, so the management asked him if $150 a month would do. Lopez had never been offered so much money in his life; he took the offer, and so began a great career in baseball. In addition to playing in the majors, he also became the major leagues’ first Hispanic manager. After working with a series of minor league teams, he took the helm for the Cleveland Indians from 1951-1956, and then moved on to the Chicago White Sox, where he finished out his career. In 1977, Lopez was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the first Tampan to receive the honor.
Other Smokers to reach the major leagues included Manuel Domingues “Curly” Onis, Charlie Cuellar, and Elisha Matthew “Bitsy” Mott. Mott’s son Jimmy served as a bat boy for the team during his father’s tenure as a Smoker. The other players sometimes called him “Smoker, Jr.” When the father left the team in 1949, the son chose to go with him, even though he was offered the job for another year. When team president Tom Spicola discussed the matter with young Jimmy, he said, “Well, Pop won’t be around so I don’t guess I’ll be either.” And that was the end of it.
The Smokers and the star players raised by the team were memorialized in various ways over the years. In 1954, the city of Tampa opened Al Lopez Field, which became a training base for major league teams such as the Chicago White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds. In 2011, the Tampa Bay Rays paid tribute to the 1951 Tampa Smokers squad that won the 1951 Florida International League pennant. It was a nice gesture, all agreed, although the Rays ruffled a few feathers when they chose to omit the traditional cigar from the front of the uniform. Locals argued that whatever the present attitude toward tobacco, Tampa’ heritage was still very much tied to the cigar industry.
What are your favorite Florida sports teams? Have you checked to see if we have any historic photos of them in the Florida Photographic Collection? Share your favorites on Facebook, or share a story about your first time at a baseball game by leaving a comment below.