Tampa Smokers

Saving the Smokers: Al Lang and his Contribution to the Tampa Smokers

Minor league baseball has often thrived in the city of Tampa. The minor-league team synonymous with Tampa is the Smokers. Beginning in 1919, the Smokers were a part of the city until 1954. The name was chosen to reflect the major industry in town: the cigar industry. Despite reflecting the city, the Tampa Smokers were not always successful. In 1924, the team almost folded. Thanks to Florida State League president, Al Lang, the franchise was saved. Because the franchise was saved, players like Al Lopez and Casare Alvarez would not have had the opportunity to play minor league baseball.

The Tampa Smokers began play in the Florida State League (FSL) in 1919. Professional in nature, the Smokers were a charter member of the league. Like any of the city’s other teams, the Smokers played their games at Plant Field. By 1924, the Smokers had fallen on hard times. On August 1, 1924, the Smokers announced that they were folding. The team was unable to make their payroll. The Tampa Tribune lamented this decision: “Tampa has forfeited its baseball franchise! Stunning words, these, blazoned forth today in headlines of sport sheets of the country…There should be enough good friends of clean and honest baseball in a city of the size and character of Tampa to support a good baseball team…Shall Tampa fail now when it can least afford it?”

Not all mourned the end of the Smokers. Prior to 1924, the Smokers had been champions of the basement in the FSL. In an editorial in the morning’s newspaper, the author blamed the team’s financial situation of its lack of success. Moreover, they author remembered a time when baseball was free in the city: “Tampans seem to prefer games between local clubs to games between a local league club and clubs of other towns. This is easily proved by harking back a number of years to the old City League…when the so-called ‘free baseball’ was in operation. Great crowds attended the games between the Ybor City and West Tampa clubs – and they got the best baseball Tampa ever saw.”

Despite some backlash against the Smokers, the team was saved by an unlikely person. Al Lang was a former mayor of St. Petersburg and backer for the city’s FSL franchise. At the time the Smokers were having financial difficulties, Lang was instrumental in the building of a new baseball stadium in St. Petersburg (which today bears his name). Additionally, he was also the league’s commissioner. Instead of allowing his rival to fold, Lang made an impassioned plea prior to what would have been the last Smokers’ game. Lang received $600 in donations, which was enough to keep the team from going under. The following year, new backers were in place.

Had the Smokers folded in 1924, Al Lopez would not have had the opportunity to play professional baseball at the age of 16. He was offered $150 to play for the Smokers for the 1925 season. Lopez, however, was not the only Latin player for the Smokers. Casare Alvarez was one of the first ball players of Latin heritage to play professionally. In many ways, he paved the way for Lopez’s successful career. Alvarez himself was the son of a Spanish immigrant. Through the early 20th century, Latinos were often barred from playing professional ball. Although not a major-league level, Alvarez was one of the first Latin players to play professional. Alvarez was a popular but rambunctious player in Tampa; a game once was stopped because he instigated a fistfight with an opposing player. Nevertheless, he was a fixture on city league and minor league teams throughout the 1910s and 1920s.

Images

Pete Norton, Al Lang and Will Harridge at the Governor's Baseball Dinner

Pete Norton, Al Lang and Will Harridge at the Governor's Baseball Dinner

Al Lang was president of the Florida State League in 1924. He is shown here with Pete Norton on his left and Will Harridge on his right, two high ranking officials in the league. Al Lang is credited with saving the Tampa Smokers at the beginning of the 1924 season. View File Details Page

Tampa Bay Rays' Player Matt Joyce Modeling Smokers Jersey

Tampa Bay Rays' Player Matt Joyce Modeling Smokers Jersey

In 2011, the Tampa Bay Rays paid tribute to the Smokers of the 1950s by wearing their uniform for a game. Despite honoring the past, the uniforms were not complete as the team removed the lit cigar that would have been present on the original jerseys. Critical of the omission, University of South Florida historian Gary Mormino said "It's kind of embarrassing. I mean, embrace the past. Tampa still is known as Cigar City," | Source: Tampa Tribune. "Rays Eliminate Cigar from Tampa Smokers Throwback Jersey," June 22, 2011. View File Details Page

1922 Tampa Smokers

1922 Tampa Smokers

A team photograph taken prior to the 1924 season. This was taken at Plant Field. | Source: Tampa Baseball Museum View File Details Page

Tampa Tribune Article

Tampa Tribune Article

The Smokers often played games against teams from Cuba. In 1946, the Cuban team drafted the Smokers. | Source: Tampa Tribune View File Details Page

A Smoker Smoking

A Smoker Smoking

The Tampa Smokers were named after the major industry in town. | Source: Tampa Baseball Museum View File Details Page

Smoker's Spring Training

Smoker's Spring Training

Although they played in Florida, the Smokers still held spring training. Practices were held after the Major League clubs returned to the North. | Source: Tampa Baseball Museum View File Details Page

Tampa Smokers Jersey

Tampa Smokers Jersey

The original Tampa Smokers jersey with the lit cigar. View File Details Page

Tampa Smokers' Major League Connections

Tampa Smokers' Major League Connections

Al Lopez was not the only Smoker to make the jump to the Major Leagues. Charlie Cuellar (right) played for the Smokers in the 1940s. He made his big league debut in 1950 with the Chicago White Sox. | Source: Tampa Baseball Museum View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Paul Dunder, “Tampa Smokers,” Tampa Historical, accessed April 20, 2019, http://tampahistorical.org/items/show/23.

Related Tour

Tour navigation:  Previous | Tour Info | Next

Share this Story