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.