The Tampa Smokers

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.

There's no question about the close relationship between the Tampa Smokers and the city's cigar industry. Here, Smokers manager Tony Cuccinello lights up (September 28, 1947).

There’s no question about the close relationship between the Tampa Smokers and the city’s cigar industry. Here, Smokers manager Tony Cuccinello lights up (September 28, 1947).

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 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.

Calisthenics led by Tampa Smokers director Joe Abreu at a training camp in Tampa (February 20, 1948).

Calisthenics led by Tampa Smokers director Joe Abreu at a training camp in Tampa (February 20, 1948).

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.

Al Lang, president of the Florida State League in 1924, is flanked by Pete Norton on his left and Will Harridge on his right. The trio were attending the governor's annual baseball dinner (March 1951).

Al Lang, president of the Florida State League in 1924, is flanked by Pete Norton on his left and Will Harridge on his right. The trio were attending the governor’s annual baseball dinner (March 1951).

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.

Al Lopez, taken by author Wes Singletary, who published a book entitled Florida's First Big League Baseball Players in 2006 (photo circa 1990s).

Al Lopez, taken by author Wes Singletary, who published a book entitled Florida’s First Big League Baseball Players in 2006 (photo circa 1990s; Series N2006-8, Box 1, State Archives of Florida).

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.

Ben Podolsky slides into base while Elisha Matthew

Ben Podolsky slides into base while Elisha Matthew “Bitsy” Mott (left) and others observe during a training exercise (February 20, 1948).

Tampa Smokers' bat boy Jimmy Mott, son of player Elisha Matthew

Tampa Smokers’ bat boy Jimmy Mott, son of player Elisha Matthew “Bitsy” Mott (February 20, 1948).

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’s heritage was still very much tied to the cigar industry.

A Cincinnati Red exhibition game at Al Lopez Field in Tampa. The player leading off of third base is identified as Pete Rose (circa 1970).

A Cincinnati Red exhibition game at Al Lopez Field in Tampa. The player leading off of third base is identified as Pete Rose (circa 1970).

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.

Great Floridian Feats: The Gandy Bridge

If you’ve ever made it from St. Petersburg to Tampa in less than an hour, count yourself lucky. It wasn’t always so easy. Prior to 1924, the only way to get between those two points was to drive all the way around the north shore of Old Tampa Bay via Oldsmar. All that changed, however, with the opening of the original Gandy Bridge.

The original span of the Gandy Bridge between Tampa and St. Petersburg, completed in 1924 (photo circa 1925).

The original span of the Gandy Bridge between Tampa and St. Petersburg, completed in 1924 (photo circa 1925).

The bridge was named for the man who conceived it and managed its original construction. George S. “Dad” Gandy, who came to St. Petersburg from Philadelphia around 1902, had had a successful career in building trolley lines. He developed a reputation for visionary thinking, but when he revealed his idea to build a bridge across Old Tampa Bay, even his friends thought it absurd.

George S. "Dad" Gandy, the man who conceived and built the original Gandy Bridge across Old Tampa Bay (photo circa 1924).

George S. “Dad” Gandy, the man who conceived and built the original Gandy Bridge across Old Tampa Bay (photo circa 1924).

Gandy felt strongly that the project could and would be done, but he also knew the timing was not right in 1903. St. Petersburg and Tampa would need to have larger and more progressive populations to support such an enormous undertaking. By 1915, conditions appeared to be more favorable. Gandy hired engineers to survey the bay and shoreline, and began lobbying federal and state officials for the appropriate franchises to build a bridge. He faced competition from the Tampa, Atlantic, and Gulf Railroad, which had already submitted plans for a trestle across the bay. Had the railroad been built as planned, it would have crossed Gandy’s proposed route, making an automobile bridge impractical at that time. Local banking houses, businesses, and influential individuals sent a flurry of endorsements by mail and telegram to Washington and Tallahassee, arguing that Tampa and St. Petersburg badly needed the Gandy Bridge to support their continued growth. The push paid off; by February 1918 Gandy had the necessary legislation and permits to proceed.

One more obstacle stood in the way. The United States entered World War I in April of 1918, and major projects like Gandy’s that were not directly beneficial to the war effort were put on hold. Aside from a few small preliminary engineering studies and filling operations, the bridge remained at a standstill. After the war, financing became the main concern. Gandy wanted the bridge to remain under Floridian control, even though it would be a private, not state, project. That meant Floridians would need to put up the three million dollars needed to make the bridge a reality. With the help of professional promoter Eugene M. Elliot, Gandy and his associates managed to convince nearly four thousand investors to contribute, and by September 1922 construction had begun.

Construction of the Gandy Bridge, 1922-1924. Top Left: A large floating concrete pouring plant built especially for this project works along a section of the bridge. Top Right: Terminus of an 1100-foot dock built out into the bay to handle bridge materials. Bottom Left:  Concrete piles driven into the floor of the bay to support the bridge decking. Bottom Right: Concrete piles are aligned and braced with wood timbers. Photos were published in the official program for the Gandy Bridge dedication, November 20, 1924.

Construction of the Gandy Bridge, 1922-1924. Top Left: A large floating concrete pouring plant built especially for this project works along a section of the bridge. Top Right: Terminus of an 1100-foot dock built out into the bay to handle bridge materials. Bottom Left: Concrete piles driven into the floor of the bay to support the bridge decking. Bottom Right: Concrete piles are aligned and braced with wood timbers. Photos were published in the official program for the Gandy Bridge dedication, November 20, 1924.

The work required to build the Gandy Bridge was extensive, especially for the 1920s. Two years were spent dredging two and a half million tons of sand, casting 2,400 steel-reinforced concrete piles, and laying two and a half miles of concrete decking. This massive endeavor required the work of a small army of over 1,500 workers. In addition to more than a dozen workshop buildings, the builders set up an entire camp just for the bridge workers. Called “Ganbridge,” it featured bath houses and dormitories, along with warehouses, offices, and amenities for the residents.

When completed, the Gandy Bridge became the world’s longest toll bridge, stretching six miles from shore to shore. In addition to becoming an invaluable aid for moving traffic between Tampa and St. Petersburg, the enormity and uniqueness of the span made it a tourist attraction in itself. Numerous postcards depicting the bridge were published over the years.

The Gandy Bridge was dedicated on November 20, 1924 with an elaborate series of ceremonies and festivities. Governors from sixteen states attended the opening, having driven down from a conference in Jacksonville. With a large crowd of press representatives and bridge officials gathered, Florida Governor Cary A. Hardee untied a rope of flowers, and the party of governors drove across the bridge, marking the start of its public service.

Postcard showing the original toll booth for Gandy Bridge. The original toll for passenger vehicles was 75 cents for the vehicle and driver, plus 10 cents per additional passenger. Other tolls included 25 cents for saddle horses, 10 cents for bicycles, 25 cents for motorcycles, and 20 cents per head for loose-driven cattle or horses (photo circa 1930).

Postcard showing the original toll booth for Gandy Bridge. The original toll for passenger vehicles was 75 cents for the vehicle and driver, plus 10 cents per additional passenger. Other tolls included 25 cents for saddle horses, 10 cents for bicycles, 25 cents for motorcycles, and 20 cents per head for loose-driven cattle or horses (photo circa 1930).

The original Gandy Bridge remained the principal route between St. Petersburg and Tampa until 1956, when a second span was added to accommodate the growing number of automobiles needing to cross the bay. The original bridge remained in use until 1975, and the 1956 addition remained in operation until 1997. New parallel bridges were opened in 1975 and 1996 to replace the ones that were closed. While the original 1924 Gandy Bridge is no more, the 1956 addition was for a number of years preserved for pedestrian and bicycle traffic as the Friendship Trail Bridge. As it decayed, however, officials were forced to close the bridge indefinitely. Its fate remains uncertain.

The 1924 and 1956 Gandy Bridge spans side by side shortly after the latter opened. The original bridge is on the left (photo 1957).

The 1924 and 1956 Gandy Bridge spans side by side shortly after the latter opened. The original bridge is on the left (photo 1957).

With its many rivers, lakes, bays, and islands, Florida is home to an especially large number of magnificent bridges. Tell us about your favorite Florida bridge by leaving us a comment below or on Facebook!