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Remembering our Roots: Looking at Pro Baseball in Tampa Prior to the Rays (Part 3)

We continue with Part 3 of our series on the professional teams and players who played in the area in and around Tampa prior to the creation of the Tampa Bay Rays. In this post we take a look at the 1946 Tampa Smokers and the stories of the players who played for them.

After the 1930 season, the Southeastern League collapsed, and with it went professional baseball in Tampa for a time. It wasn’t until 1946 and the founding of the  C-level Florida International League that a Tampa baseball franchise resurfaced, although when it did come back, the old name, the Tampa Smokers, did return. The Smokers had a nice first season back, going 74-52, second in the six-team league. We know that Tampa eventually become the home city of the New York Yankees’ High-A affiliate, the Tampa Yankees, and interestingly, the Smokers’ four leading hitters in 1946 were all outfielders who were all former or future Yankee prospects, none of whom would make the major leagues.

The Smokers’ top hitter by a wide margin was lefty-swinging Ralph Brown, who hit a ridiculous .381 in 122 games, tops on the team by .066, and even tops in the Florida International League by .043. Brown also led the league with 27 doubles, 18 triples, and a .527 slugging percentage, and he was tied for 4th with 4 home runs. It was an astounding season, and it was actually Brown’s first season as a pro at age 25 after he served in World War II. Brown’s incredible season for the Smokers was enough for him to catch on with the Yankees A-level affiliate, the Augusta Tigers in the Sally League, and he had nearly as good of a season there in 1947, hitting .356 with 45 doubles, 18 triples, 8 homers, and a .520 slugging percentage. He led the league in batting average and doubles while ranking second in triples. (Along the way, Brown earned the nickname “Country”.) The Yankees were impressed, and sent him up to Triple-A Newark in the International League. But after hitting .263 with just 3 extra-base hits, all doubles, in 12 games, the Yankees released him and he signed with the unaffiliated Double-A Atlanta Crackers in the Southern Association. In the Yankees’ defense, Brown was already 27 years old and there was nothing for the Yankees to wait for if he struggled, but it still is very surprising that 13 games was a big enough sample size for the Yankees to decide not to retain him after his outstanding season the previous year.

On the positive side, Brown was going back home, having been born and raised in Georgia. Brown played very well for the Crackers for the rest of 1948 and in 1949, hitting .322 with a .466 SLG in a combined 256 games as he became a very popular player. . In 1950, Brown, then 29, re-signed with the Crackers, who had become a Boston Braves affiliate, and had his most prolific power season as he hit .292 with 31 doubles, 9 triples, 19 homers (nearly doubling his previous career-high). Brown still didn’t get a major league look from the Braves and was back with the Crackers for 1951. He then turned in another great season, hitting .294 with 34 doubles, 9 triples, 14 homers, and a .480 SLG, but he struggled over the next two seasons, leaving Atlanta for Senators affiliate Chattanooga in mid-1952 as he hit .270 with a .406 SLG from 1952 to 1953. But he had a resurgence at age 33 in 1954 between Detroit Tigers affiliate Little Rock and Yankees affiliate Birmingham, hitting .301 with 31 doubles, 8 triples, 9 homers, and a .455 SLG in 131 games, and he continued hitting in 1955 for Birmingham and in 1956 the Cincinnati Reds affiliate in Nashville, hitting .309 with a .473 SLG, hitting a combined 25 home runs. But in 1957 in his first year at Triple-A since the Yankees released him after his 13-game stint in Newark, Brown fell apart, hitting .245 with just 13 doubles, 3 homers, and just a .315 SLG in 100 games, and that was it for him. At 6’0″, 170, Brown was a speedy and athletic outfielder with a nice bat and some power and he was one of the most popular players in Georgia prior to the Braves becoming the state’s first major league team. But he started his career late and faltered in his one opportunity to make a big league team. The major league teams disregarded him even though he was putting up outstanding numbers for Atlanta. What a great way to treat a veteran! Brown retired to go into law enforcement. He served as a judge in Chattooga County, Georgia until he passed away in 1966.

Lamar Murphy, another Georgia product, wasn’t the caliber of player that Brown was, but he was still a solid player. He spent the first four seasons of his pro career, from 1939 to 1942,as a Yankees prospect, hitting .287 with a .414 SLG but only spending 14 games at the A-level. He caught on with Detroit’s B-level Augusta in the Sally League at the end of 1942, hitting .279 in 20 games, but then his career was put on hold as he served in World War II. When he came back, Murphy joined the Smokers for the 1946 season and showed no ill effects of the layoff, hitting .315 with 10 doubles, 5 triples, 2 homers, and a .416 SLG in 77 games. Murphy was even better when he returned to Tampa for a full season in 1947, hitting .354 with 30 doubles, 8 triples, 9 homers, and a .503 SLG in 128 games in his age 26 season. Then as a 27 year old he hit .318 with 23 doubles, 5 triples, 8 homers, and a .434 SLG in 135 games. Murphy was one of the Smokers’ best players, but the problem was that the Smokers played at the C-level of the minor leagues and Murphy wasn’t young enough and didn’t have the upside to warrant a higher level team giving a shot. Murphy retired for two years before finishing his pro career in style as a 30 year old with the D-level Alexander City Millers in the Georgia-Alabama League, hitting .328 with 4 doubles, 3 triples, 3 homers, and a .406 SLG in 69 games. Murphy hit .311 with a .434 SLG in 8 minor league seasons. He passed away in 1997 in Georgia at age 76.

Jack Bearden hit .296 with 19 doubles, 9 triples, 3 homers, and a .451 SLG in 84 games for the Smokers in 1946. Another WWII veteran, Bearden hit .298 with a .465 SLG and 119 homers in 12 minor league seasons, just 1 spent at the A-level. Surprisingly, when he was signed by the Yankees after returning from service in 1946 and sent to their A-level Augusta affiliate, he hit .307 with a .427 SLG in 23 games, but the Yankees saw something they didn’t like and released him, causing him to end up in Tampa. He spent the rest of his pro career, which ended in 1953 when he was 32 years old, in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama minor league teams, including a brief relapse with the Smokers in 1949. He was a player-manager in the Georgia-Alabama League and Georgia State League from 1950 to 1952, leading his teams to a .468 winning percentage.

Robert Murphy hit .289 in 71 games for the Smokers in 1946 after failing in tryouts for the Yankees’ Augusta franchise and then B-level Montgomery in the Southern Association. He hit .281 in 7 minor league seasons, which were interrupted by army service.

Ironically, the 1946 Smokers also briefly had on their team a one-game major leaguer that was nowhere near the caliber of any of these guys. Cuban third baseman and shortstop Luis Suarez hit just .274 in 7 minor league seasons (although he presumably played professionally in Cuba), but he at least got in one big league game, with the Washington Senators in 1944, going 0 for 2 while making 2 putouts at third base as a mid-game substitution. He was in Tampa briefly before returning to Havana, Cuba, where the Florida International League had a franchise.

The Smokers had an excellent pitching staff, posting a 2.85 ERA. And they were led by two of the best pitchers in the history of the minor leagues, both transient major leaguers: Chet Covington and Charlie Cuellar.

Chet Covington has one of the most interesting stories you’ll ever hear. Covington was a professional boxer for years before shifting his focus to baseball. A left-handed pitcher, Covington didn’t make his professional baseball debut until 1939 at age 28. That season, which he primarily spent at D-level Goldsboro in the Coastal Plain League, Covington showed significant signs of rust, going 7-9 with a 5.23 ERA and a 4.0 BB/9 in 27 appearances (for most of Covington’s minor league career, we don’t know how many games he started) and 117 IP. But by the next season, Covington began to star. In 1940 for the Hollywood Chiefs in the D-level Florida East Coast League, Covington was incredible, going 21-10 with a 2.10 ERA and a 2.4 BB/9 in 32 appearances and 266 innings pitched. In 1941, Covington started the season in the FECL again, but after going 22-7 with a 1.90 ERA in 241 IP for Fort Pierce, he moved up all the way to B-level Jacksonville in the Sally League, and he was decent, posting a 2-5 record but a 4.16 ERA in 67 IP. It was impressive enough of a showing that Covington was able to move up to A-level Springfield in the Eastern League in 1942, and Covington continued pitching well, going 8-8 with a 3.23 ERA and a 3.4 BB/9 in 14 starts, 11 relief appearances, and 131 IP. Covington used his continued success to try to move up again to A1-level Birmingham, a Cincinnati Reds affiliate, but he was demolished, posting just an 11.77 ERA in 4 appearances spanning 13 IP, and the Reds released him. (A1 was a minor league level between Single-A and Double-A.) But Covington was able to end up with the Red Sox Double-A affiliate in Louisville before the season was through, and even though he didn’t pitch very well, going 3-2 with a 5.34 ERA, a 5.3 K/9, and a 3.1 BB/9 in 6 starts, 4 relief appearances, and 32 IP, he showed enough flashes as he tossed two complete games including one shutout that the Red Sox retained him for 1943.

The Red Sox sent Covington to their A-level affiliate the Scranton Red Sox in the Eastern League for 1943 for his age 32 season, and Covington preceded to dominate. He posted a ridiculous 21-7 record, and it was no fluke at all. He posted a ridiculous 1.51 ERA and a 2.2 BB/9 in 26 starts, 11 relief appearances, and 251 IP. Along the way, Covington tossed a perfect game. It was such an incredible season that The Sporting News acknowledged Covington with their Minor League Player of the Year award. Teams across baseball were impressed, especially with quality players becoming few and far between because of the War, and Covington was able to land a big league job for 1944 with the Philadelphia Phillies.

With the Phillies, Covington, a 33 year old rookie, worked solely in relief with the Phillies possessing a solid starting rotation. Things started off well for Covington as he tossed 1.2 scoreless innings in his major league debut on April 23rd. Then a week later on April 30th, Covington earned his first major league win with 3 shutout innings as the Phillies came back to win the game 2-1 versus the Boston Braves. Covington finally allowed his first earned run in the major leagues in his 3rd appearance on May 11th as he allowed a solo home run in 4 relief innings to raise his seasonal ERA to 1.04. He allowed an unearned run in his next appearance 3 days later, which spanned 2 innings and lowered his ERA to 0.84. But then the next day, Covington was pressed into service in long relief because Phillies starter Dick Barrett failed to record an out, and going on no day’s rest for one of the first times in his career, Covington struggled, allowing 5 runs on 7 hits in 5 innings to raise his seasonal ERA to 3.45. Back into use just 2 days later, Covington struggled once again, allowing a hit and a walk while recording just one out and allowing the winning run of the game, although it was charged to Deacon Donahue. Then the Phillies got the memo that Covington needed some rest, and didn’t throw him until 9 days later, when he tossed 4.2 one-run innings versus the Cubs. He preceded to toss shutout innings in his next two appearances, each on 1 day’s rest. But then he had the occasional horrible appearance that every pitcher has, allowing 5 runs, 4 earned in 1.1 innings.  But he rebounded to toss 1.1 innings of shutout ball in his next two appearances. But after he threw a third of an inning of shutout ball in the opener of a doubleheader versus the Dodgers, they pitched him again later in the day, and even though he tossed 2 shutout innings, it affected him over his next two appearances as he allowed 2 runs in 2.1 IP. The Phillies had seen enough and sent him down to their A-level affiliate in Utica.

Covington was a pitcher who had been a starter his entire career before the Phillies put him in the bullpen. He wasn’t used to pitching in so many consecutive days, and he became ineffective. Maybe if he had been given an opportunity to start he would have been better. But everything was not simply the fault of the Phillies and bad luck for Covington. According to Covington’s obituary from The Sporting News, he got in trouble for bad-mouthing his manager Freddy Fitzsimmons after Fitzsimmons made him intentionally walk Stan Musial in a close game versus the Cardinals. The Phillies didn’t like the way he was pitching and he wasn’t doing himself any favors by running his mouth, and that’s why they sent him down.

With Utica, Covington pitched well, going 10-11 but with a 3.25 ERA and a 2.9 BB/9 in 19 starts, 4 relief appearances, and 166 IP. The Phillies had no choice but to bring him back to the majors, and he pitched well initially, not allowing a run in his first two appearances, which spanned 3 IP. But after blowing a late lead versus the Cubs, allowing 2 runs in 2 innings, the Phillies threw Covington right back into the fire the next day. After starter Al Gerheauser couldn’t get out of the second, and then reliever Harry Shuman could only get the Phils through 3 innings, the Phillies put Covington into the game with them trailing 9-0 and didn’t take him out until the last possible second. They let him be punished for 4 innings and he allowed 5 runs on 9 hits before they finally brought in Rogers McKee for the 7th inning. Considering how badly Covington had badmouthed his manager Fitzsimmons, you almost get the feeling that Fitzsimmons put him in and left him in out of spite. It would be Covington’s final major league game. In 1944 for the Phillies, Covington made 19 relief appearances, second-most on the team, going 1-1 with a 4.66 ERA (it was 3.89 before his final appearance), 13 strikeouts (3.0 K/9), 8 walks (1.9 BB/9), and 2 homers allowed (0.5 HR/9) in 38.2 IP. His ERA was 3.72 when he got at least 2 days rest and a great 1.80 when he got at least 3 days rest. He was misused by the Phillies, no doubt about that. But a lot of his problems were his own fault because his criticized his manager.

To add injury to insult, the way the Phillies used Covington in 1944 led to injury in 1945 as he got into just 9 games with the Senators A1 affiliate in Chattanooga. Covington’s value was its nadir after the 1945 season, and he was forced to sign with a team all the way down at the C level, the Tampa Smokers, for his age 36 season. Covington was able to get healthy, and he turned in the best pitching season Tampa has even seen. Covington was the workhorse of the Smokers’ rotation, tossing 27 starts, 18 relief appearances, and an astounding 303 IP. And even though his workload was tremendous, he was dominant the whole way through. He went 28-8 with a ridiculous 1.66 ERA and a 1.6 BB/9. There was one blip on his radar recorded in his obituary. Late in the season, Covington was lazy before an outing and didn’t warm up. Covington ended up striking out 14 in the game, but he lost and he was fined and briefly suspended for “indifferent performance.” Despite his outstanding year, Covington returned to Tampa to begin 1947, at least partially because of that controversy late in the season. In 17 appearances and 129 IP, Covington went 12-2 with a 2.09 ERA and a 1.8 BB/9 and that was enough for him to get one more big league tryout. Covington signed with the Detroit Tigers’ B-level affiliate the Montgomery Rebels in the Southeastern League and continued pitching very effectively, going 13-6 with a 3.22 ERA and a 2.0 BB/9 in 28 appearances and 187 IP. But his age was enough of a limiting factor that Covington couldn’t get another big league opportunity. Covington pitched 6 more years in the minors leagues, making 166 appearances including a couple more stints with the Smokers, and never pitched at the A-level again, spending most of his time with B-level clubs before retiring in 1953 at age 42. Covington’s career minor league numbers are overwhelming. He went 220-126 with a 2.57 ERA and a 2.7 BB/9 in 473 appearances. Chet Covington was an enigma, but he was one heck of a pitcher.

The righty half of the Smokers’ dominant righty-lefty tandem in 1946, Charlie Cuellar was born in Ybor City, Florida, right outside of Tampa, and he was raised in the area as well. He was the son of Cuban immigrants who had previously immigrated from Spain. After graduating from George Washington Junior High School, Cuellar stopped his schooling to help support his poor family. But at age 17, Cuellar was noticed by the Cincinnati Reds, who played spring training in Tampa at the time, and even though Cuellar was too inexperienced to sign with the Reds or one of their top farm teams, they made the connection for Cuellar to help him get his start in pro ball, facilitating his signing with the Decatur Commodores of the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League at the B-level. In his first pro season, Cuellar didn’t succeed but wasn’t really overmatched as he went 3-7 with a 2.9 BB/9, although he did allow 12.3 hits per 9 innings. The next season, Cuellar ended up going down a level to C-level Marshall of the East Texas League, but instead of Cuellar establishing himself as a pitcher, the result were disastrous. Cuellar made just 6 appearances for Marshall, posting a 4.39 ERA, before he suffered an arm injury that sidelined him until 1938. He resurfaced in ’38 back in the East Texas League, and he had a nice season between franchises in Rome and Tyler going 11-7 with a 3.40 ERA and a 2.9 BB/9 in 14 starts, 4 relief appearances, and 156 IP.

The next season, Cuellar ended up in the D-level Bistate League, a league where he spent the next four seasons. In 1939 at age 21 for a Reidsville, North Carolina franchise, he went 17-9 with a 4.02 ERA and a 2.2 BB/9 in 30 appearances and 235 IP. He showed great control but remained hittable, allowing 9.7 hits per 9 innings (H/9). The next year, he split the season between Reidsville and the Leaksville-Draper-Spray Triplets of the same league, going 16-12 with a 4.19 ERA and a 2.8 BB/9, allowing a 10.1 H/9 in 32 appearances and 215 IP. Then in 1941 he returned to Leaksville-Draper-Spray and went 16-11 with a 2.3 BB/9 and a 9.0 H/9 in 30 starts and 215 IP (no ERA data is available). Cuellar was pitching decently, but not well enough to move up through the minor leagues. But then in 1942 at age 24, he finally broke out. Back at Leaskville-Draper-Spray, Cuellar was dominant, going 21-6 with a 1.67 ERA, a 2.2 BB/9, and just a 6.9 H/9 in 28 starts and 248 IP.

After the season, Cuellar signed with the Chicago Cubs organization. In 1943, bad luck (he joined two teams that folded) forced him to not play professionally and instead return to Tampa to work and pitch in a local league, the Tampa Inter-Social League. After pitching his team to the Inter-Social League title, the Cubs assigned him to A1-level Nashville in the Southern Association for 1944. And there he pitched pretty well, going 16-7 with a 3.85 ERA, a 3.7 BB/9, and an 11.0 H/9 in 27 starts, 2 relief appearances, and 201 IP. But he suffered an arm injury towards the end of the season, something that would affect him the rest of his career.

Cuellar was promoted to the Double-A Los Angeles Angels in the Pacific Coast League, but he pitched to lackluster results, going 13-17 with a 4.40 ERA, a 4.8 K/9, a 3.3 BB/9, and a 10.2 H/9 in 38 appearances spanning 225 IP. 35 of his appearances were starts including 16 complete games and 3 shutouts. Cuellar became frustrated. He was performing poorly, but his struggles were amplified because he was playing for a team that lost over 100 games on the season, and to top things off he was very far away from home. Cuellar started thinking that returning to Tampa might be the best for him. He was motivated enough to engineer his own trade to the Tampa Smokers.

Going to the Smokers was a huge downgrade for Cuellar. He was going from Double-A, the highest level of the minor leagues at the time, all the way down to the C-level, the 5th-highest level. But once he arrived in Tampa, he dominated. In 1946 at age 28 for the Smokers, Cuellar was ridiculous for the Smokers, going 11-5 with a 1.57 ERA, a 2.0 BB/9, and a 6.7 H/9 in 16 starts, a relief appearances, and 146 IP. Cuellar returned to Tampa in 1947 and had another great season, going 15-7 with a 2.14 ERA, a 2.5 BB/9, and a 7.3 H/9 in 26 appearances and 189 IP. One of Cuellar’s finest moments occurred on July 23rd, when he no-hit the first-place Havana Cubans, allowing just a walk (two batters reached on errors) while striking out 8. Cuellar became so popular with the local crowd that the Smokers held “Charlie Cuellar Day” in his honor that August. Cuellar then went 17-10 for the Smokers in 1948, posting a 2.54 ERA, a 2.3 BB/9, and a 8.5 H/9 in 31 appearances and 237 IP. Cuellar remained on the Smokers in 1949, but after a contract dispute early in the season, he was traded to the Lakeland Pilots of the same Florida International League. On the season he went 17-15 with a 2.63 ERA, a 3.0 BB/9, and a 7.5 H/9 in 34 appearances and 246 IP.

In 1950, Cuellar was named manager of the Pilots while he continued to pitch, but even though he pitched well, the team struggled, going 29-45. Cuellar resigned in mid-June to focus on his pitching. On June 25th, Cuellar was 7-3 with a 1.50 ERA, a 2.9 BB/9, and an 8.2 H/9 in in 13 appearances spanning 108 IP. And that was when he got his big break. On the recommendation from ex-big leaguer Johnny Rizzo, the Chicago White Sox signed Cuellar and he made his big league debut on July 2nd, 1950, working out of a bases-loaded game to pitch a scoreless inning for the White Sox versus the St. Louis Browns. But on July 4th, Cuellar was hammered by the Detroit Tigers, allowing 4 hits in 2 walks in just a third of an inning, allowing 6 runs, 5 earned. The White Sox had seen enough and released him. In his two major league appearances, Cuellar went 1.1 innings, posting a 33.75 ERA.

Cuellar finished off his the season with the White Sox’ Double-A Memphis franchise, going 7-4 with a 3.77 ERA in 12 appearances. In 1951, Cuellar went 10-8 with a 3.84 ERA in 25 appearances between 3 teams before he went 3-4 with a 3.49 ERA in 7 starts between two teams in 1952. Cuellar then finished off his career with 12 starts for B-level Keokuk in the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League 1953, going 5-4 with a 4.14 ERA in 12 starts and 76 IP before retiring as a plyer at age 35. Cuellar finished off his baseball career with two days as manager of Tallahassee of the Florida International League in July of 1954 before the league folded. For his career he went 209-139 with a 3.14 ERA (based on the available data) in 413 minor league appearances spread over 17 seasons and 2942 innings pitched

Charlie Cuellar was a pitcher who was good for quite a while and occasionally dominant but his career was hampered by the arm injury he suffered in Nashville. Without that injury, he would have pitched better and maybe his big league career could have lasted more than just two games. Cuellar passed away at age 77 in 1994 while living in Tampa.

We’ll continue this series with a post on the 1947 Smokers team within a few days. If you missed them, Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here.

Topics: New York Yankees, Tampa Smokers

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