Remembering Our Roots: Looking at Pro Baseball in Tampa Prior to the Rays (Part 4)


If you haven’t had enough yet, we continue with our series on the professional baseball teams and players who played in the Tampa Bay area before the start of the Rays. There may not have been a major league team in the area, but there have always been very interesting stories of teams and players, both those who reached the pinnacle and those who fell short. Today we continue with the 1947 Tampa Smokers.

In 1947, the Smokers had an incredible season.  Their pitchers went a combined 145-85 (.627) although six of their pitchers spent time with other teams. The pitchers who spent their entire season with the Smokers actually went 76-34, an outstanding .691 winning percentage. In any event, the team as a whole won 104 games (we don’t know how many they lost) and it’s absolutely astounding that they only finished second in the Florida International League. Nevertheless, it was an outstanding season. At the helm was former big leaguer Tony Cucinello.

Tony Cucinello, born in 1907 in Long Island City, New York, started his baseball career with semipro teams in New York City before signing his first professional contract at age 18 in 1926 with the Syracuse Stars of the Double-A (that was the highest level back then) International League. Cucinello was primarily a practice player for the Stars, only appearing in 4 games in two months (and going 3 for 4) before being sent down to the B-level Lawrence Merry Macks of the New England League to get more playing time. Cuccinello played well for Lawrence as their starting second baseman, hitting .283 with 8 doubles, a triple, 2 homers, and a .409 SLG in 36 games to finish off the season. Cuccinello returned to Lawrence for 1927 and put up some nice numbers in his first full season as a pro, hitting .310 with 25 doubles, 6 triples, 8 homers, and a .483 SLG in 91 games.

The next season, Cuccinello transfered to Danville of the B-level Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League and repeated his .310 batting average while adding in 25 doubles, 6 triples, 8 homers, and a .488 SLG in 127 games. That was enough for him to finally get an opportunity to move up. At the end of the season, Double-A Columbus of the American Association gave Cuccinello a fourteen-game trial, and Cuccinello impressed, hitting .396 with 5 doubles, 2 triples, 1 homer, and a .623 SLG. In 1929 at age 21, Cuccinello was getting his first exposure to the upper minor leagues.

The 1929 Columbus Senators had no younger player than 21 year old Tony Cuccinello. They also had no better player. Cuccinello dominated AA (Double-A and American Association) pitching, hitting .357 with a ridiculous 56 doubles, 10 triples, 20 homers, 111 RBI, and a .572 SLG. The American Association was a great hitter’s league, but Cuccinello ranked 5th in the circuit in batting average and was the only hitter 21 years old or younger in the top 30. He led the league in hits, 227, along with doubles, and he was in the top 10 in both homers and slugging percentage. It was a prolific season and big league teams came calling. Cuccinello signed with the Cincinnati Reds for the 1930 season.

At 5’7″, 160, Cuccinello was far from your prototypical big league third baseman. But that’s exactly what he was for the Reds. He started from opening day but struggled in April, starting all 12 team games but hitting just .233 with 1 RBI. Cuccinello improved to .250 with 2 doubles and 5 RBI in May, including his first career 3 hit game and 3 RBI game on May 31st versus the Pittsburgh Pirates, but he posted just a .294 OBP and was gradually playing less and less. He finally pieced together a solid month in June, posting a .250/.373/.411 line with 3 doubles, 2 homers, and 6 RBI in 18 games. And then in July, he took off.

Cuccinello didn’t play in his first game in July until July 6th, and even then it was only a pinch-hitter appearance for pitcher Benny Frey. However, he was called upon in a big spot, with the tying run on second base as the Cubs led the Reds 4-3. And Cuccinello delivered, singling to score the tying run, and one batter later, Curt Walker doubled him in as the Reds won in dramatic fashion 5-4. That was just the start for Cuccinello.

On July 9th, Cuccinello went 0 for 4 with a sac bunt. But on July 11th he had a nice game, going 2 for 4 with an RBI. After going 2 for 9 in a July 12th doubleheader, Cuccinello finally got things going the next day. He went 2 for 4 with his first MLB triple and an RBI on July 13th before having the best day of his young career on July 15th versus the New York Giants. He went 3 for 5 with a homer, a double, and 6 RBI, providing the winning margin as the Reds won 14-8. Cuccinello ran his hitting streak up to 7 games before it finally end on July 20th. In July, Cuccinello had an incredible month, posting a .348/.394/.522 line with 6 doubles, 2 triples, 2 homers, and 26 RBI in 24 games. From July 9th to the end of the season, Cuccinello started all 81 games the Reds played, posting a .338/.398/.495 line with 15 doubles, 5 triples, 8 homers, and 65 RBI. On the season he posted a .312/.380/.451 line with 22 doubles, 5 triples, 10 homers, 78 RBI, also walking 47 times compared to 44 strikeouts. Unfortunately for him, the NL was very strong in terms of hitting in 1930, posting a .303/.360/.448 line. His OPS+ (OBP plus SLG compared to the league OBP plus SLG adjusted to ballpark) was 105, meaning he was 5% better than the league average. Nevertheless, it was a nice rookie performance and Cuccinello was back in Cincinnati in 1931.

In 1931, Cuccinello moved to his natural second base and built on his strong rookie season, posting a .312/.374/.431 line with 39 doubles, 11 triples, 2 homers, and 93 RBI, walking an incredible 54 times compared to just 28 walks in all 154 games. His OPS+ shot up to 122 as the league worsened but he got a little better. He was worth 4.0 WAR (wins above replacement or basically how much better he was than your average call-up from Triple-A) with his bat and another 0.6 with his glove, and his total of 4.6 WAR was 9th-most in the National League. His 93 RBI’s would be the most by any Reds second baseman until Joe Morgan 46 years later. Cuccinello earned a 25th place finish in the NL MVP voting for his efforts. Cuccinello was a rising star. However, that wasn’t enough for the Reds. Following the season, Cuccinello got into a salary dispute with the Reds and the Reds had seen enough. They included Cuccinello in a six-player trade with the Brooklyn Dodgers, which notably sent future Hall of Famer Ernie Lombardi to the Reds after his rookie season with the Dodgers.

With the Dodgers, Cuccinello developed a friendship with a player a little less than a year his junior, starting catcher Al Lopez (see Part 1). Their friendship would become important later. In 1932 for the Dodgers in his age 24 season, Cuccinello produced solid numbers, posting a .281/.337/.415 line with 32 doubles, 6 triples, 12 homers, and 77 RBI, walking 46 times compared to 47 strikeouts in all 154 games once again. He was worth 3.0 WAR, 0.5 of it from his defense (dWAR), and he actually finished 19th in the NL MVP voting. Then in 1933, Cuccinello was an All-Star for the first time. He wasn’t particularly good in the first half, posting a .243/.304/.401 line with 13 doubles, 3 triples, 8 homers, and 35 RBI, walking 23 times compared to 21 strikeouts in 74 games, but it was surely a thrill for him to play in the first-ever All-Star Game, although he struck out as a pinch-hitter to end the game as the AL won 4-2 behind 3 shutout innings each by Lefty Gomez in the first third of the game and Lefty Grove in the final third, and also a home run from Babe Ruth. Overall in 1933, Cuccinello posted a .252/.316/.388 line with 31 doubles, 4 triples, 9 homers as he hit just 1 in the second half, 65 RBI, and 44 walks compared to 40 strikeouts in 134 games. He posted a 103 OPS+ and a 2.2 WAR from his bat, although horrible defense resulted in a -1.6 dWAR.

At 26 years old, Tony Cuccinello was entering his prime in 1934, and another poor season would send him out the door in Brooklyn despite his All-Star appearance. Luckily for Cuccinello in 1934, he came up with the best power season of his career. In 140 games including 97 starts at second base and 39 starts at third base, Cuccinello posted a .261/.325/.409 line with 32 doubles, 14 homers, and 94 RBI, also walking 49 times compared to 45 strikeouts. The homers and doubles were both career-highs as was his .148 ISO (slugging percentage minus batting average). His OPS+ was just 99 (meaning his OPS was 1% below league average), but between his bat and solid defense he managed a 1.7 WAR, a nice improvement from his 0.6 overall mark in 1933. But while Cuccinello would never approach his 1934 power numbers again, it would be the start of a nice run for him. In 1935, Cuccinello posted a .292/.366/.431 line with 20 doubles, 8 homers, and 53 RBI, walking 40 times compared to 35 K’s. His OPS+ jumped to 115 and combined with improved defense at second and third, Cuccinello posted a 2.5 WAR. The Dodgers took advantage of Cuccinello’s value being at its peak to include him in a 6-player trade with the Boston Braves that also included Al Lopez.

In 1936 with the Boston Braves, Cuccinello took advantage of the change of scenery to manage his finest overall season since his sophomore season with the Reds. He posted a .308/.374/4o2 line with 26 doubles, 7 homers, and 86 RBI, walking a career-high 58 times compared to 49 walks in 150 games. He was able to repeat his 115 OPS+ Defensively, he posted a .971 fielding percentage compared to the .963 league average despite making 6.28 plays per game (in other words, a 6.28 RF/G) compared to the 5.98 league average. Between his offense (3.1 oWAR) and defense (1.5 dWAR), Cuccinello tied his career-high with a 4.6 WAR. But at age 28, it would practically all downhill from there for Cuccinello. In 1937 he slipped slightly, posting a .271/.341/.405 line with 36 doubles, 11 homers, 80 RBI, and 61 walks compared to 40 strikeouts in 152 games. He posted a 110 OPS+ and a 4.4 WAR. Then in 1938 he was an All-Star and finished 13th in the MVP voting for no apparent reason as he posted a 101 OPS+ and 2.4 WAR. In 1939, he injured his knee when he was taken out at second base, and he played just 81 games, posting a 108 OPS+ and 1.9 WAR. His knee didn’t completely heal, and he was traded to the New York Giants in June of 1940. After posting just a 60 OPS+ in 122 games between Boston and New York, Cuccinello abruptly retired at age 32 to manage the Giants Double-A affiliate in Jersey City.

After player-managing Jersey City to a 5th-place finish in 1941, hitting .277 himself in 86 games, Cuccinello returned to the majors in 1942 as a player-coach for Casey Stengel’s Boston Braves. Cuccinello hit .202 in 46 games for Boston in 1942, and was 0 for 19 in 13 games before the Giants were kind enough to ship him to a depleted Chicago White Sox team that was in desperate need of players because of the war. He experienced a little bit of a resurgence with the White Sox, hitting .272 with in 34 games. Cuccinello then hit .262 in 30 games in 1944 and contemplated retirement at age 36. But after a restful off-season, he returned for one last season with the White Sox in 1945, the final year before most of the big leaguers returned from World War II. And nobody could have drawn up what happened next.

At age 37, Cuccinello was the oldest starting position player on a White Sox team filled with washed-up big leaguers. But with no other option, the White Sox turned to Cuccinello to man third base. The White Sox had to be smirking when Cuccinello went 2 for 4 on Opening Day. Then the next day, Cuccinello went 2 for 4 with 2 doubles, 2 walks, and 3 RBI. By the end of April (6 games), Cuccinello was hitting .381. Then in 26 games in May, Cuccinello posted a .359/.422/.489 line in 26 games, and at the end of the month he was hitting .363. Cuccinello hit .311 in June and July, and on July 31st he had a .331/.399/.428 line on the season. His .331 batting average led the AL. But inevitably in August he started slowing down. He hit just .238 on the month to lower hit batting average to .319. Then he hit .257 in September to finish with a .308/.379/.400 line on the season with 25 doubles, 2 homers, 49 RBI, and 45 walks compared to just 19 strikeouts.

On the final day of the season, the White Sox were scheduled to play a doubleheader, but it was rained out, leaving Cuccinello with a .308 batting average. Snuffy Stirnweiss of the Yankees began the day at .306. That night, Stirnweiss went 3 for 4, with one of the hits being originally scored an error by changed to a hit by the official scorer. At season’s end, Stirnweiss’ batting average was .308544. Cuccinello’s was .308458. And that was the way Cuccinello’s career would end. With so many big leaguers returning for 1946, Cuccinello was out of a job for 1946.

After a year out of baseball, Cuccinello called in a favor from his buddy Al Lopez, who helped him get a managing gig with Lopez’s hometown Tampa Smokers. After managing the Smokers to a 104-win season, Cuccinello joined Lopez in coaching the Indianapolis Indians of the Double-A International League in 1947 as the team won the International League title. That was enough for Cuccinello to get a spot on a major league coaching staff as he joined the Cincinnati Reds as a coach. Three years later, he joined Lopez’s staff on the Cleveland Indians. Cuccinello would be a coach on Lopez’s staff, both with the Indians and White Sox, until 1965.

In 1954, Cuccinello was on the Lopez-led Indians team that made the World Series but lost to the New York Giants. In 1959, he was third base coach Lopez’s White Sox team that made the World Series once again, this time versus the Los Angeles Dodgers. This time, he played a central role. The heavily-favored White Sox dominated their opponents in Game 1, winning 11-0 as Early Wynn earned  the win versus future Mets ace Roger Craig. Game 2 was much more contested. The White Sox scored 2 in the 1st to take an early lead, but Dodgers started Johnny Podres recovered to toss 5 innings of shutout ball following the tough 1st inning. In the 5th, the Dodgers got to White Sox starter Bob Shaw as Charlie Neal took Shaw deep to pull LA within 2-1. And then in the 7th, Shaw fell apart, allowing a pinch-hit home run to Chuck Essegian, and after a walk, Neal stepped up again, slamming a two run blast to give the Dodgers a 4-2 lead. But in the bottom of the 8th, the White Sox mounted a rally. Ted Kluszewski and Larry Lollar singled to begin the inning, bringing Al Smith to the plate. And Smith came up big, doubling to left-center. Billy Goodman, who had pinch-run for Kluszewski, scored easily as Lollar, the White Sox’ catcher, headed towards third. Cuccinello as third base coach had to make a snap decision about whether to send Lollar home. He chose to do so. Lollar rounded the bag, but a perfect relay from left fielder Wally Moon to shortstop Maury Wills to catcher John Roseboro resulted in Lollar being out by a significant margin. The White Sox lost the game as Larry Sherry nailed down a 3 inning save for Los Angeles and subsequently the next two. The White Sox won a tight game 5 as Shaw out-dueled Sandy Koufax (before he was Sandy Koufax) in a 1-0 White Sox win, but they were embarrassed 9-3 in Game 6 to close the series. Cuccinello’s snap decision was the turning point of the series. Maybe the White Sox still would have failed to score in the inning, but with runners on 2nd and 3rd with nobody out, you would have to like the odds they would have. Lopez vehemently defended his friend following the series, noting that the Dodgers needed a perfect relay to record the out and shifting more of the blame to the players for not executing the way they needed to in order to win the series.

Tony Cuccinello was a solid big league player, posting a 104 OPS+ in 1704 games while playing stellar defense and he was a World Champion in 1968 as a coach for the Detroit Tigers. Cuccinello would coach in the major leagues from 1949 until 1969 with the White Sox and Detroit Tigers. Cuccinello was a well regarded third base coach and fielding instructor, allowing him to overcome his one mistake and have a very productive coaching career. He retired to Tampa to scout for the Yankees in the area before finishing his baseball career entirely in 1985. He passed away on September 20th, 1995. Simply put, Tony Cuccinello was a baseball lifer.

Every member of the 1947 Tampa Smokers had quite a story to tell their children. They got to learn from the experiences of Cuccinello along with Chet Covington and Charlie Cueller (see Part 3) and also wartime big leaguer Bitsy Mott, who hit .221 in 90 games for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1944. But here let’s give a few players who never made the major leagues an opportunity to have their story told.

Catcher Manuel Fernandez hit 28 home runs in 1939 and 1940 at ages 19 and 20 before leaving to serve in the war. He signed with the Chicago White Sox’ Triple-A team in 1946 at age 26, but hit just .186 with just 2 homers in 86 games before being released. Fernandez’s last hurrah was a .272 batting average, 17 home runs and 18 doubles, for the Tampa Smokers in 1947 before retiring after an encore with the Smokers in 1949.

5’7″, 170 Cuban right-hander Oscar DelCalvo had a nice pro debut season with the Cubs’ B-level affiliate in Portsmouth, Virginia in 1945, going 14-9 with a 2.82 ERA and 2.0 BB/9 in 29 appearances spanning 163 IP. But following the season he had the urge to go home to Florida and he spent his final 6 professional seasons with Florida teams, including 5 seasons at least partially with the Smokers. In 7 minor league seasons, DelCalvo went 71-52 with a 2.77 ERA in the 173 appearances and 1036 IP of data we have available for him. Who knows what would have happened if he stayed with the Cubs system.

First baseman Benny Fernandez deserves a mention for playing 8 of his 9 professional seasons with the Smokers, hitting .296 with 82 home runs, including 16 in 1947 and 28 in 1948. He was also a World War II veteran.

And then there’s the matter of slim 6-0, 160 right-hander Octavio Rubert. Rubert was a Cuban immigrant who started his pro career following World War II in 1946 with the West Palm Beach Indians of the C-level Florida International League. His first pro season was outstanding as he went 13-6 with a 1.72 ERA and a great 1.6 BB/9 in 17 starts, 11 relief appearances, and 167 IP. Rubert split 1947 between West Palm Beach and the Tampa Smokers of the same league, and he was just as good despite a much bitter workload, going 23-12 with a 1.75 ERA and a 2.3 BB/9 in 47 appearances (we don’t know how many starts, but the most he possibly could have made was 34) and 299 innings pitched. Rubert returned to Tampa as a 23 year old for 1948 and put up another impressive season, going 22-7 with a 2.11 ERA and a 1.9 BB/9 in 31 starts spanning 230 IP. That was enough for Rubert to get a tryout with the St. Louis Cardinals’ Triple-A Rochester affiliate, and he pitched decently going 2-0 with a 4.05 ERA in 4 starts (1 complete game), 2 relief appearances, and 30 IP, but the problem was that he walked 11 compared to just 9 strikeouts. But the Cardinals saw enough promise from Rubert that they maintained him for 1949 and sent him to their Double-A affiliate in Houston.

With the Houston Buffaloes, Rubert worked primarily in relief, starting 11 games and relieving in 14, but that was not something he was comfortable doing, and the results displayed that. He went 3-10 with a 4.68 ERA and a 4.1 BB/9 in 100 IP. The Cardinals appeared to realize that or at least wanted to give Rubert a change of scenery as they promoted him to Rochester at the end of the season. But they pitched Rubert exclusively in relief, and the results were catastrophic. In 6 relief appearances spanning 3 IP, Rubert allowed 9 earned runs, which amount to an awful 27.00 BB/9, and it was well deserved as he struck out just 2 compared to 11 walks. How Rubert went 2-0 in Rochester is completely beyond me. Rubert’s confidence was completely shattered, but at least it finally hit the Cardinals that Rubert needed to work as a starter.

In 1950 at age 25, Rubert was sent to the Cardinals’ A-level affiliate in Omaha, Nebraska and got back on track, going 17-8 with a 3.07 ERA and a 2.6 BB/9 in 32 appearances spanning 266 IP. Then in 1951, Rubert returned to Houston and this time was triumphant, going 19-5 with a 2.28 ERA and a 3.2 BB/9 in 29 starts and 225 IP. But unfortunately for Rubert, his turnaround was completed one season too late. Intuitively, Rubert should have returned to Rochester as a starter in 1952 after pitching so well at the level directly below it in Houston. But the 1952 Rochester Red Wings were stacked with 12 past or future big league pitchers, 7 of whom were 25 years old or younger and 5 of whom who made at least 15 starts, and they had no room for Rubert on the roster. So they returned him to Houston for 1952 for his age 26 season and it must have been an enormous letdown for him. He went just 9-9 with a 4.42 ERA  and a 3.9 BB/9 in 19 starts, 5 relief appearances, and 114 IP for Houston. For 1953, he was in Houston for the fourth time and for the first time he was successful primarily in relief, going 6-3 with a 3.12 ERA, a 6.1 K/9, a 3.1 BB/9, and a 0.5 HR/9 in 19 starts, 4 relief appearances, and 72 IP. (It’s worth noting that the MLB strikeout to walk ratio that season was 1.18, so Rubert’s 1.96 K-BB mark was really exceptional.) That was enough for Rubert to finally get an opportunity in Rochester, and despite the fact that he had finally shown some relief prowess, the Cardinals returned him to starting. Nevertheless, he succeeded, going 7-4 with a 2.40 ERA, a 3.8 K/9, a 2.8 BB/9, and a 0.2 HR/9 in 11 starts, 5 of which were complete games and one of which was a shutout, 3 relief appearances, and 75 IP.

At that point, you would think that Rubert would get a big league opportunity from the Cardinals for 1954 at age 29 since he had proven himself in the upper minors as both a starter and reliever. But he had been beaten to the punch. While Rubert was struggling to stay afloat for a while in Houston, a young pitcher named Harvey Haddix, of eventual fame for throwing 12 perfect innings before losing in the 13th in a 1959 game, was blowing away hitters in Rochester and was the Cardinals’ ace by 1953. In 1954, the Cardinals rotation anchored by Haddix had 6 qualified pitchers make 10 starts. There was simply no room for Rubert, and at age 29 he was no longer a prospect. After appearing in 11 games in the Cardinals system in 1954, Rubert closed out his pro career with 7 appearances in the Mexican League in 1955. Octavio Rubert was a solid pitcher who took just a bit too long to figure out the upper minors and adjust into a relief role, and it cost him dearly. Nevertheless, his 123-65 minor league record with a a 2.64 ERA in the 264 appearances and 1531 IP we have data for are awfully impressive.

We’ll continue this series hopefully later today or tomorrow with the 1948 Tampa Smokers.

If you missed them, Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, and Part 3 is here.

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