Remembering Our Roots: Looking at Pro Baseball in Tampa Prior to the Rays Part 5


Last offseason here at RCG, I started a series of articles that I thoroughly enjoyed, talking about the baseball players who played professionally in Tampa prior to the inception of the Rays. It was quite an endeavor- it’s amazing how many stories there are to be told- but after receiving very positive feedback, I realized that it was worth the effort to resume this series after a ten-month delay. We got through the 1947 Tampa Smokers last time and today we’ll continue with the 1948 Smokers.

(Keep in mind that many statistics are not available. While I’ll work with whatever data I have, keep in mind that such stats as RBI, runs scored, stolen bases, strikeouts and walks are not available for hitters while strikeouts, game started, and home runs allowed are not available for pitchers.)

The 1948 Tampa Smokers had an excellent season, going 104-48, although that was only second in the Class C Florida International League to the Havana Cubans, who were 105-45. Their team was excellent all-around, posting a 2.86 team ERA, a .274 batting average, and a .372 slugging percentage based on the available data, although some players split the season between the Smokers and other FIL teams and their overall numbers are counted as part of that. The Smokers were managed by a couple of different managers over the course of the season, both former big leaguers: Jack Russell and Joe Abreu.

Russell, a 6’1″, 178 right-handed pitcher, made the big leagues in 1926 with the Red Sox at the age of 20 and would spend the next seven and a half years in a Boston uniform to mixed results. Russell did not strike anybody out, striking out just 1.5 batters per 9 innings during his time in Boston, but he walked just 2.2 per 9, including a league-best 1.6 per 9 innings in 1929. Russell’s finest season in Boston was 1928, when he went 11-14 with a 3.84 ERA (105 ERA+, meaning 5% better than league average) for a 96-loss Red Sox team, striking out just 1.2 batters per 9 innings but walking just 1.8 and allowing just 0.3 homers per 9 in 26 starts, 6 relief appearances, and 201.1 innings pitched. Overall, Russell went just 41-94 for Boston despite a 4.58 ERA, which amounted to a 94 ERA+ (just 6% below average), as he played for Boston teams that finished last in the American League every year but one. Russell was traded to the Indians in June 1932 before ending up with the Washington Senators for 1933. Converted into a relief role, Russell had a career year, going 12-6 with a 2.69 ERA (155 ERA+) and 13 saves (which retroactively led the league) in 50 appearances and 124 innings pitched. Russell took his outstanding performance into the World Series against the New York Giants, allowing just 1 run in 10.2 innings (0.87 ERA) across 3 appearances, uncharacteristically striking out 7 while walking none. Russell gave the Senators 5 shutout relief innings in Game 1 of the series and 4.2 one-run innings in Game 5, but the one run he allowed was a solo home run to Mel Ott in the 10th inning that sent the Giants to the World Championship.

In 1934, Russell slipped to a 5-10 record and a 4.17 ERA, but he also made the American League All-Star team, the first ever reliever to be on the All-Star team. Russell’s success would prove to be fleeting as he struggled over the next three years with the Senators, back with the Red Sox, and with the Tigers, but he finished his career on a strong note from 1938 to 1940, going 13-8 with a 3.24 ERA in 107 appearances with the Cubs and Cardinals, posting a 2.50 ERA in 54 appearances with the Cardinals in his final big league season in 1940 at age 34. For his 15-year MLB career, Russell went 85-141 with a 4.46 ERA (97 ERA+) in 557 appearances, 182 starts, and 2050.2 innings pitched.

Russell did some managing after his career ended, but his lasting impact is Jack Russell Memorial Stadium in Clearwater, Florida right outside of St. Pete. Russell came up with the blueprints for the ballpark itself before presenting them to the Clearwater city council, who quickly approved them (wow, how easy was building a stadium in the Tampa Bay area back then?). Russelll was surprised when it was announced that the stadium would be named in his honor. Jack Russell Stadium (which was renamed Jack Russell Memorial Stadium after Russell passed away) served as the spring training home of the Phillies from 1955 to 2003, and although it was partially demolished, continues to be used for high school and college baseball. Russell passed away in 1990 and his legacy continues to resonate through memories of his career and through his contribution to baseball in Tampa Bay through the stadium that bears his name.

Abreu took a much more unconventional path to the major leagues. A son of immigrants from Portugal who ended up in Oakland, California, Abreu was a 23 year old working in a liquor store when he suddenly got the attention of scouts playing semi-pro baseball on the side. He signed with the Oakland Oaks, a Double-A affiliate of the New York Yankees for the 1937 season but it did not go well as he lasted just 19 games, hitting just .148 while making 6 errors in just 13 games at shortstop. Abreu would spend most of the season with the Yankees’ Class B affiliate, the Spokane Hawks, hitting .324 with 23 doubles, 12 triples, and 4 home runs. Abreu would finally break into the Oaks’ lineup for 1938 as an outfielder and delivered a big season, hitting .299 with 28 doubles and 11 home runs in 167 games, but he slumped to .288 with just 14 doubles and 4 home runs for the Oaks in 1939, with a move to third base undoubtedly playing a role. The Yankees released Abreu and he ended up with Fort Worth in the Texas League for 1941, hitting .250 with 27 doubles, 6 triples, and 10 home runs in 158 games, and then a wild series of events occurred. In a two-year span, Abreu bounced from Fort Worth to the Double-A Milwaukee Brewers (then a Cubs affiliate) to the Double-A Los Angeles Angels to the Birmingham Barons all the way to the Cincinnati Reds.

Abreu made his big league debut as a 29 year old in 1942 in the Reds’ starting second baseman in their 8th game of the season as their starting second baseman, Lonny Frey, was struck in a slump. Abreu made the most of his opportunity, going 1 for 3 with a walk and an RBI in a game that the Reds would win 5-3 behind a complete game by Johnny Vander Meer. Abreu then had another nice game the next day, going just 1 for 4 but with a walk and his first major league home run in a game the Reds won 9-5. Through 2 major league games, Abreu was a solid 2 for 7 with a homer, 2 RBI, 2 walks, and 0 strikeouts. Nevertheless, he returned to the bench with Frey getting back into the lineup and catching fire, and he didn’t even get into another game until a May 30th doubleheader. It took an injury to the Reds’ first baseman, Frank McCormick and a failed 7-game tryout by prospect and future NL MVP Hank Sauer (although Sauer actually slammed 2 home runs across the 7 games) to get Abreu in the lineup as Bert Haas moved from third base to first. In doubleheaders on May 30th and May 31st, 1942 Abreu went 4 for 13 (.308), collecting 1 hit in each game to extend his hitting streak to begin his career to 6 games. The Reds also won 3 of the 4 games. The Reds kept playing Abreu, but he went 0 for 7 with a walk over their next 2 games before McCormick came back from his injury. Abreu got into just one more game with the Reds, striking out in a July 11th pinch-hitting appearance, before he was traded back to the Yankees, who immediately sent him down to Double-A Newark. Abreu wound up going 6 for 32 for the Reds (.213), but he drilled a homer and a double and walked 4 times against 4 strikeouts as he wound up with a 96 OPS+, basically league average. It was especially impressive that Abreu was doing that while playing so sparingly- he played so little he took up magic tricks as a hobby and got featured more in the newspapers for his magic exploits than his on-field performance. But the Reds apparently never thought of him as more than an emergency backup, thinking of him as not much of a prospects as a 29 year old rookie, and Abreu could never get his career off and running. Distraught at being back in the minor leagues, Abreu hit just .236 with only 5 extra-base hits in 30 games for Newark.

Everything was put on hold when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and Abreu joined the navy. Abreu was stationed at Livermore Naval Air Station, playing for th base’s baseball team, and was discharged after the war in 1945. After returning from service, he began a career as a player-manager with the Class D Wellsville Yankees, and he actually had an outstanding season as a player in 1946, leading the PONY League with a .352 batting average and 21 home runs, but his managing was not as good and he was not retained following the season. Abreu served as a player-manager for the Newnan Brownies in the Georgia-Alabama League in 1947, hitting .290 and 8 home runs to actually get one last tryout by a big league affiliate at age 34, but he hit just .228 in 25 games for the Indians’ Dayton affiliate. He ended his playing career with the Tampa Smokers in 1948, leading them to a strong start to the season and hitting .265 in 25 games before family issues back in California caused him to ask for a release from the team. He ended his professional baseball career managing the Santa Rosa Cats in the Far West League in 1949. Abreu lived the rest of his life in California, playing softball for a while after his career ended before going into youth instructional clinics. He passed away in 1993 in Hayward, California at age 79. Abreu hit a solid .287 in 978 minor league games, including .283 in 456 games at Double-A, but between a late start to his career and the war, his career could never come together.

All that was about the managers of the 1948 Tampa Smokers. Now let’s get to the actual players.

The ’48 Smokers were a young team, with just 3 of the 24 players who saw time for them older than 30 years of age and 11 of 24 being 25 years old or younger. Their oldest player was outfielder Lou Vezilich. But older doesn’t necessarily mean worse- and in fact, Vezilich was the Smokers’ best position player. In 143 games and 511 at-bats, Vezilich hit .356, the top mark in the Florida International League, with 30 doubles, 5 triples, 10 homers, and a .493 slugging percentage. It was the last season of any relevance for a once-promising player who had a career riddled by bad luck. After a 1935 season that saw him hit .318 with 12 homers between two different teams in the Class A Western League, Vezilich signed with the St. Louis Cardinals organization and they immediately sent him up to their Double-A Sacramento affiliate in the Pacific Coast League (Double-A was then the highest league of the minors). Vezilich would play the next three seasons with Cardinals Double-A affiliates in Sacramento and Rochester and Vezilich played very well, hitting .300 with an average of 29 doubles, 10 triples, and 7 home runs per season. The problem was that Vezilich chose the wrong organization to be a promising young outfielder. In 1936, the Cardinals had superstar and future NL Triple Crown winner Joe Medwick at one outfield spot and dependable veteran Pepper Martin at another with prospect Terry Moore showing inconsistent performance in the third spot. But that wasn’t all- the Cardinals had two more talented prospects reach the major leagues within two years: Don Padgett, who was later moved to catcher, and another future Hall of Famer, Enos Slaughter. Between Medwick, Slaugher, and Moore, who would take off in his 4th season and start a run of 4 straight All-Star appearances in the 5th, the Cardinals outfield was completely full.

Military service would officially end Vezilich’s big league hopes as he served his country from 1942 to 1944, but he returned in the latter half of the 1944 season at age 32 and had one last great season in the Pacific Coast League in 1945 as a member of the San Diego Padres in what also happens to be his only full season that we have full data on him, managing a .307/.386/.416 batting line with 38 doubles, 6 triples, 6 homers, 110 RBI, 9 stolen bases, and 77 walks versus 34 strikeouts in a ridiculous 175 games (the PCL played 183) and 723 plate appearances. After working as a backup at the Cubs’ Double-A Tulsa affiliate in 1946, Vezilich would finish his career playing primarily at C ball, including his great season with the Smokers in 1948. He would retire after the 1950 season with a .309 professional average in over 7000 at-bats across 15 seasons including a .296 average at Double-A. Lou Vezilich was a talented player who had the misfortunate of getting signed by the wrong major league team, and it’s disappointing that he never achieved his dream of playing in the big leagues, but life goes on and Vezilich went on to have a successful second career as an insurance salesman before he passed away at age 95 in Oakland, California.

As a team, the Smokers hit just 58 home runs (although some players spent time with other teams and the total is definitely less). Of those 58, 28 were hit by just one player: first baseman Benny Fernandez, who we mentioned briefly in Part 4. Those 28 homers also led the Florida International League. Unfortunately for Fernandez, his numbers were a fluke- despite being a 27 year old entering his prime in 1948, Fernandez managed just 15 homers over the next 7 seasons, all of which he spent with the Smokers. Apparently Fernandez could never venture too far from home, spending 8 of his 9 pro seasons in Tampa. A Tampa lifer, Fernandez passed away in the city in 2004 at age 83.

Another one of the Smokers’ key hitters was outfielder Lamar Murphy, who followed up a big 1947 where he hit .354 with 9 homers for the Smokers with another nice season in 1948, managing a .318 average with 23 doubles, 5 triples, and 8 home runs in 135 games and 488 at-bats. Murphy, who we also discussed previously, was a lean, athletic 6’3″, 180 outfielder who had a breakout season in 1940 at just 19 years old between the C and B levels in the Yankees organization, hitting .287 with 12 doubles, 12 triples, and 17 homers in 94 games. He couldn’t repeat that same level of performance over the next two years as he moved up to A ball, but he was still just 21 years old and was talented enough that his career remained promising. However, Murphy would miss the next three seasons in service to his country, not returning to action until the Smokers signed him in 1946. He would spend the next three years in Tampa, hitting .315 or higher each season, but an injury at the end of 1948 put Murphy out of commission, and other than a brief comeback in 1951, that was it for Murphy’s career. Murphy wound up becoming a scout for the Cleveland Indians and later became known for officiating many local baseball and basketball games in his Georgia neighborhood. Murphy passed away in Lawrenceville, Georgia in 1997. A park in Jackson County, Georgia bears his name until today. The most publicized effect of World War II on baseball was that several superstar players lost years from the primes of their careers. Just as significant, however, is how many promising careers could never get started after players risked their lives going to war for their country, as was the case with Murphy.

The Smokers featured a good lineup- but their pitchers were prolific. In the nearly 1200 innings we have available for them, they managed a 2.86 ERA. Three of their pitchers won 15 or more games with an ERA under 2.75 and 230 or more innings pitched. 5 of the 7 pitchers we have data for managed an ERA under that 2.75 mark- they only used so few pitchers because the ones they had were dominant. All of this was happening while their pitchers’ average age was just 24.4 years of age, second lowest in the league. They were quite a pitching staff- a forebear of the dominance on the mound that the Rays have delivered to Tampa Bay the last five years- and took the Florida International League by storm.

The Smokers’ staff was anchored by a pitcher we have already discussed exhaustively, right-hander Octavio Rubert. Rubert, 23 in 1948, was the Smokers’ ace, going 22-7 with a 2.30 ERA and just 7.4 hits and 1.9 walks allowed per 9 innings in 31 appearances and 230 innings pitched. Right behind Rubert was 30 year old righty Charlie Cuellar, who went 17-10 with a 2.54 ERA, an 8.5 H/9, and a 2.3 BB/9 in 31 games and 237 innings pitched. Cuellar, a Tampa native and another pitcher I went into depth about elsewhere, would actually make the big leagues for two games with the Chicago White Sox in 1950 for his only major league time amid a professional career that saw him win 209 games with a 2.82 ERA in 17 minor league seasons. The third pitcher in the rotation was not too shabby at all either. Oscar DelCalvo, 22, went 15-10 with a 2.72 ERA, an 8.7 K/9, and a 2.6 BB/9 in 45 appearances (presumably a whole bunch in relief) and 255 innigs pitched. DelCalvo, who we talked about along with Rubert above, went 14-9 with a 2.82 ERA in 163 innings as a 19 year old at B-level Portsmouth in the Cubs organization but got homesick and would spend the next 6 seasons in the Florida International League, 5 of them with the Smokers. For his career, he went 71-52 with a 2.76 ERA in 183 games, retiring before he was 27 years old. Even the 4th starter, Miguel Lopez, put up numbers that teams would covet, going 12-10 with a 2.29 ERA, a 7.9 H/9, and a 3.5 BB/9 in 40 appearances and 177 innings pitched as a 24 year old making his professional debut.

Lopez got his career off to a late start, but his promise quickly became evident. A 5’11”, 165 right-hander who (the stats appear to indicate) was a hard-thrower with inconsistent control, Lopez split 1949 between the Smokers and Palatka in the Florida State League and had another great season, going 15-10 with a 2.56 ERA in 40 appearances and 211 innings pitched, although his walk rate jumped to 4.5 per 9 innings. Nevertheless, Lopez showed enough talent that the Washington Senators for the next season, joining the A-level Augusta Tigers. Unfortunately for Lopez, he suffered through an inconsistent season, going just 11-11 with a 5.07 ERA and a 5.5 BB/9 in 38 appearances and 181 innings pitched. Lopez pitched well with the St. Petersburg Saints at the B-level in 1951 to get another shot with Augusta, and he did pitch to a 4.19 ERA in 73 innings pitched but continued walking a ton of batters and his pro prospects were just about dead. Lopez spent his next two seasons with pro teams in Florida to end his career, retiring before he turned 30. Lopez’s career got off to a late start, and when control problems arose, that just made it harder for him to get his career back on track.

Yet another effective pitcher on the ’48 Smokers was Samuel Cooper, who had terrible luck, going just 1-6, but managed a 2.25 ERA in 10 appearances and 64 innings pitched. His walk rate was just 4.6 per 9 innings. Cooper was another hard-throwing right-hander with control problems, but he was in a completely different situation than Lopez. Cooper was just 19 in 1948 and was a projectable 6’4″, 170 right-hander in an age when such players were hard to come by. Cooper was just 17 years old when he signed with the Boston Braves in 1946 and delivered an OK season for the C-level Leavenworth Braves, going 5-6 with a 4.33 ERA and a 3.5 BB/9 in 12 games and 79 innings pitched. The next year, he delivered more of the same but he did move down to D-level Owensboro, going 11-5 with a 4.37 ERA and a 3.3 BB/9 in 23 games and 140 innings pitched. Cooper then continued with inconsistent performance back at the C level with Kingston in 1948, managing just a 4.63 ERA in 101 innings before getting released, but then he delivered the best performance of his career for Tampa, prompting the Braves to not just re-sign him but send him up to A-level Denver for 1949. The results, though, was simply more inconsistency as he went 8-7 with a 5.09 ERA and a 5.3 BB/9 in 30 games and 145 IP. The Braves gave him a chance at B-level Evansville in 1950 and he improved his ERA to 4.53 but kept his BB/9 at 5.2 in 30 games and 137 innings pitched and Boston finally gave up on him, releasing him even though he was just 21 years old. Other than a brief comeback as a position player in the Pirates organization in 1954 (he hit just .216 with 4 homers in 55 games), that was it for Cooper’s career. Cooper is a classic example of a player with tremendous physical ability who just never put it all together. Unfortunately for him, his time in Tampa in 1948 was only a transient glimmer of the potential he could never reach.

Despite already talking about five pitchers, we still haven’t talked about the pitcher on the staff who spent the most time in the major leagues: Charlie Bowles, who pitched the 1948 season at 31 years old and was one of the worst pitchers on the Smokers’ staff as he went 6-5 with a 4.18 ERA, an 11.7 H/9, and a 3.5 BB/9 in 20 appearances and 99 innings pitched. 11 years earlier, Bowles debuted as a 20 year old with Beckley in the Class D Mountain State League and was great, going 16-7 with a 3.83 ERA and a 2.8 BB/9 in 18 starts, 9 relief appearances, and 181 innings pitched. Despite such performance, Bowles was stuck at Class D for two more seasons, and sure enough he came apart managing just a 5.30 ERA and a 4.8 BB/9 before he moved up to Class C with Monroe in 1940 and struggled again, putting up just a 5.81 ERA and a 5.2 BB/9. Apparently, though, Bowles received more trust like pitchers like Lopez and Cooper above, because he kept receiving chances. He was another projectable right-hander at 6’3″, 180, and scouts believed that he would eventually find himself some control. In 1941 back at Class C than finally began to happen as he managed just a 6.14 ERA in 176 innings but cut his walk rate all the way down to 3.2 batters per 9 innings. He was primed for a breakout and in 1942, in his first exposure to Class B, saw that come together as he went 10-13 with a 2.97 ERA and a 3.7 BB/9 in 27 appearances and 191 innings pitched primarily for the Lancaster Red Rosses, a Philadelphia Athletics affiliate. He followed with more of the same in 1943 for Lancaster, going 19-14 with a 3.52 and a 3.2 BB/9 in 36 appearances and 258 IP, and at the end of the season, his contract was purchased by the Athletics.

Making his big league debut as a 26 year old rookie on 9/27/43, Bowles delivered an impressive outing, going all 9 innings allowing 4 runs, none earned, on 7 hits, striking out 4 while walking 2 and earning the win as the A’s won 9-4. He would toss another complete game in his second outing on October 2nd, but he allowed 6 runs as the A’s lost their season finale. Bowles’ final outing for the A’s in 1943 had to leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouths. However, other matters had to be more urgently attended to. Following the season, Bowles enlisted in the US Air Force. He would remain in the service until the war’s conclusion in 1945, and when he returned, the A’s had a roster spot open for him.

On August 15th, 1943, Bowles made his season debut for Philadelphia, going 4 innings of 1-run ball.  5 days later, Bowles third appearance of the season was a start and another complete game, but he allowed 4 runs as the A’s lost. His next appearance was also a loss even though he went 6 innings of 2-run ball. Then he allowed 4 runs in 7.1 innings in a loss to the Yankees 6 days later. Bowles was able to get on track with a pair of solid relief appearances, but his season finale would not be nearly as good as he went 3 innings allowing 5 runs on 5 hits, striking out just 1 while walking 5. That game alone raised his ERA on the season from 4.15 to 5.13, and when you factor in an 11-23 strikeout to walk ratio with control issues being a major issue, the A’s decided Bowles was no longer big league caliber. He would never pitch another big league game. In 10 major league appearances, 6 starts, he went 1-4 with a 4.38 ERA and a 17-27 strikeout to walk ratio in 51.1 innings pitched.

Bowles would head back to Lancaster to begin 1946 as he tried to rediscover his past success there, but he went 0-4 in 5 starts before getting released. He would spend the rest of his season with Double-A Atlanta, managing just a 5.79 ERA in 19 games before they sent him packing as well. In 1947 and 1948, Bowles spent time with four different Florida minor league franchises, spending most of his time with the St. Petersburg Saints, including a 14-14 record and a 3.35 ERA in 234 IP in ’47, but also appearing with the Smokers and franchises in Miami and Palatka, and he declared his retirement after the 1948 season at age 31. He would make a comeback in 1952 and would pitch in 26 games over the subsequent seasons to end his career. Bowles was a hard-throwing pitcher whose potential with recognized by everyone who saw him and led to a big league opportunity with the A’s that began with a complete game win in his first start. However, he was unable to pitch consistently enough to hold his job with the A’s and saw his big league career going from promising to done before he could figure out what happened. The difference Bowles and pitchers like Lopez and Cooper was that he did figure everything out in 1942 and 1943 to make it to the big leagues, something he would treasure his entire life. There had to be a moment where he thoughts that all his dreams would be realized and a promising career as a major league starting pitcher was ahead of him. But it’s impossible to underestimate how hard it is to keep a job in the major leagues, with strong results needed unceasingly and missed time because of the war only complicating matters for Bowles, and unfortunately for him his major league career would last just 10 games. Even though Bowles’ career was coming to a close by the time he made it to Tampa, he could have been only a positive influence on the Smokers’ young team, giving them hope that like him their games would come together and a big league opportunity would eventually arise.

The players and coaches on the 1948 Tampa Smokers were a group that would be exemplified by missed opportunities and second guesses as so many promising carers failed to come to fruition and even the ones that did could only see their dreams realized for a brief moment. But for one season, everything went right. The hitters were unstoppable and the pitchers were unhittable and the results were a fabulous season. 60 years after the 1948 Smokers’ incredible year, the Rays would go on their improbable 2008 World Series run. Like the Smokers, the Rays would fall just short of a championship, losing in the World Series. But for one year, the buzz surrounding the team was unreal and it seemed like nothing could possibly go wrong as Tampa Bay baseball fans watched their heroes deliver magical seasons that they would never forget the rest of their lives.