Many Tampa Bay area residents may recall old baseball team names like the Tampa Tarpons and the St. Petersburg Saints. That's in part because our contemporary ball team, the Rays, have used each of those names on "throwback" uniforms.
Less recognized are the Tampa Black Smokers, Pepsi Cola Giants, Tampa Rockets, St. Petersburg Pelicans, Plant City Aces and the Polk County All Stars. These were the Bay area's African American teams, formed when everything from schools to sports were segregated in the South.
Tampa residents began embracing baseball in the late 1870s, when Thomas Crichton organized a club to take on teams from other Florida towns. Crichton's team had only white players, but by 1895, Tampa also fielded a team in the newly formed "colored state baseball organization." Newspaper accounts from the turn of the 20th century tell of Tampa teams playing as far away as Ocala, Palatka and Jacksonville. While individual teams, and their games, were segregated, black and white teams often played on the same day at the same ball fields.
During the 1930s and '40s, Florida's teams acted as a de facto farm system for the official Negro Leagues. The New York Black Yankees, the Atlanta Black Crackers and the Indianapolis Clowns, among others, would train in Florida during the spring and travel around the state throughout the year, playing local teams before large and enthusiastic crowds.
These games served as an audition for local players, who made the best of their limited opportunity. Tampa residents Hipolito Arenas, Bernard Fernandez, brothers John "Bey" Gibbons and Walter "Dirk" Gibbons, Benjamin Felder, Raydell "Lefty Bo" Maddix and Clifford "Quack" Brown were among those who climbed from local teams to the Negro Baseball Leagues.
World War II had an immediate and lasting effect on Florida. For baseball, that meant disbanding or severely handicapping most semi-pro and professional teams. In early 1945, with peace in Europe and the Pacific close at hand, organizers began the difficult task of gathering support for another statewide African American baseball league.
The Florida State Negro Baseball League (FSNBL), featuring eight teams, began play in the spring of 1945. The Tampa American All Stars played a 36-six game schedule against the St. Petersburg Peters Palace Stars, the Bradenton Nine Devils, the Orlando All Stars, Daytona Beach Black Cats, Polk County All Stars of Bartow, Lakeland All Stars and West Palm Beach Yankees.
Other leagues were formed during the mid- to late-1940s, but the best teams played in the FSNBL. Following the 1945 season, the American All Stars dropped out of the league, replaced by the Tampa Pepsi Cola Giants.
Across the bay in St. Petersburg, businessman Jack Peters changed the name of his club to the St. Petersburg Pelicans. Other St. Petersburg teams from the era and earlier included the Sunshine City Babies, the Florida Stars, the St. Petersburg Tigers and the St. Petersburg Grays. All of St. Pete's teams played at Campbell Park near the intersection of 12th Street South and 5th Avenue South. The assorted Tampa and St. Petersburg teams carried on a keen rivalry.
There were more black baseball teams in Tampa from 1947 to 1953 than in previous years. The Pepsi Cola Giants and Tampa Rockets paved the way for the Tampa All Stars, Tampa Grandstanders, Tampa Athletics, Tampa Grays, Port Tampa Red Caps, Tampa Blue Sox and the Tampa Cubans.
Tampa's teams played at different ballparks around the city. In the 1930s, teams used an open field downtown near the corner of Nebraska Avenue and Cass Street. Play shifted to Port Tampa City later that decade, then moved again in the early 1940s to a ball field on the corner of Buffalo Avenue (now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) and 22nd Street. That ball field is now home to Belmont Heights Little League.
Games were also played at old Plant Field at the University of Tampa. Interestingly, the predominantly Latin ballparks at Cuscaden Park and Macfarlane Park were off limits to black ball teams.
With the desegregation of Major League Baseball by Jackie Robinson in 1947 came the eventual integration of minor league and semi-pro teams. The two main "white" minor leagues in Florida, the Florida International League and the Florida Baseball League, began discussing including some of the Florida State Negro Baseball League teams in the spring of 1952. That became a moot point when most Florida International League teams, including the Tampa Smokers, began signing black players that same year.
By 1953, many minor league teams began integrating their rosters, and the need for black-only teams began to wane. Though their necessity faded, their legacy lives on.