May 12, 2021

Tampa’s Rich Baseball History: “It All Starts With Coaching”

July 28, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball … and do it by watching first some high school or small-town teams.” – Jacques Barzun

Nothing suggests that Mr. Barzun, a Paris-born, American-raised historian and philosopher, ever changed his mind about that often referred to quote (it’s on a plaque in Cooperstown). And he didn’t round third and head home until the extra-innings age of 104, in 2012.

The reality of the sentiment would make six men with strong ties to Tampa tremendously schooled in the ‘heart and mind of America.’ In alphabetical order they would be John Crumbley, Pop Cuesta, Jim Macaluso, Pete Mulry, Frank Permuy and Billy Reed. Together they represent about 200 years and 4,000 wins in Tampa prep baseball history.

While their names are not well known outside the geography of Tampa neighborhoods, particularly Ybor City and West Tampa, those of some of their contemporaries, and pupils, certainly are. Among them: Tony LaRussa and Lou Piniella, Tino Martinez, Lou Gonzalez, Fred McGriff, Doc Gooden, Gary Sheffield, Derek Bell. But a small sampling of the nearly 80 players who played high school ball in Hillsborough County and then had at least a cup of coffee in the Majors.

The rich baseball history of the area will be celebrated in the Tampa Baseball Museum at the Al Lopez House. On the night of the All Star Game the six coaches were feted in a fund raiser for the unique project. Nearly 400 people showed up, including a dozen or so ex-Major Leaguers–who generously signed autographs, parents, teammates and fans; all of them are just fans of the game really and its deep Tampa roots.

Lopez,  inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977 as a manager, started it all. Lopez, who also enjoyed a fine career as a catcher, would become the area’s first to reach the top level, and the first into the Hall. His talent, class, professionalism and loyal ties to the area set a tone for generations to come.

When Lopez’s family home was in the way of road development and had to go, it was saved, moved a few blocks and is currently undergoing a renovation that will soon be a shrine to all things baseball in the area, dating back some 125 years, from the history of the abundant amateur adult leagues, to Little League, high school, to spring training and to those who played in the Majors. Many metropolitan areas of course have sports halls of fame, Baltimore has the Babe Ruth museum and Kansas City honors those from the Negro League era, but the Tampa Baseball Hall of Fame is rather unique in its focus.

“It (the response of the community) has been unbelievable,” said Chantal Hevia, President of the Ybor City Museum Society, which is overseeing the renovation and assembling the initial collection of exhibits and memorabilia. “They’re really excited about it. It will be a destination in Ybor City (the neighborhood just east of downtown, made famous initially for its dozens of cigar factories).” ”

There’s been a long list (of successful players) from the area,” said Piniella, looking tan and fit at 71. “(The tradition) breeds confidence. It all starts with coaching.”

Macaluso retired this season after 40 years. “The most rewarding part is hearing from former students, players, parents and teachers,” he said. “To see the successes they have become …”

High school baseball coach is too narrow a definition for what these six men did in their careers.

“We’re called coaches, but we’re teachers,” said Reed, a pioneer in the era of public school integration in the early 1970’s. Reed, who coached at Hillsborough High and counted Doc, Sheffield and Carl Everet among his many stars, was instrumental in launching Belmont Heights Little League in the heart of the black section of the city. The talent pool was so rich and evident at Belmont Heights – three LL World Series final appearances (Taiwan got in the way of World Championships) would become a stop for Major League scouts trying to get an early edge and foothold in the area.

Mulry has authored a book, “The Seventh Inning of My Life,” in which 30 of his former players at Tampa Catholic relate the lessons they gained while playing high school baseball – common threads, such as responsibility, team work, confidence and honesty.

“I am thrilled with what these guys have done with their lives,” Mulry said. “I am humbled that they believe the things we taught them helped set them up with success.”

LaRussa, who on Sunday became the area’s third Hall of Fame inductee (Lopez and Wade Boggs were the first two) doesn’t get to Tampa very often these days, but he hasn’t forgotten his roots. A 1962 graduate of Jefferson (Martinez, Gonzalez and McGriff), the slick middle infielder was one of the early ‘bonus babies,” signing out of high school with Charles Finley’s Athletics for the princely sum of $100,000, a new Pontiac Bonneville and the guarantee to pay for a college education, whenever he got around to it.

Injuries wrecked whatever chance he had to become a top player, but his savvy and desire enabled him to hang around for some 15 years although he only appeared in 134 games and hit .199. “The dominant sport (in Tampa) to the point of being a religion was baseball – especially with my Italian and Spanish background. Baseball was by far the sport which was exposed to the most,” LaRussa told the Tampa Bay Times during the HOF weekend. “I had a special opportunity to play baseball, get to love it early (Born in Tampa) and had a very, very strong baseball and family introduction to our game.”

The Tampa Baseball Museum at Al Lopez House is scheduled to open this fall; maybe in time for the World Series, which would be appropriate.

Editor’s Note: David Alfonso graduated from the University of Florida in 1970 with a degree in philosophy and hence earned the right to quote Barzun.

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