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Bolita, Tampa’s illegal lottery, was deadly and lucrative

Tales from the Vice Squad | An arrest report from 1959 provides insight on the game that ignited “The Era of Blood.”
A set of Bolita balls in the University of South Florida Special Collections office.
A set of Bolita balls in the University of South Florida Special Collections office. [ Times (2019) ]
Published Sep. 28
Updated Sep. 29

When Tampa was a hotbed of organized crime from the late 1800s through early 1900s, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office charged the Vice Squad with cleaning up what the federal government deemed one of the most corrupt cities in the nation. The Tampa Bay Times has obtained a cache of Vice Squad reports from the 1950s and 1960s, which offer insight into their investigations and what they were up against.

TAMPA — With an 80-1 payoff, the numbers game known as bolita could be lucrative.

But due to long odds, it was more lucrative to operate, with millions of dollars wagered annually in Tampa at its peak in the mid-20th century.

That brought bloodshed as crime syndicates battled for control.

Late historian Tony Pizzo estimated at least 40 bolita-related killings in Tampa during the first half of the 20th century. Numerous others were injured.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office Vice Squad was on a mission to break up bolita rings. That brought them to Carrie and Harrison Swift’s home on July 11, 1959.

An arrest report, coupled with news archives and past conversations with the Vice Squad, provides a detailed look at the game’s history, the rules and how it was organized.

Bolita means “little ball” in Spanish, but according to Pizzo’s research, published in the Sunland Tribune in 1983, the game originated in France a few years after the French Revolution.

A prelude to the modern lottery, wooden or ivory balls numbered 1 through 100 were placed in a sack by someone working the game. One winning number was pulled.

The game spread to Spain, Cuba and Key West before Tampa, where bar owners initially used it as a promotion.

At first, law enforcement allowed the illegal lottery, because it revolved around nickel and dime bets. Officers started cracking down when it grew to big money.

Bolita took on added importance for organized crime, Pizzo said, when prohibition ended in 1933 and dealing in moonshine was less lucrative.

In the Tampa Bay area, the sack was shaken and tossed to another person, who caught it and gripped one ball. The sack was cut under that ball, letting the 99 losing numbers fall to the ground.

Gamblers were known to pick numbers based on dreams. Late historian Willie Garcia compiled a list for all 100 numbers. Dream about a full moon? Wager on No. 80. A fire was No. 100, elephants were No. 9, and a hog was No. 33.

This list, compiled by the late-Willie Garcia, shows a list of numbers with their correlated dreams. Some who wagered on the Tampa's illegal lottery known as bolita picked numbers based on their dreams.
This list, compiled by the late-Willie Garcia, shows a list of numbers with their correlated dreams. Some who wagered on the Tampa's illegal lottery known as bolita picked numbers based on their dreams. [ Courtesy of La Gaceta Newspaper ]

There was cheating. One way, passed down and retold for generations, was for the game organizer to place a ball in the freezer, so that it was identifiable through the sack. That was done to avoid a well-played number or to pick a lesser-played one. If 30 players bet on No. 10, the picker wouldn’t want that number pulled.

By 1927, according to news stories from that year, Tampa boasted 300 bolita joints that operated out of illegal casinos, backrooms in legitimate businesses and private homes. Numbers were sold everywhere, including City Hall.

Some operations, typically the smaller ones, only took bets, to avoid drawing attention. They based winners off other games.

The “big three” Tampa bolita houses, as newspapers called them, grew tired of other operations making money from their risk.

So, in 1928, the big three began picking three winners. The small operations went out of business when they could not afford multiple payouts. The surviving bolita games were then typically part of larger syndicates, and the three-number system became the norm.

The Swifts did not run the operation, according to the police report. But they allowed Sam Castellano, who owned a West Tampa fish market, to use their home. They worked for him, as did Frank Wright, who was also arrested.

Where Castellano received the winning numbers is unclear. By then, the game had morphed beyond 100 balls in a sack.

Some games used the outcome of the Cuban lottery, according to newspaper reports. Cuban radio stations broadcasting the weekly drawings could be picked up in Tampa.

Others used area horse and dog tracks to determine winning numbers. In one such system, the numbers of the dogs that won, placed and showed in each contest were added together. The tally’s left two digits were one winning bolita number, the right two digits were another, and those two were added together to determine the third. If the third number exceeded 100, the digit on the far left was cut off to make it a two-digit number.

Syndicates had an intricate system, according to the late Buddy Meisch and Charlie Whitt, who were on the Vice Squad in the 1950s and 1960s. They explained it to the Times in 2010.

It started with “call-in guys” with whom gamblers made bets.

Those guys then phoned those bets to a “call-in house,” to be officially recorded. Neither knew the other person’s name. They remained anonymous in case either was arrested.

After a game of bolita was thrown, typically on a Friday or Saturday, call-in houses gave betting sheets to “bolita lieutenants” to be delivered to a drop house.

The sheets exchanged hands, from car to car, sometimes up to eight times, with only the final drivers knowing the destinations. That was all to thwart law enforcement.

The call-in guys gave the wagered money to different lieutenants to be brought to a separate drop house in the same manner. Having two houses protected everything from being seized in a single raid.

One drop house tabulated winners. The other dispersed payouts. Castellano pleaded guilty to operating an illegal lottery and was fined $1,000. News archives say he was arrested at least four times on the same charge from 1953 to 1960 and found guilty each time.

The Vice Squad report indicates Castellano likely ran a call-in house. Seated at a small table, he was equipped with a telephone that rang softly as bets were called in.

Castellano had around $300 in his pocket when he was arrested in 1959. News coverage at the time reported that his operation processed $2,500 a week in wagers. That’s about $23,000 in today’s dollars, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s online inflation calculators.

Bolita was a $5 million-a-year industry in the 1950s and early 1960s, according to news archives. That’s equivalent to more than $46.5 million today.

Big money brought out the guns.

Tito Rubio was shot down in 1938 in front of his Lincoln Club, one of the city’s most prosperous illegal gambling parlors.

Charlie Wall, once known as the dean of the underworld, had his head battered with a baseball bat and his neck cut from ear to ear with a knife. This happened at his home in 1955 when there were rumors that Wall was seeking to reclaim his criminal empire.

And Joe Diaz was shot and killed in 1958 outside his girlfriend’s home. Diaz was known as the “last holdout,” because he was the final major bolita operator who would not turn over his operations to the Italian mafia.

Those three cases, like most of the bolita-related slayings, were not solved. Some alleged that the surviving syndicates used gambling profits to pay off law enforcement, politicians and judges.

How were bolita bets recorded?

This list of bolita bets was evidence seized by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Vice Squad during an arrest in 1959.
This list of bolita bets was evidence seized by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Vice Squad during an arrest in 1959. [ Obtained by the Times ]

A betting sheet taken from the Swift/Castellano raid and an explainer in the Vice Squad report provide some insight into how it all worked.

Two numbers separated by a dash: The figure to the left is the gambler’s chosen number and to the right is the wager. So, 20-100 means someone bet $100 on No. 20.

Stacked numbers on the left grouped with one number to the right: The numbers to the left are numbers chosen by a single better and the number to the right is their wager on each of those numbers.

An example:

33 )

82 ) 10

43 )

This means someone wagered $10 on Nos. 33, 82 and 43 for a total of $30.

Columns with three numbers connected with dashes: These are parlays. The figures to left and right are the wagered numbers, and the middle is the dollar amount. So, “04-15-20″ means someone wagered $15 on numbers 4 and 20 being picked.