Louisiana is primarily known for its football. LSU football and the New Orleans Saints are by far the two most popular sports teams in the state. Yet, the state has a long and colorfully history with America’s Pastime—baseball. The LSU baseball program is one of the most prestigious in the country. They have won six national titles, routinely have players drafted by professional teams and succeed in the Major Leagues. New Orleans also currently hosts a Triple-A affiliate of the Miami Marlins—the Baby Cakes—who began their life as the Zephyrs in 1993. Yet the history of baseball in Louisiana goes back much farther than that. One of the oldest and most notable baseball teams in Louisiana was the New Orleans Pelicans, who served as the inspiration for the renaming of the NBA’s New Orleans Hornets in 2013.
|The Pelicans Logo|
The original Pelicans were founded in 1865 as an amateur sporting association. These types of groups were common in the early days of baseball. In cities across the United States, men interested in playing baseball joined together and created local amateur teams—similar to recreational leagues of today. They would scrimmage against one another or play other local teams. At this point, the rules of baseball were still very much in flux, rules governing strikes and balls, the size of the field, the type of ball all varied from city to city or even team to team. Players came and went from teams. Teams would play one week, dissolve the next, and reform under a few name a few weeks later. Some more talented players earned money by offering their services to the team most willing to pay. Games took place during the day and on weekends, though Sunday games caused consternation amongst moral and religious reformers who felt that Sunday should be reserved for church, not recreation.
In the late 19thcentury, teams across the United States began organizing professional leagues. In 1887, the Pelicans joined the Southern League, one of the country’s growing number of professional leagues, where they played intermittently until 1899. Like any number of the professional leagues that popped up in the 1880s and 1890s, the Southern League suffered from persistent financial problems. Teams entered and left the league on a yearly basis and the league lacked the power to centralize or collect revenue. Seasons began in April and would sometimes end in July or earlier when teams simply ran out of money or quit. In 1888, for example, the Southern League only had four teams. The league dissolved in 1899.
|The 1910 Championship Pelicans|
The competition and failure of various professional baseball leagues eventually gave way to consolidation. In 1901, the Pelicans joined the newly formed Southern Association, consisting of former teams from the Southern League. With seven permanent members: the Atlanta Crackers, Birmingham Barons, Chattanooga Lookouts, Little Rock Travelers, Memphis Chicks, Nashville Vols, and Pelicans, the Southern Association had a stable foundation. Three other teams: the Knoxville Smokies, the Mobile Bears, or Shreveport Sports rotated through the eighth slot. The Association began its existence as a Class A league—meaning that the players were three levels below the major leagues. The Pelicans played in a variety of parks around the city of New Orleans. From 1901-1908, they played in Athletic Park on the south side of Tulane Avenue near South Carrollton Avenue. In 1909, they moved to Pelican Park just down the street, and then relocated to their permanent home on South Carrollton at the intersection of Tulane Avenue. The park had various names, but remained the home of the Pelicans until 1957. The park was torn down in 1957 and became a hotel, storage units for Xavier University, and is presently the site of a Burger King.
The Pelicans featured a number of famous players. In 1910, Shoeless Joe Jackson, of the Black Sox Scandal fame, hit .354, winning the league batting title and leading the Pelicans to the pennant. In their existence, the Pelicans won 17 league titles in the Southern League and Southern Association. Beginning in the 1930s, the Pelicans entered into an agreement with the Cleveland Indians to serve as one of their minor league farm teams. Prior to the formation of farm systems (a process that began in the 1930s, but did not accelerate until the late 40s) major league teams simply purchased the contracts of players from independently owned and operated minor league teams. Thanks to the work of legendary baseball executive Branch Rickey (of Jackie Robinson signing fame), teams entered reciprocal agreements with minor league teams. Major league franchises had the benefit of developing young players and teams like the Pelicans were guaranteed a continuous supply of players. Throughout their history the Pelicans served as a farm club for the Indians, St. Louis Cardinals, Brooklyn Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, Pittsburgh Pirates, and New York Yankees.
By the 1950s, however, the Southern Association was in trouble. After Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in minor league baseball in 1946 (the major league barrier would fall in 1947), the major and minor leagues began the slow and contentious process of integration. Teams in the Southern Association, bolstered by the South’s Jim Crow laws, refused to integrate. Only one African-American player, Nat Peoples, ever played in the Southern Association—for two games in 1954. While the Association became a target of Civil Rights activists, it remained segregated until its collapse in 1961. By the late 1950s, the league became financially and geographically unstable. Money problems forced Little Rock to move to Shreveport in 1958. Similar pressures led the Pelicans to move to Little Rock in 1959. Memphis’s stadium burned down in 1960. Facing pressure to integrate, the remaining teams in the Association moved to different integrated leagues and the Southern Association dissolved in 1961.
While the Pelicans would reappear for a single season in 1977 thanks to a Tulsa oil baron, professional baseball would not return to New Orleans until 1993 and the arrival of the Zephyrs, a Triple-A franchise.