The baseball Pelicans: New Orleans’ original home team
New Orleans had its appetite whetted for professional baseball even before the Civil War, with amateur baseball in the city dating as far back as 1859. The Cincinnati Red Stockings, recognized as baseball’s first professional team, played a series of exhibitions in the Crescent City in 1870. The Boston Beaneaters held their spring training in New Orleans in 1884. Then, on April 17, 1887, local fans got a team of their own, when the Pelicans — a member of the Southern League — took the field for the first time. It would be the start of a fondly remembered baseball tradition in the Crescent City that would span generations.
The original Pelicans played their final season in 1959, although a namesake franchise played one season in the Superdome as a member of the American Association in 1977. The Pelicans name has since been assumed by New Orleans’ NBA team, but the mantel of professional baseball in New Orleans was taken up in 1993 by the Triple-A Zephyrs, which in 2017 were renamed the Baby Cakes.
- The original Pelicans played their games in Sportsman’s Park, which was located on City Park Avenue near where the Pontchartrain Expressway runs today. In 1901, they moved to Pelican Park, at Banks Street and Carrollton Avenue. In 1915, the grandstand was towed by mules down the street to South Carrollton and Tulane avenues to Heinemann Park — better known as Pelican Stadium — where the team played until 1957.
- In their first season, the Pelicans finished with a record of 74-40 and won the Southern League pennant. For most of the first half of the 20th century, the Pels — as they would become known — were the real deal, finishing first in the division all but five times between 1901 and 1938.
- Abner Powell, captain of the first Pelicans team, was named manager a year later and is credited with the idea of using a tarp to cover the infield from rain. Powell is also often credited with introducing rain checks and “Ladies Day,” although there is some dispute, with some saying they were in existence earlier.
- The Pelicans began as members of the 2-year-old Southern League, which disbanded during the 1899 season. The Southern Association was born two years later, with the Pels being an inaugural member.
- The Pelicans over the years served as a minor league affiliate to the Cleveland Indians, Brooklyn Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Yankees.
- Among the baseball immortals who played at Pelican Stadium at one time or another were Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Sandy Koufax, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and Eddie Matthews.
- In 1940, Olympic hero Jesse Owens took the field at Pelican Stadium, but not for a baseball game. He was there to race a motorcycle as part of an exhibition during the intermission of a Negro Leagues game being played at the park. Owens won.
- “It was just a good place to play,” former Pelicans player Gene Freese said, reminiscing about Pelican Stadium in a 1997 interview with The Times-Picayune. “They would give out chicken dinners for home runs at Delicate Jerry’s and chicken-fried steaks for home runs at College Inn. You got slacks from Nowak’s for hitting home runs.”
- Pelican Stadium was shuttered in 1957 when its owners decided it was cost-prohibitive to operate. For their final two years of existence, the Pels played at City Park Stadium.
- Across Tulane Avenue from the stadium was a watering hole that was almost as revered as the stadium itself: the Home Plate Inn. It closed in 2005 as Hurricane Katrina approached and never reopened.
- In January 2013, a historical marker was unveiled at the site of old Pelican Stadium, which is now occupied by a Burger King fast-food restaurant and a storage facility.
- Some 17 years before the Pelicans were officially formed, a team sporting the name was slapped together to play against the Cincinnati Red Stockings when they swung through New Orleans for a five-game exhibition series. The first game did not end well for the Pelicans. They lost, by a score of 51-1.