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New Orleans and Baseball

Sep 04 2005 02:54 PM

From today's Ft. Worth Star-Telegram.

New Orleans will always possess powerful ties to national pastime

MLB Insider

T.R. Sullivan

Former Rangers first baseman Will Clark is from New Orleans, Shoeless Joe Jackson played there before posting Hall of Fame numbers in the major leagues, and legendary Fort Worth Cats manager Jake Atz died there.

The Rangers almost traded Alex Rodriguez to the Boston Red Sox during the 2003 winter meetings held in the Crescent City.

But the biggest impact New Orleans might have had on baseball goes all the way back to 1887 and a man named Abner Powell, who was playing for the Pelicans in the Southern League.

According to S. Derby Gisclair, the city’s ranking baseball historian, Powell noticed longshoremen on the New Orleans’ waterfront covering mountains of cotton bales with a canvas tarpaulin when it rained. This kept them from becoming soaked and too heavy to load.

Powell wasn’t worried about cotton so much as being paid. Back then, players weren’t paid if games were rained out, so Powell came up with the idea of using a modified version of the tarp to cover the infield during rainstorms and cut down the number of washouts.

Powell also came up with the idea ofthe detachable rain check that is now used on all baseball tickets.

The idea of the tarp caught on quickly, because after the Civil War and before World War II, New Orleans was both the first and a favorite spot for spring training.

In 1870, the Chicago White Stockings came to New Orleans to play the touring Cincinnati Red Stockings, but ended up staying for several weeks while getting ready for the season.

Others followed, most notably the Chicago White Sox and the Cleveland Indians. The Yankees trained in New Orleans in 1922-24 and having Babe Ruth around was no doubt a Big Easy bonanza for Bourbon Street.

They’re not playing baseball today in New Orleans as the city endures almost unimaginable destruction and human suffering brought on by Hurricane Katrina.

But one of America’s greatest cities has long been steeped in rich and colorful baseball lore that can never be washed away. You would expect nothing less from the hometown of Henry “Zeke” Bonura, the “Czar of North African Baseball.”

Bonura, a native of New Orleans, played for the Chicago White Sox in the 1930s, but brought his career to an end when World War II broke out and he announced, “Uncle Sam needs me more than baseball.”

Sgt. Bonura was posted to Algeria in North Africa where, to benefit the morale of American soldiers, he organized no less than six leagues comprising 150 teams and 1,000 players.

The 1943 North African World Series between the Casablanca Yankees and the Algiers Streetwalkers — you can’t make this up — was broadcast on Armed Forces Radio and the winners received baseballs signed by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Rusty Staub, who collected 102 of his 2,716 major league hits with the Rangers, is from New Orleans. So was Connie Ryan, who was one of four managers employed by the Rangers in 1977; Mel Ott, who hit 511 home runs in a Hall of Fame career with the New York Giants; and Mel Parnell, a two-time 20-game winner for the Boston Red Sox who grew up riding the street car to Pelican Park.

That area is now under water and so is the baseball field at Jesuit High named after Will Clark.

“My baseball hero was Mel Ott,” Parnell told authors Harvey and Frederic Frommer in their book Growing Up Baseball.

“When I got to meet him we became great friends,” Parnell said. “He and I used to go into the ‘Bad Boy Home’ and play baseball with the kids who were in trouble. Mel would play on one team, and I would play on the other. We would talk with the kids and try to let baseball convert them from their bad habits.”

Danny Murtaugh, who manage two World Series winners with the Pirates, was once the skipper of the Pelicans, and Earl Weaver played there as a minor leaguer. So did Tony La Russa, while studying to be a lawyer at Florida State.

For many years, roughly 1959 to ’93 — not counting one failed attempt in the 1970s — New Orleans was the largest city in America without a minor league baseball team, amazing considering that 63,625 people showed up in 1927 to watch the Pelicans play Wichita Falls in the first game of the Dixie Series.

But the Denver Zephyrs relocated when the Colorado Rockies began play in 1993, and New Orleans has won two Pacific Coast League titles. Now they’re the Triple A affiliate of the Washington Nationals with Tim Foli as their manager

The future might seem bleak, but one would think that the town famous for the first spring training, the infield tarp, Will the Thrill and “The Czar of North African Baseball” still has much more to give to the national pastime.

Sep 04 2005 03:11 PM

Not to mention Ron Swoboda. Hope he's okay.