Pelican Stadium, New Orleans (COURTESY OF DERBY GISCLAIR)

Pelican Stadium (New Orleans)

This article was written by Derby Gisclair - Richard Cuicchi


Pelican Stadium, New Orleans (COURTESY OF DERBY GISCLAIR)

New Orleans’ first professional baseball team was the Pelicans, which began participating in Organized Baseball in 1887 in the Southern League.1 The team played at Sportsman’s Park and Athletic Park before moving to its namesake, Pelican Park, in 1908. That park was ultimately dismantled and relocated to its final destination in 1915, where it became Heinemann Park. It wasn’t named Pelican Stadium until 1937.

Over the years, the ballpark played host to Pelicans teams that were affiliates of the Indians, Cardinals, Dodgers, Red Sox, Pirates, and Yankees. Major league teams using New Orleans as a spring training site played exhibition games at the ballpark, as well as Negro League teams. The park remained in service until 1957.

Pelican Park (1908-1914)

Alexander Julius (A.J.) Heinemann got his first taste of baseball as a peanut vendor at Sportsman’s Park, selling a bag of peanuts for a nickel. He drew the attention of the crowds in the bleachers because his assistant Henry was a chimpanzee who would swap the patron a bag of goobers for a coin. But the ambitious Heinemann worked his way up through the ranks and eventually became an officer and shareholder in the New Orleans Pelicans baseball organization2 The principal owner of the Pelicans was Charles Somers of Cleveland. Heinemann was, however, the principal owner of the stadium and grounds where the Pelicans played.

Pelican Park was located on South Carrollton Avenue between Banks Street and Palmyra across from present-day Jesuit High School in the neighborhood now known as Mid-City. The baseball club decided to have its fans name the park, with $100 in prizes being offered. Pelican Park and Magnolia Park were the top two vote-getters, with Pelican Park ultimately being the winner.3

The first contest played in the new park came on March 1, 1908. It was an exhibition game between the hometown Pelicans and Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s, who were training in New Orleans with an eight-game series. The game, played before 5,000 fans, was described by the Daily Picayune as a practice for both teams, with the A’s outscoring the Pels, 4-1.4

With the construction of Pelican Park, the city hosted a bevy of major league clubs over the years. This, however, was not the first time a major league team visited New Orleans. The first such exhibition series came in 1870 when the vaunted Cincinnati Red Stockings played a five-game series against the city’s best amateur teams. New Orleans became the first spring training destination, attracting the Chicago White Stockings, the Boston Beaneaters, the New York Giants, and, of course, the Cincinnati Red Stockings during the 19th century. The Cleveland Indians (then known as the Bronchos) began their off-and-on association with the Crescent City in spring training 1902. As the Naps, they returned in 1903.

The Pelicans opened the Southern Association season at home in their new park on April 8, 1908, against Mobile. In true New Orleans fashion, a parade with horse-drawn white carriages was held, featuring city and ballclub dignitaries. A special train from Mobile carried fans and leading citizens. The Pelicans won the game in 12 innings, 3-2.5

The ballpark sustained extensive damage in a hurricane in 1909.6 During that off-season, Heinemann installed an extravagant new electronic scoreboard that would celebrate along with the fans by blaring sirens and flashing lights when the Pelicans and their popular new hitter, Shoeless Joe Jackson, won a game.7

The Chicago Cubs, who had previously held spring training in New Orleans in 1907, returned in 1911-12.

Heinemann Park (1915-1937)

Heinemann announced plans to construct a new ballpark in the Daily Picayune of Friday, January 8, 1915.8 The park’s wooden grandstand was disassembled in sections and relocated three blocks down Carrollton Avenue by mule teams that dragged the sections to the corner of South Carrollton Avenue and Tulane Avenue at a site referred to as White City. The sections were reassembled, and a new set of bleachers installed. It reopened on April 13, 1915.9

This site had been the location of Athletic Park, which hosted the Pelicans from 1901 to 1907. When the team moved to Pelican Park, the old stadium was razed, and an amusement park –also named White City — was erected on the site. Promoter Charles C. Mathews opened the park on May 4, 1907.10 It was one of several such parks bearing that name because they were illuminated by electric lights.

The new ballpark was named Heinemann Park, after the person responsible for getting the upgraded facility erected. It had a seating capacity of 10,000 fans. The field dimensions were cavernous. Its original configuration was 427 feet down the left field line and 418 feet down the right field line; it was 405 feet to dead center and 460 feet to the gap in left-center. The park had a tile drainage system and sprinkler system installed. It was said to be just as up to date as any major-league park.11

There was a significant amount of fanfare leading up to the first game at Heinemann Park on April 13. New Orleans Mayor Martin Behrman issued a proclamation imploring the city’s merchants to allow its employees to attend the first game, so that the team would have the largest Opening Day attendance in the Southern Association. The residents of New Orleans responded with an overflowing crowd of 10,610 that enjoyed a Pelicans victory over Birmingham, 7-4.12

Heinemann Park continued to attract big league teams during spring training. The Cleveland Indians returned from 1916-20. The Brooklyn Robins followed the Indians in 1921, but then gave way to the most notable visitors: the mighty New York Yankees, who called New Orleans their spring training home from 1922 through 1924. Fans from across the Gulf Coast came to New Orleans to see Babe Ruth, Home Run Baker, Waite Hoyt, Bob Shawkey, and a 20-year old rookie named Lou Gehrig. In a turnaround, the cellar-dwelling Boston Red Sox were Heinemann Park’s spring-training tenants in 1925-27. The Indians then came back once again in 1928 and continued to hold camp in New Orleans through 1939, by which time the ballpark had been renamed.

In 1917 an additional section of shaded grandstands was constructed up the third base line. The fences were brought in and bleachers reconfigured in right field (1923) to accommodate the crowds for the Dixie Series between the Pelicans and the vaunted Fort Worth Cats of the Texas League. A new scoreboard allowed fans not only to see the home game but also to follow the line scores for the six other Southern Association teams on the left side of the scoreboard and both the American and National League contests on the right side.

The ballpark was expanded with new bleachers in left field (1925). This new unshaded bleacher section in left field was segregated and to be used only by black patrons, with a separate entrance, separate concessions, and separate bathrooms.

In its final configuration, Heineman Park was now only 297 feet down the left field line and 292 feet down the right field line, it was 407 feet to dead center and 412 feet to the gap in left-center.

Heinemann was the face of the franchise, but while he was a shareholder and officer of the ball club, the majority owner was still Charles Somers. He was content to let Heinemann oversee the club from the front office while Larry Gilbert served as the field general. Together they compiled a very successful record between1923 and 1938. The first hint of trouble came on January 8, 1930, when Heinemann committed suicide in his office at the ballpark that bore his name.13 For several weeks rumors circulated about the reasons for Heinemann’s suicide, many speculating that his financial fortunes had suffered from the recent stock market crash. In the end it was revealed that he was dealing with severe depression over his failing health and had actually planned his suicide for a number of weeks.

During 1930 and 1931, as Heinemann’s estate was settled — after heated protests from some of Heinemann’s relatives — Somers brought ownership of the land and stadium under the same umbrella that owned the franchise: The New Orleans Baseball & Amusement Company. Although Somers stepped in to purchase Heinemann’s ownership in both the ballclub and the stadium, the club faltered as several attempts were made to fill the void left by Heinemann’s death.

Without the involvement of Heinemann, the long history of New Orleans as a destination for spring training seemed to be in jeopardy. Teams were being lured to cities in Florida and California. In stepped Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long, who not only convinced the Indians to remain in New Orleans for another 10 years but became a shareholder in the club.14

Across the Southern Association, teams were installing electric lights to accommodate fans with night games. Before New Orleans could do so, Somers died in Put-In Bay, just north of Sandusky, Ohio, on June 28, 1934. With Somers’ ownership stake in the Pelicans and their ballpark in limbo as his estate was settled, no capital expenditures were forthcoming, and Heinemann Park remained in the dark until May 15, 1936. On that evening the Pelicans played their first night game at home, falling to the Atlanta Crackers 11-5. New Orleans was one of the last Southern Association stadiums to install electric lights to illuminate their ballpark.

The long standing relationship between the New Orleans Pelicans and the Cleveland Indians took on a new dimension when the Pelicans were called on to stash a young Bob Feller away from the prying eyes of other major league scouts who wanted a look at “the heater from Van Meter.” Feller was closeted away at the Roosevelt Hotel, and tutored by teachers from Warren Easton High School until he graduated, during which time he never set foot into Heinemann Park lest anyone catch wind of what was going on. When word reached Commissioner Landis, he scoffed at the paper trail outlining the transfer of Feller’s contract from the Fargo-Morehead Twins to the New Orleans Pelicans and then from New Orleans to Cleveland.15

New Orleans had a vibrant and enthusiastic baseball presence among the city’s African-American population, but especially when it came to Negro League teams. The New Orleans Black Pelicans played in the Negro Southern League and used Heinemann Park when their white counterparts were on the road.

The stadium had the same arrangement for other black teams such as the New Orleans Crescent Stars, the New Orleans Eagles, the Caulfield Ads, the Algiers Giants, the Jax Red Sox, and the New Orleans Creoles. The sponsorship of local businesses was visible. Dr. Nut, the almond-flavored soft drink that was later mentioned prominently in the New Orleans novel A Confederacy of Dunces, backed the Algiers Giants. Jax was a beer brewed by the city’s Jackson Brewing Company.

Pelican Stadium (1938-1957)

Discussions with several interested parties began almost immediately after Somers’ death. However, it was not until early 1937 that a group of New Orleans businessmen came together to submit an offer.

On August 11, 1937, the New Orleans Baseball & Amusement Company was sold by the estate of Charles Somers to a syndicate of local businessmen led by Colonel Seymour Weiss, A.B. Freeman (president of the Coca-Cola distributor), A.B. Patterson (president of New Orleans Public Service), Horace Williams (a contractor), and others, including Louisiana’s Governor Richard Leche. The selling price was reported to be $203,000 for the franchise. The land and stadium were purchased separately for $115,000 by Mayor Robert Maestri. He had already made his fortune investing in New Orleans real estate, but his political position precluded him from any ownership in the team itself. However, as the team’s new landlord, Maestri agreed to make $150,000 in improvements to the facility over the next two years and further agreed to $12,000 per year in rent. The total package was $418,000, or $795 per share for the franchise, equipment, uniforms, stadium, and land.16,17

The ballpark was renamed Pelican Stadium for the start of the 1938 season. There was an obvious atmosphere of optimism on Opening Day. Since 1910 there had been a friendly competition among the Southern Association clubs to see who could draw the largest Opening Day attendance. The winner received a gold trophy and considerable bragging rights. Maestri, the newly minted owner of Pelican Stadium, threw out the first pitch before an overflow crowd of 26,261 fans stuffed into every corner of the ballpark, probably with something more than a wink and a nod to the fire department. The delighted crowd would see their Pelicans defeat the Memphis Chicks, 7-2. It was the largest Opening Day crowd in Southern Association history.

The strong connection with black baseball continued. Local black entrepreneur Allen Page promoted and bankrolled frequent Negro League exhibition games. From 1939 through 1944, he organized the annual North-South Negro Leagues All-Star games at Pelican Stadium that were quite successful.18, 19, 20

Black barnstorming all-star teams — featuring Negro League royalty such as Cool Papa Bell, Buck Leonard, Mule Suttles, Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, and Roy Campanella — took the field at either Heinemann Park or Pelican Stadium. The very last game of the 1948 Negro League World Series between the Homestead Grays and the Birmingham Black Barons took place at Pelican Stadium.21

However, a potent combination — declining attendance at the ballpark in favor of watching major league games on television and a city-wide boycott from the African American community in 1957 — further eroded attendance. Similar circumstances unfolded in other Southern Association cities like Birmingham, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Little Rock that weakened the league. The final game in Pelican Stadium was played Saturday, September 1, 1957, before a sparse crowd of 941 who saw the Pelicans defeated by the Memphis Chicks, 7-3.

Pelican Stadium was demolished in 1958 to make way for the 400-room Fontainebleau Hotel. As fate would have it, Vincent Rizzo, who was the last general manager of the New Orleans Pelicans, became the general manager of the property. A state historical marker was erected on the site on January 15, 2013, with the assistance of the members of the Schott-Pelican Chapter of SABR.

The Pelicans played their last season in New Orleans in 1959, after which the franchise was discontinued and relocated to Little Rock. With its biggest city no longer represented in the league, the Southern Association folded after the 1960 season. New Orleans hosted another Pelicans team in 1977 as a Triple-A Cardinals affiliate, and the team played its home games in the Louisiana Superdome, which had a baseball configuration.

 

Acknowledgments

This article was reviewed by Rory Costello and Gregory H. Wolf and fact-checked by Chris Rainey.

 

Sources

In addition to the Notes, the authors used the following sources:

“Admission Paid by 10,610 Persons At Opening Game,” Times-Picayune, April 14, 1915: 1.

“Heinemann Park Sounds Like Good Name for New Grounds,” Times-Picayune, February 198, 1915: 11.

The Historical Marker Database, https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=100503 (accessed April 2, 2020).

“Proclamation: State of Louisiana, Mayoralty of New Orleans,” Times-Picayune, April 11, 1915: 12.

Gisclair, S. Derby. Baseball in New Orleans, (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2004).

Gisclair, S. Derby. Early Baseball in New Orleans: A History of 19th Century Play, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company Inc., 2019).

Keefe, Bill. “Birds Bid Adieu to Pel Stadium, Losing to Chicks, 7-3,” Times-Picayune, September 2, 1957: 13.

Springtrainingonline.com

 

Notes

1 N.B. — New Orleans teams were often made up of professional baseball players even though their teams competed in an amateur league. Whether being paid to play baseball constituted a professional team is a difficult concept to address, especially when payment was not done through a formal contract arrangement. Such is the case with two earlier teams from New Orleans, the R..E. Lees and the New Orleans Base Ball Club, who played in the Gulf League in 1887 and 1888. Many of the players on these “professional” teams had other jobs during the season which only further clouds the issue.

2 “Junior Baseball Partner, Now a Rich Young Bachelor and Good Catch, Once Sold Peanuts,” New Orleans Item, January 6, 1910: 10.

3 “Pelican Park is the Leading Name,” Times-Picayune (published as Daily Picayune), March 11, 1908: 10

4 “Opening of the Baseball Season: Fans Were Hungry for Baseball,” Times-Picayune (published as Daily Picayune), March 2, 1908: 12.

5 “Southern League Baseball Season’s Brilliant Opening,” Times-Picayune (published as Daily Picayune), April 16, 1908: 11.

6 “Mayor Flashes City’s Triumph Over Hurricane,” New Orleans Item, September 21, 1909: 1.

7 “Charley Frank Back Again; Pelican Chief Awaits Murphy,” Times-Picayune, January 25, 1910: 12.

8 “Pelicans Will Play in White City This Season,” Times-Picayune, January 8, 1915: 7.

9 “Atlanta Now Greets the Pelicans — Tense Moments in Local Opening,” New Orleans Item, April 14, 1915: 26.

10 “Opening of the White City,” New Orleans Item, May 4, 1907: 2.

11 “New Park Will Be Hummer—Heiney,” Times-Picayune (published as Daily Picayune), January 15, 1915: 11.

12 “Much Talk and Some Facts on Opener,” New Orleans Item, April 14, 1915: 10.

13 “Baseball Magnate Mourned,” New Orleans Item, January 9, 1930: 1.

14 “Looks Like Pennant for Cleveland is Sure,” New Orleans States, March 27, 1931: 4

15 Schneider, Russell. The Cleveland Encyclopedia — Third Edition. (Champaign, IL: Sports Publishing: 2004)

16 “Transfer of Pelican Baseball Club to Local Business Men Completed,” Times-Picayune, August 12, 1937: 13

17 “Maestri in on Pel Transfers,” New Orleans Item, August 12, 1937: 20

18 “Pitcher Sought to Oppose Satchel Paige on Sunday,” New Orleans States, May 11, 1939: 16.

19 “New Orleans Sports Play Shreveport Giants Today,” Times-Picayune, September 24, 1939: 52.

20 “Negro Nines Vie Here Wednesday,” Times-Picayune, June 18, 1944: 28.

21 “Grays New Negro World Champions,” Times-Picayune, October 5, 1948: 19.

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