Hometown Heroes: Turning back the clock to 1952
Crescent City Sports features a weekly post about current performances of professional baseball players from Louisiana high schools and colleges. It’s interesting to follow the current major leaguers, as well as the progression of ballplayers through the minor league levels, trying to figure out who might be the next Rusty Staub or Will Clark.
New Orleans has a rich history of high school, college, and professional baseball, going all the way back to 1874 when area native Johnny Peters played for the Chicago White Stockings of the National Association, one of the first recognized major-league organizations.
So, who were some of the hometown heroes of yesteryear? If we could turn back the clock to 1952, for example, who would we have been following then from the New Orleans area?
Here’s a look at some of those players that were active in professional baseball 65 years ago.
Major League Players
Howie Pollet had one of the worst seasons of his 14-year major-league career in 1952 from a won-lost perspective. He posted a 7-16 record for the last-place Pittsburgh Pirates, who won only 42 games that year. Pollet had signed out of Fortier High School with the St. Louis Cardinals, and by age 20 he was pitching in the big-leagues.
The lefty Pollet was one of the top two pitchers in the National League in 1946 (leading the league in wins and ERA) when he helped lead the Cardinals to a World Series championship.
Connie Ryan played in every game of the 1952 season with the Philadelphia Phillies, compiling a .241 batting average, 12 HR and 49 RBI. After graduating from Jesuit High School in 1938 and attending LSU for a year, the infielder signed his first professional contract in 1940. He made his major-league debut with the New York Giants in 1942.
A National League all-star selection in 1944, Ryan played in 12 major-league seasons, followed by an extensive career as a major-league coach in the Braves and Rangers organizations.
Ralph “Putsy” Caballero was a backup infielder with the Philadelphia Phillies in his last major-league season in 1952. He first gained national attention when he played with the big-league Phillies as a 16-year-old in 1944. The graduate of Jesuit High School got this unique opportunity when many major-league players had been called into military service during World War II, and replacement players were being sought from non-traditional sources. Caballero was a member of the 1950 Philadelphia “Whiz Kids” team that won the National League pennant.
Mel Parnell was in this sixth major-league season with the Boston Red Sox in 1952, when he compiled a 12-12 record and 3.62 ERA. The graduate of S. J. Peters High School first signed with the Red Sox organization in 1941. He recorded one of the best seasons in baseball history as a pitcher in 1949 when he led the American League in Wins (25), ERA (2.77), and Complete Games (27).
Parnell still holds several Red Sox team records for left-handed pitchers and his a member of the Red Sox Hall of Fame.
George Strickland split the 1952 season between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cleveland Indians, hitting a combined .188, with 6 HR and 30 RBI. He was the starting shortstop for the 1954 Cleveland Indians team that won the American League pennant with a 111-43 record. He made his professional debut as a 17-year-old in three games with the New Orleans Pelicans in 1943 after finishing high school at S. J. Peters.
Strickland managed the Cleveland Indians for parts of the 1964 and 1966 seasons.
Minor League Players
Jack Kramer was on his way out of professional baseball in 1952, appearing with Dallas in the Texas League in only six games. The right-handed pitcher had originally signed with the St. Louis Browns organization out of S. J. Peters High School in 1936. One of his best seasons came in 1944 when he recorded 17 victories for the American League pennant-winning St. Louis Browns. In 1948 he posted an 18-5 record with the Boston Red Sox.
Harold “Tookie” Gilbert was an outfielder for Oakland in the Pacific Coast League in 1952, putting up 31 HR and 118 RBI in 177 games (at a time when the PCL played an elongated season). He had been one of the top amateur prospects in the nation when he graduated from Jesuit High School.
In a time before the major-league draft, Gilbert was courted heavily by six major-league organizations, ultimately signing with the New York Giants for $50,000 in 1947. He made his big-league debut with them in 1950, but by age 24 he was out of baseball until he attempted a comeback with the New Orleans Pelicans in 1959.
Gilbert’s father, Larry Sr., was the legendary player-manager for the New Orleans Pelicans, while his brother, Charlie, also had a brief major-league career.
Lou Klein played for San Diego in the Pacific Coast League in 1952, when he posted a .280 batting average, 4 HR and 44 RBI. A graduate of S. J. Peters High School, he made his major-league debut with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1943. Altogether he played in five major-league seasons as part of his 17 professional years. In 1961 and 1962, he became a member of the ill-fated “College of Coaches,” a highly criticized concept used by Chicago Cubs ownership to share the team’s managerial responsibilities among a committee of eight coaches.
Lenny Yochim was a hometown pitcher in 1952 that local fans were able to see as a member of the New Orleans Pelicans. His season with the Pels, then a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate, included an 11-8 won-lost record and a 5.09 ERA. A graduate of Holy Cross High School, his first pro season in 1947 was with New Iberia of the Louisiana-based Evangeline League.
Yochim made his major-league debut with the Pirates in 1951 and also played in a few games with them in 1954. He later became a major-league scout and front office executive in the Pirates organization from 1966 to 2004.
Ray Yochim, Lenny’s brother, split the 1952 season between Texarkana of the Class B Big State League and Little Rock of the Southern Association. He had a combined record of 4 wins and 9 losses that year. The national baseball publication, The Sporting News, had erroneously reported his death during his overseas military service during World War II. Originally signed by the St. Louis Cardinals out of Holy Cross High School in 1941, he pitched briefly in two major-league seasons in 1948 and 1949
Charles LaCoste, a St. Aloysius graduate, was in his second pro season in 1952 when he played with Thibodaux in the Evangeline League and Blackwell in the Kansas-Missouri-Oklahoma League, part of the Chicago Cubs farm system. With Blackwell, he batted .284 in 59 games. LaCoste played in the low minors through 1956.
Mike Trapani had a stellar season in his first pro campaign in 1952, when he hit .320 for Hamilton in the PONY League. He helped the Cardinals’ farm team win their first league title since joining the circuit 13 years prior. Trapani had attended Redemptorist High School and Tulane before becoming a professional. The outfielder played two more seasons after 1952 before his career ended.
Tony Roig was in the military service during 1952, but had been playing in the minors since 1948 when he signed with the Detroit Tigers organization. A graduate of Fortier High School, the infielder made his major-league debut with the Washington Senators in 1953. He appeared with the Senators in parts of two other seasons during his 13-year pro career. He then played professionally in Japan from 1963 to 1968.
Floyd Fogg started out the 1952 season with the New Orleans Pelicans and was then dealt to Memphis in the Chicago White Sox organization. The outfielder from Slidell made his professional debut in 1945 as a 19-year-old with Nashville, where New Orleans-native Larry Gilbert Sr. was the manager. Ending his pro career in 1954, Fogg spent a total of 10 seasons in the minors.
Pete Modica pitched for Nashville in 1952, when he posted a 13-9 record and 3.84 ERA. A product of S. J. Peters High School, Modica started his professional career in 1942 with the St. Louis Cardinals organization. During his 12-year career, he pitched for the New Orleans Pelicans for six seasons and reached the Triple-A level in the Red Sox, Pirates, and Giants organizations.
Melvin Rue signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in 1943 out of S. J. Peters High School and played his first season with Class D Olean in the PONY League where he batted .235 in 53 games. In 1944 the infielder moved to the New Orleans Pelicans, then a Dodgers affiliate, and continued with them through 1949. He remained in the minors until 1954, bouncing around with several organizations.
An extensive list of New Orleans metro area players who went on to college and professional careers can be viewed at http://www.thetenthinning.com/articles.html.
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Richard Cuicchi, Founder of the Metro New Orleans Area Baseball Player Database and a New Orleans area baseball historian, maintains TheTenthInning.com website. He also authored the book, Family Ties: A Comprehensive Collection of Facts and Trivia About Baseball’s Relatives. He has contributed to numerous SABR-sponsored Bio Project and Games Project books.