Ex-New Orleans Pelicans pitcher Lenny Yochim had life-long baseball journey
Former New Orleans professional baseball player and scout Lenny Yochim once said in a Times-Picayune interview, “I had a good life doing something I love.”
From his teenage days in the 1940s until his retirement in 2002, Yochim spent practically every summer participating in some aspect of the sport to which he was devoted. Altogether he put in almost 60 years on a journey that saw him progress from a high school and Legion star, to local hero for the hometown New Orleans Pelicans, to major-leaguer with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and ultimately to renowned major-league scout.
Yochim’s first exposure to diamond accomplishments was as a sophomore at Holy Cross High School when they defeated S. J. Peters for the state title. The two teams had battled throughout the season that featured pitching duels between Holy Cross’ Dick Callahan and Peters’ Frank Azzarello, the city’s two best hurlers. Yochim also played on the Holy Cross Comiskey’s entry in the American Legion league. They defeated Baton Rouge in the state championship game in which Yochim went 3-for-4.
Yochim missed the 1945 prep season because Holy Cross decided not to field a high school team. However, he still emerged as a productive pitcher and first baseman for Comiskey’s. In a game against Easton, he struck out 17 batters in seven innings, believed to be a Legion record at the time. He was named to the first team All-Legion squad as a pitcher.
Yochim led the city’s prep league in 1946 with five home runs and was named to the All-Prep team as a utility player, since he had both pitched and played first base during the season. The talented group of high school all-stars included eight eventual professional players, including future major leaguers Yochim, Tookie Gilbert, and Putsy Caballero.
Yochim had a red-letter day on the national stage when the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper sponsored a three-game series later that summer in New York City, called “Brooklyn Against the World.” The showcase event featured a team of teenage all-star players from Brooklyn who competed against an all-star team of players from around the United States. Yochim was selected to play for the “World All-Stars” squad. He was the losing pitcher in the first game, but he had the game-winning hit to even the series the next day when he played first base. The Brooklyn All-Stars wound up winning the third game.
Yochim signed with the New Orleans Pelicans, who had a working agreement with the Boston Red Sox, for the 1947 season. The 18-year-old left-hander’s first pro outing came in a spring exhibition game in which the Pels played against defending American League champion Boston Red Sox.
Upon realizing the first batter he would face was Boston’s famed slugger Ted Williams, Yochim later told the Times-Picayune, “My arm got the jumps, my knees starting shaking, and I said to myself, ‘Yochim, that Ted Williams–$250,000 worth of ball player; and if you don’t relax and get that ball in there, you might bean him and then even the skipper might kill you.’ That’s all I was thinking about—not hitting Williams.” Luckily for Yochim, Williams wound up grounding out to first base.
Yochim didn’t stick with the Pelicans and instead was optioned to their affiliate in New Iberia, then part of the Class D Evangeline League. The demotion didn’t discourage him, as he posted 10 straight wins by mid-season and began drawing speculation about the price the Pelicans could command for his services by a big-league club. He went on to win twenty games for New Iberia, while losing only six.
Now 95 years old, Nolan Vicknair, an outfielder on the team for part of the season, recalls playing with Yochim, “Lenny was a big guy; he could really hit the ball. So, our manager would often play him at first base when he wasn’t pitching.” A review of New Iberia’s stats showed that Vicknair had a good memory, as Yochim posted an impressive .343 batting average and seven home runs for the season. Vicknair also remembers him as someone who liked to clown around on their bus rides between towns.
The Pittsburgh Pirates acquired the New Orleans franchise prior to the 1948 season. They sent him to their Class A affiliated in Albany, New York, where he had another fine season with a 14-4 record. He was back with the Pelicans in 1949 and eventually earned a late-season call-up with the Pirates in 1951.
Yochim made his major-league debut on September 18, drawing the starting assignment against the Boston Braves. He was credited with the winning decision as the Pirates downed the Braves, 6-5. He got another start for the seventh-place Bucs on September28, but this time he didn’t make it out of the second inning against Cincinnati.
A mainstay in the Pelicans’ pitching rotation in 1952 and 1953, Yochim claimed 25 victories in that span. During the winter following the 1953 regular season, he played winter ball in Venezuela, where he helped his team get to the league finals. He started the 1954 season with Pittsburgh and pitched in 10 games, mostly in relief. Perhaps the final straw in his stint with the Pirates occurred on June 19, when he tied a major league record by throwing three wild pitches in one inning against Milwaukee. He was sent back to New Orleans where he won seven straight games in the Pels’ race for the pennant.
After only three games with Triple-A Hollywood in 1955, Yochim was back in New Orleans again where he finished with a 12-8 record. The highlight of his pro career occurred over the winter, as he recorded the first-ever no-hitter in Venezuelan professional baseball.
Yochim finished his professional career in 1956, helping the Atlanta Crackers, a Milwaukee Braves affiliate that acquired him in June, win the Southern Association title. A sore arm forced him to quit baseball.
Still only 27 years old when he finished his pro career, he returned to New Orleans, where he continued to play baseball with the Norco Shell Oilers, a prominent local semi-pro team. They occasionally provided practice game competition against local colleges, as well as the Pelicans. Local fans especially enjoyed the semi-pro contests in which he and his older brother Ray were mound opponents. Ray had briefly pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1948 and 1949.
Yochim took his initial step into a major-league scouting career when he signed on with the Kansas City Athletics in 1961. It would turn out to be his profession for over 40 years. He also did a stint with the New York Yankees before he started working for Pittsburgh in 1966. By 1979, he was an area scout, and from 1980 to 1989 he served as a national crosschecker for the Pirates.
Later in his career, Yochim filled senior roles in the organization’s front office as a major-league scout, special assistant to the general manager, and senior advisor for player personnel. He was named the Midwest Scout of the Year in 1994 and received the “Pride of the Pirates” Award in 1996 recognizing the person in the Pirates organization who displayed sportsmanship, character, and dedication during a lifetime of service. He retired in 2002.
Among the countless players he scouted for the Pirates, he was responsible for signing Moises Alou with Pittsburgh, although the prized prospect ultimately spent most of his star-studded career in other major-league organizations. Yochim was credited by Pirates manager Chuck Tanner as being a key factor in the capture of the 1979 World Series against Baltimore because of his insightful scouting report on the Orioles.
In recognition of his long career in baseball, Yochim was elected to the Greater New Orleans Hall of Fame in 1996. He died in 2013 at age 84.
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New Orleans baseball historian
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.