Flashback: Tad Gormley Stadium home to New Orleans Pelicans baseball team in 1958-59
When New Orleanians think of Tad Gormley Stadium they usually don’t think “baseball.” It’s more likely they attended football, soccer, or track and field events there.
Yet the stadium, then known as City Park Stadium, was transformed into the home baseball field of the minor-league New Orleans Pelicans for the 1958 and 1959 seasons.
The Pelicans played their last game on their long-time home diamond at Pelican Stadium in 1957. With the team deep in debt at the end of the season, the stadium at the corner of Tulane and Carrollton avenues was razed. In an effort to retain the team, the city decided to allow use of City Park Stadium, which was met with resistance from nearby property owners who filed a lawsuit against the Pelicans. Others argued the facility was intended for the use by the city’s youth, not professional sports. However, the court judged in favor of the Pelicans, with the organization promising not to damage or destroy any of the physical beauty of the stadium.
Since City Park Stadium had been built during the Depression years to only support football and track and field events, modifications were required to convert it into a baseball venue. Pelicans general manager Vincent Rizzo and his engineers took a similar approach to the way in which the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was temporarily adapted for major-league baseball, after the Los Angeles Dodgers moved from Brooklyn after the 1957 season.
City Park Stadium’s outfield dimensions from home plate ended up being 254 feet in left field, 320 in right field, 380 feet in center field and right-center, and 360 in left-center. To compensate for the unusually short left-field fence, a 50-foot high screen was placed in left field for 25 yards. A lower fence encircled the rest of the outfield. 400 floodlights were added to the existing lighting system, and 4,000 arm and back-rest type seats were installed.
The Pelicans were slated to be the Double-A affiliate of the New York Yankees for the second straight year.
The road to get the modified stadium ready for the 1958 regular season was rocky. It took until March 4 for the Pelicans organization to produce $50,000 required by its Board of Directors to start the season. The Yankees threatened to revoke its affiliation because of the Pelicans’ tardiness in getting its financial house in order. On March 8, New Orleans Mayor Chep Morrison finally secured the pact with the Yankees. The Pelicans had only five weeks to make the changes to the stadium.
Charlie Silvera, who was a catcher with the Yankees for nine seasons, was named the player-manager. First baseman Frank Leja, an $80,000 bonus baby, was assigned to the team. Outfielder Jack Reed, a former football and baseball player at Ole Miss, came to New Orleans, along with outfielders Ken Hunt and Russ Snyder, who were held over from the 1957 Pels. Pitcher Robert Riesener, who went 20-0 with Class C Alexandria (Evangeline League) and also saw action in two games with the Pels in 1957, returned in 1958.
After three road games opening the season at Mobile on April 11-13, the first game in City Park Stadium was scheduled for April 14 against the Bears in a five-game series. The stadium work was finished on time, except for a portion of the lighting.
Due to rain, the home opener was pushed back to the next day. The Pelicans lost to Mobile, 6-0, before 5,531 fans. The stadium’s new lights got rave reviews, even though three of six new light standards had yet to been installed.
Right-handed batters took advantage of the short left field fence, with the Pelicans getting their share of home runs. Balls hit into the left field fence extension turned into automatic singles or, in some cases, doubles. Encouraged by his team’s early slugging sprees, Rizzo said, “This park could win a pennant for us.”
The Pels’ offense posted a respectable slash line of .273/.359/.434. for the season. With the benefit of the relatively short fences, the team hit 180 home runs, compared to only 60 the season before. Ken Hunt and Frank Leja led the team with 29 each.
But Rizzo couldn’t have been more wrong about winning a pennant. The team finished last in the Southern Association standings with a 57-94 record. Attendance for the season was a meager 50,369, which was an average of less than 700 per game. In retrospect, the high attendance at the first game in April was likely attributed to the fans’ curiosity to see the new stadium.
In 1959 former Boston Red Sox pitcher Mel Parnell, a native New Orleanian, became the Pels’ manager. Two other former big-leaguers from New Orleans, Tookie Gilbert and Jack Kramer, were activated as players to boost attendance. The Pelicans improved to sixth place in the league, posting a 68-81 record. But the team continued to struggle financially and was moved to Little Rock in 1960. The last baseball game in City Park Stadium was played on September 7, 1959.
According to Pie Dufour’s April 15, 1958, column in the New Orleans States, City Park Stadium was the fifth ballpark in the Pelicans’ 72-year history.
City Park Stadium was officially renamed Tad Gormley Stadium in December 1965, shortly after Gormley’s death.
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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.