Now hoopsters, the New Orleans Pelicans have memorable baseball heritage

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Pelicans baseballNew Orleanians know of a locally-produced song whose refrain is “ain’t there no more,” which refers to popular businesses and landmarks of the Crescent City that ceased to exist over the years.  The current New Orleans Pelicans are now an NBA team, having changed their mascot name from the Hornets for the 2013-2014 season. However, for many old-time baseball enthusiasts the Pelicans will always be remembered as the local professional baseball team, even though it “ain’t there no more.”

The last time the Pelicans name was associated with a baseball franchise in New Orleans was in 1977. Let’s take a nostalgic look back at that time, the team, and its players.

Prior to that team, Organized Baseball had not fielded a baseball team in New Orleans since 1959, the last year of existence for the previous New Orleans Pelicans who had a near continuous presence since 1887.  When minor-league baseball owner A. Ray Smith offered to relocate his Triple-A Cardinals franchise to the city for the 1977 season, folks in New Orleans thought it only natural that they would have a professional baseball team again, hopefully leading to a future major-league club.  In fact, at the time, the city had a relatively new stadium, the Louisiana Superdome, where such a team could play.  The planners and designers of the Superdome had conceived and developed a baseball configuration, in anticipation of eventually getting a major-league baseball team.  Securing the minor-league Pelicans in the city seemed like a good next step.

The 1977 Pelicans finished with a 57-79 won-lost record, placing last in the four-team West Division of the American Association, a Triple-A league.  The attendance at Pelicans games was 217,957, outpacing all teams in the American Association except league champion Denver Bears (288,167).

So, who were some the players for the New Orleans Pelicans in 1977 and whatever became of them in baseball?

Outfielder Benny Ayala made the American Association’s post-season All-Star team in 1977.  He led the Pelicans with 18 home runs and finished second in RBI with 78.  He went on to play 10 seasons in the majors, appearing in two World Series with the Baltimore Orioles.

As a rookie, Pat Darcy pitched for the Cincinnati Reds in the 1975 World Series against the Boston Red Sox.  However, he appeared in only three games for the Pelicans in 1977, and shortly afterwards he was out of baseball due to injuries.

Steve Dunning was a first-round draft pick (2nd overall) in 1970 for the Cleveland Indians and went straight to the majors from Stanford University.  He hurled 10 complete games in 24 starts for the Pelicans, but led the team with 13 losing decisions.  He wound up only winning 23 of his 64 career major-league decisions.

Of the pitchers on the Pelicans team, Pete Falcone had the most extensive pitching career in the big leagues, as he posted a 70-90 major- league won-lost record over ten seasons.

Outfielder Dane Iorg made his major-league debut for the Philadelphia Phillies on April 9, before being sent to New Orleans in a mid-June trade with the St. Louis Cardinals.  His major-league playing career covered 10 years, and he appeared in two World Series, with the Cardinals in 1982 and the Kansas City Royals in 1985.  His post-season batting average was .522.  His brother, Garth Iorg, was also a major league player.

Second baseman Ken Oberkfell made his major-league debut with the St. Louis Cardinals on August 22, 1977, after being one of the key players for the Pelicans.  He had a distinguished 16-year major league career, batting .278 and appearing in two World Series, in 1982 with the Cardinals and in 1989 with the San Francisco Giants.  Oberkfell returned to New Orleans when he managed the Zephyrs as a Mets Triple-A affiliate in 2007 and part of 2008.

Catcher John Tamargo hit 10 home runs and 42 RBI for the Pelicans.  He also returned to New Orleans in 1998 as the manager of the Triple-A Zephyrs in the Astros organization, when they won the Pacific Coast League championship. Tamargo’s daughter played for the Colorado Silver Bullets (a women’s professional team from 1994-1997), and his son is currently a minor-league coach.

At age 32, Tony La Russa was the “old man” of the Pelicans team, whose average age was 25.  He made his major league debut in 1963, and the 1977 season was his last as a player.  He appeared in 50 games for the Pelicans as a utility infielder, but managed to hit only a meager .188.  He became one of the most successful managers in major-league history, leading teams to six league championships and three World Series titles.  He amassed over 2,700 wins in 33 years of managing the Chicago White Sox, Oakland A’s, and St. Louis Cardinals.  La Russa was elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 2014 and currently works as a special consultant for the Boston Red Sox.

Jim Riggleman was second on the Pelicans club with 17 home runs.  Although he never appeared in a major-league game as a player, Riggleman went on to a major-league managerial career of 12 seasons for the San Diego Padres, Chicago Cubs, Seattle Mariners and Washington Nationals.

A native of New Orleans and an East Jefferson High graduate, Barry Raziano was a 30-year-old pitcher for the Pelicans who appeared in 20 games in relief.  However, the 1977 season with the Pelicans was his last in professional baseball.

Randy Wiles, a New Orleanian who pitched collegiately at LSU, was a 5th round pick of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1973.  He appeared in three games for the Pelicans in 1977.  However, he made his major-league debut with the Chicago White Sox in August 1977, his only season in the majors.

Pelicans owner Smith decided not to return to New Orleans for the 1978 season, instead moving the franchise to Springfield, Illinois.  New Orleans never did get its much anticipated and desired major-league franchise.  The Superdome never really did hit the big time as a baseball venue, only hosting annual college baseball tournaments and some major-league spring training exhibition games for several years in the ‘80s and early ‘90s.  However, professional baseball did return to New Orleans in 1994, when the Milwaukee Brewers re-located its Triple-A Zephyrs team from Denver. The Zephyrs (now Baby Cakes) have also been associated with the Astros, Mets, Nationals, and Marlins major-league organizations.  The team will be entering its tenth season as the Triple-A affiliate of the Marlins this spring.

Many old-time baseball fans, who recall the baseball Pelicans, thought it was sacrilegious for the basketball team to adopt the Pelicans name.  On the other hand, most of the New Orleans basketball fans welcomed the change, because they never really did take to inheriting the Hornets name from Charlotte, when the NBA franchise transferred for the 2002-2003 season.  In any case, for Tom Benson, the New Orleans Saints owner who now also owns the NBA franchise, Pelicans seemed like a logical choice, particularly since he already owned the rights to the sports franchise name, a little-known fact that became evident at the time of the change in 2013.

Even though the 1977 Pelicans only lasted one season in the city, they still contributed to the long, eventful baseball history of New Orleans.  Yes, it’s true Pelicans baseball “ain’t there no more,” but thanks to past efforts of local baseball historians Arthur Schott and Derby Gisclair (developer of neworleansbaseball.com), the Pelicans will always be remembered for its baseball heritage.

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Richard Cuicchi

Richard Cuicchi

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.

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