Ronnie Virgets captured New Orleans and its sporting life like no one else could
The only person whose words could do justice to Ronnie Virgets’ life would be Virgets himself.
The rest of us will just have to do our best to try and tell the story of New Orleans’ best storyteller of his generation.
No one else could capture New Orleans – including its sports landscape – quite as well as Virgets, who died Monday night at age 77, because New Orleans was captured inside of the poet known to many as simply “Virge.”
His 3rd Ward accent was the most easily recognizable thing about him, having made him a popular provider of local television voice-overs.
He dabbled elsewhere in television, taking a road less traveled on multiple stations to find and tell distinctive stories that station managers in other markets would have summarily dismissed for not fitting any consultants’ mold.
But they fit New Orleans, which is as unpretentious as was Virge, who at first glance – just like his hometown – didn’t display his sophistication. Rumpled slacks, a fading Hawaiian shirt and perhaps a hat of some sort were the only sartorial ensemble Virge generally needed.
But he was well read – more so than just about anyone who signed the paychecks he got from countless jobs he held.
Virge never really had a career in the traditional sense because he was in no way traditional. His education at St. Aloysius High School and Loyola University looked good on a resume, but career counselors and human resource managers don’t know what to do with the unique.
The closest Virge came to occupying a corner office came during a stint at the Times-Picayune that included him penning a column under the pseudonym “Railbird Ronnie,” which passed for coverage of horse racing at the Fair Grounds.
But Virge was no handicapper and in fact tips that lead to cashing tickets had no place in Railbird Ronnie’s stories. He offered up daily vignettes about the characters that hung around the race track, interrupting their survey of discarded tickets just long enough to hatch Ralph Kramden-like get-rich-quick schemes that would inevitably blow up in their faces before Virge reached a mere 600 words or so.
The stories that were told and the manner in which they were told were as a good as anything emanating from writers of any type anywhere around here – or anywhere else for that matter.
Virge’s stint as Railbird Ronnie was relatively short-lived, but a lengthy run followed by a conventional retirement wouldn’t have fit in the world of the Railbird columns or that of their author.
When I began a PR stint with the New Orleans Zephyrs minor-league baseball team in their second season, one of the first things I did was enlist Virge to write a story for the program to be sold at games.
The financial state of the franchise was such that I was able to pay Virge exactly nothing. He gladly accepted the assignment as a favor to me, but I’m sure more significantly as an opportunity to tell yet another story that needed to be told and needed to be told by a master.
When he was done, Virge hand delivered his manuscript in the form of a small stack of rumpled sheets of yellow paper from a legal pad. His quill and inkwell was a black Sharpie.
It’s a poor craftsman that blames his tools, but it’s a master craftsman that makes a legal pad and a black Sharpie sing.
I had asked Virge to write “whatever you want” about the New Orleans Pelicans franchise that had been a fixture in New Orleans when Virge was growing up. The Zephyrs were trying to fill a void left when the Pelicans departed some 30 years earlier.
Virge essentially took Railbird Ronnie out to the ball game, providing exactly what I had requested and what the program readers craved.
The Zephyrs had little to offer fans in their early seasons at a makeshift ballpark at UNO while waiting for The Shrine on Airline to be built.
But that season, damn it, we had an original Ronnie Virgets story in our game program.
That was Big League.
But it wasn’t Virge’s most memorable story.
To me that was the one he wrote about the funeral of our mutual friend Allen “Black Cat” Lacombe, long-time Fair Grounds publicist and the quintessential Railbird Ronnie character.
The climax of the funeral and the story was the trip around the Fair Grounds course by Black Cat’s hearse, which threw a wheel at the head of the stretch.
The mishap, Virge observed, was fitting for Black Cat, who got his nickname because of a long history of bad luck. The story won Virge an Eclipse Award.
I used to carry a copy of the story around with me so I could share it with others. I wanted them to appreciate the Cat the way Virge had captured his lovable spirit in the story.
But I also wanted them to experience what writing can be at its best.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. You can follow…