Tom Schwaner: A New Orleans baseball institution
Baseball followers in New Orleans during the mid-1950s through 2000 were well familiar with Tom Schwaner. That’s because his baseball career spanned those years playing at the high school, college and professional levels, followed by long stints as a high school and college coach. Except for the years he played professionally, he was a fixture in local baseball, capped by his 14-year tenure as the head baseball coach at the University of New Orleans.
Last week, I had the pleasure of talking to Schwaner, now 83 years old, about his extensive career.
A three-sport letterman at St. Aloysius, Schwaner also played football and track in addition to his favorite sport, baseball.
“I couldn’t wait for one season to roll over to the next, but baseball was the one I thought I had the best chance to excel in,” recalled Schwaner.
After his senior season in high school in 1957, Schwaner played for Coach Rags Scheuermann on New Orleans’ entry in All-American Amateur Baseball Association national tournament in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. It was through this relationship that Scheuermann offered him a baseball scholarship at Loyola University in New Orleans.
“I had already enrolled at LSU, but when Rags came up with the scholarship offer at the last minute, I couldn’t pass it up,” Schwaner explained.
Schwaner played two seasons at Loyola for Scheuermann. “He taught me just about everything I know about baseball,” said the former shortstop.
After his stellar sophomore season that included a .415 batting average, six homers, six triples, and seven doubles, Schwaner thought he would be signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Dodgers scout Tony John had closely followed him at Loyola and indicated he would get an offer. But the Dodgers’ offer never came, and Schwaner signed with the St. Louis Cardinals who produced a lucrative bonus offer, reported by the Associated Press to be $50,000.
According to the AP, Cardinals farm director Walter Shannon called Schwaner “the outstanding shortstop prospect in the United States.” Shannon said, ”Tom has shown marked improvement over the past two seasons. He can run, field, hit, and throw. He’s aggressive and has a wonderful attitude toward the game.”
Scheuermann, who had coached other amateurs in the city receiving substantial bonuses, told the Times-Picayune, “I’d have to say that Tom probably is the best boy I have ever coached.” Scheuermann said, “He thinks like a major leaguer. I’m happy to see him get this wonderful opportunity. I’m certain he’ll be a credit to the game.”
Schwaner’s first minor-league assignment was with Class A York in the Eastern League in 1959. Schwaner remembers his first at-bat was against a menacing Juan Marichal, a future Hall of Famer with the San Francisco Giants. “I was overmatched in my first minor-league season,” he said. “Remember, I had only played 18 games with Loyola that season.” He was optioned to Class D Keokuk later in the season, where his roommate was 17-year-old Tim McCarver, who went on to play 21 major-league seasons.
He worked his way up to Class AA Tulsa toward the end of the 1961 season and then started the 1962 season with them. However, he was hitting under .200 when he was released to Class A Binghampton in the Kansas City A’s organization toward the end of what was his last season. In four minor-league seasons, he batted .246 with 34 home runs and 218 RBIs.
Schwaner recalls his professional career. “I had a lot of fun, but I had to weigh my chances of getting to the big leagues, and I remember major leaguers were only making about $12,000 per year at the time. I didn’t see that as an enticing future. And being married with two children, I decided to move on.”
Schwaner returned to New Orleans and secured a job as math teacher and baseball coach at Rummel High School for the 1962-63 school year, the school’s first year of operation. Having earned his master’s degree at Loyola, he was also assistant principal during his last two years of employment with Rummel. After a two-year stint as principal at St. John Vianney in 1972 and 1973, he became the baseball coach at Brother Martin High School through 1977.
During his years as prep coach, his Rummel-based Schaff Brothers American Legion teams won the district championship in 1968, followed by state titles in 1970 and 1971.
With Brother Martin-based DeViney’s, he won the American Legion district title in 1974, when he was named the Coach of the Year. In 1975, Brother Martin High School won its first-ever district title and finished second in the state playoffs. Schwaner was named the All-City Coach of the Year.
After 16 years in a prep coaching career, Schwaner applied for a coaching job at the University of New Orleans. Schwaner says head coach Ron Maestri initially took him on as a volunteer coach, while he taught math classes at UNO and Xavier University. The role later became a full-time assistant coaching job.
UNO was in its heyday as a college program under Maestri. After reaching the Division II College World Series in 1974, he led the Privateers to seven NCAA Division I regional appearances from 1977-85, including the first appearance by a Louisiana school in the College World Series in 1984. Schwaner credits Maestri with building teams with top talent from around the country that contributed to a nationally-recognized program.
After 13 seasons as UNO’s head coach, Maestri retired and turned over the reins to Schwaner following the 1985 season. With his first season at the helm in 1986, Schwaner continued the Privateers’ winning tradition with three straight NCAA Regional teams in 1987-89. UNO had a fourth Regional appearance under Schwaner in 1996.
Schwaner recalled, “I had a number of good teams, but I’d have to say the 1988 team was probably the best because it featured future major leaguers Ted Wood, Brian Traxler, and Joe Slusarski.” The team won the American South Conference regular season championship. Schwaner pointed out that Slusarski and Wood represented UNO in the Olympics that summer.
Leading the Privateers, Schwaner earned American South Coach of the Year honors in 1989. During his 14 seasons, he coached over 40 players who played professional baseball, including another major leaguer, Jim Bullinger.
Schwaner retired from UNO after the 1999 season with a 462-373 record, which is currently the second highest winning percentage in Privateers history, trailing only Maestri.
The Schwaner baseball family tree continued with Tom’s son Jeff, who played for Louisiana Tech, and his grandson Tyler, who played for University of Louisiana Monroe. Tom’s nephew Scott played for UNO (including 1984 with the College World Series team), while great-nephews Nick played for UNO and Taylor played for Southeastern Louisiana. Nick also played two seasons in the Tampa Bay Rays organization. Schwaner is quick to point out the family’s athletes also included daughter Karen, who played AAU basketball, and granddaughter Lindsay, who played soccer with Southern Mississippi.
Whenever the history and tradition of New Orleans baseball is discussed, Tom Schwaner belongs in the conversation, not only because of his longevity in the sport, but also because of what he accomplished as a player and coach across multiple levels of the sport.
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.