Turn Back the Clock: “New” Pelicans lose 1977 home opener in Superdome
Since the opening of the Louisiana Superdome in August 1975, the city of New Orleans had lobbied hard with Major League Baseball’s owners to relocate one of their franchises to the Crescent City.
While the major tenant originally intended for the Superdome was the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, the stadium had also been designed to allow baseball and basketball seating configurations. The NBA’s New Orleans Jazz began playing in the Dome in October 1975, and city officials had every expectation that the Superdome would attract a major-league baseball team as well.
Several major-league teams considered New Orleans for franchise moves, but there were no firm commitments forthcoming within the first two years of the Dome’s operation. Lacking a strong financial backer from New Orleans, officials even proposed a novel joint-city arrangement, where New Orleans and another city would share a major-league franchise.
The American Association Triple-A league approached Superdome officials as a potential home for its Tulsa franchise. New Orleans figured that hosting a minor-league team might provide a path to eventually landing a big-league club. The National League was considering additional expansion at the time, although Washington and Denver were considered the favorites at the time.
A. Ray Smith eventually struck a deal with New Orleans to relocate his Tulsa team that was an affiliate with the St. Louis Cardinals. His aim was to eventually upgrade it to a major-league franchise. The Tulsa club had a 65-70 record in 1976, finishing third in the West Division of the American Association.
The new team took the name Pelicans from the former pro baseball team in New Orleans, which initially fielded a team in the late 1880s. The last year of the Pelicans had been in 1959 as a member of the Southern Association.
The “new” Pelicans were managed by Lance Nichols who came over from the Montreal Expos system. The first game of the new franchise occurred in Oklahoma City on April 15.
The Pelicans hosted the Omaha Royals for a three-game series starting April 30 in what was the first game in the Superdome. In true New Orleans fashion, Pelicans players rode in a parade down Canal Street to the Superdome the morning of the game to start the day’s festivities. After all, the city had much to celebrate; it had been 18 years since New Orleans had been home to a professional baseball team. Parade-goers might have thought it was Mardi Gras season, as the players tossed Styrofoam baseballs, doubloons, and bags of peanuts from the lead float. The parade featured St. Louis Cardinals legend Stan Musial and Negro Leagues star Satchel Paige, who was affiliated with the Pelicans’ front office. The opposing Omaha players even got into the act by riding on a parade float and throwing trinkets to the downtown crowd.
The Royals were 6-6 coming into the game, while the Pelicans were 4-7, having lost their last three games on the road even though they held leads into the late innings. The Pelicans’ Eddie “King” Solomon and Royals’ Dave Hasbach were the starting pitchers.
For 26-year-old Solomon, the Cardinals were his third major-league organization. He made 26 appearances with the big-league Cardinals in 1976 and was finally getting his chance to be a regular starter. He had already pitched a one-hitter for the Pelicans during the first two weeks of the season. The day before the first home game on April 30, Solomon commented on his assignment as the starting pitcher, “Opening up on any night is an honor, but it’s a real pleasure for me to be opening up in the Superdome. I’m looking forward to it.”
A crowd of 18,197 turned out for the night contest whose pre-game activities included honoring baseball immortals Stan Musial, Luke Appling, Cool Papa Bell, Lloyd Waner, Mel Parnell, Denny McLain, Paul Dean, and Allie Reynolds.
Feedback from the major-league exhibition games played in the Dome the year before had been that the air was heavy and the ball didn’t carry well. However, following batting practice prior to the game, Pelicans catcher Tom Harmon said, “I can’t believe how the ball carries in here. We must have hit 40 out in batting practice. You know the ball carries if (Tommy) Sandt hits one out.” (Sandt wasn’t known for hitting home runs, but remarkably he played fourteen seasons in the minors and wound up hitting 10 of his 28 career minor-league home runs for New Orleans that season.)
In fact, the game that followed was a slugfest, with Omaha spoiling the Pelicans’ festivities with a 13-8 victory. The two teams combined for 29 hits, including seven home runs. Pregame suspicion about a “dead air” problem in the Superdome obviously didn’t materialize.
Omaha didn’t wait long to get the fireworks started. In the top of the first inning, Joe Lahoud homered with Dave Cripe on base. Gary Martz followed with a solo homer to run up a 3-0 lead. In the next inning Omaha put up another run on Lynn McKinney’s RBI single.
In the bottom of the second, Tony La Russa smacked a home run into the left-field seats.
In the top of the third, Omaha piled on three more runs on Martz’s second home run and singles by Clint Hurdle, Willie Wilson, and Rudy Kinard. But the Pels retaliated with three runs in the bottom half of the inning on a home run by Pat Scanlon with Tommy Sandt and John Tamargo on base.
The home team tied the game, 7-7, in the bottom of the fourth on Ken Oberkfell’s three-run homer to right field after Tom Dettore and Sandt had walked.
The Royals pulled ahead again in the next inning when Hurdle got to third on Charlie Chant’s misplay of a fly to center. Hurdle scored on Wilson’s single; and after the speedy Wilson stole second, U.L. Washington drove him in with a single.
The Pels made the score 9-8 on back-to-back doubles by Mike Potter and Chant, and missed another opportunity by ending the inning with bases loaded.
Omaha broke the game open with four runs in the top of the seventh, highlighted by Cripe’s three-run home run, contributing to the final score, 13-8.
Royals reliever Jerry Cram held the Pelicans scoreless for the final three innings to claim a save. McKinney, who relieved Hasbach in the fourth inning, was the winning pitcher even though he gave up three runs on six hits.
While Solomon may have been looking forward to his role as Opening Day starter, it didn’t turn out to be a memorable outing for him. He left the game bruised and battered by Omaha’s potent offense that delivered seven runs on nine hits in only 2 1/3 innings. However, reliever Dettore was credited with the loss for the Pelicans.
Every Royals player in the starting lineup, except Steve Patchin, recorded a hit. Wilson, the future Kansas City Royals’ career stolen-base leader, had a 4-for-5 night with three stolen bases and four runs scored.
Tamargo led the Pelicans with three of the team’s total of 12 hits. Oberkfell and Scanlon each recorded three RBIs.
The Pelicans ended the season with a 57-79 record and a last-place finish in the American Association West Division. While it turned out the Pelicans squad would largely be short on player talent, five members of its roster eventually became managers.
La Russa managed for 33 years in the majors, compiling over 2,700 wins including three World Series championships. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014.
Oberkfell and Tamargo eventually returned to New Orleans as managers of the Triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs. Sandt managed at the Triple-A level in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. Jim Riggleman, who was added to the Pelicans’ roster after the season started, also managed in the majors for 13 seasons.
The Pels lasted only one season in New Orleans, as Smith moved the team to Springfield, Missouri, in 1978. New Orleans never did get its major-league franchise. The only baseball played in the Dome after 1977 involved annual major-league exhibition games and college games, the last of which was a Tulane-LSU game in 2004.
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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.