In 2003, The Times-Picayune ranked the best high school baseball teams of all time from the New Orleans area and selected the 1936 Jesuit Blue Jays as Number 1. Taking a detailed look at the make-up of the team revealed that 11 (eight on the 1st team, three on the second team) of the Blue Jays’ ballplayers made the All-Prep Team selected by the newspaper in 1936 for its annual recognition of the best high school players in New Orleans.
Furthermore, seven of the players eventually took up professional baseball careers, including three who reached the major-league level.
Jesuit won the Louisiana state baseball championship in 1936, their fifth of what would become seven consecutive titles. After going undefeated during their eight regular season games that year, Jesuit also swept their opponents in the playoffs, holding teams from Byrd, Warren Easton, and Ouachita scoreless.
By almost any standard, whether it be one of yesteryear or today, the number of highly talented players from a single high school team like this Blue Jay squad is rather extraordinary.
The baseball landscape in the 1930s and 1940s was indeed very different when compared to today. Back then, a combination of factors created a higher level of interest by players from the local ranks to pursue professional baseball. An expanding minor-league system by Organized Baseball, a shortage of professional players during WWII years, and the popularity of the New Orleans Pelicans minor-league team all contributed to the situation. With its semi-pro leagues also playing ball during typically mild winters, New Orleans was a city of year-round baseball.
In an article in The Times-Picayune on April 9, 1939, it was reported that nearly one hundred of New Orleans’ native sons were playing pro baseball throughout the country. The Crescent City had become a hotbed for baseball that would last for many years.
Jesuit dominated the city’s prep all-star team in 1936 by supplying eight of the fourteen members named to the first team. So this collection of players was indeed very special. In addition to Jesuit, several of the local high schools during that timeframe, including Warren Easton, S. J. Peters, Fortier, and St. Aloysius, were also turning out baseball players capable of playing at the professional level.
Here’s a run-down of the entire 1936 Blue Jay roster and their accomplishments in amateur and professional careers.
Gernon Brown, the Jesuit baseball coach, was in his sixth season at the helm of the club. Like many of his players, he received All-Prep team honors as “coach of the year.” During Brown’s tenure as baseball coach with Jesuit from 1931 to 1953, his teams captured thirteen state championship titles.
First baseman Jerry Burke was an All-Prep selection in 1936 as well as the previous year.
Second baseman Billy Hodgins was also an All-Prep selection in 1935 and 1936 and went on to play in the minor-leagues from 1937 to 1941. His first pro season included a stint with Opelousas of the Evangeline League. He had three seasons with batting averages over .300, while playing in the Indians, Reds and Dodgers organizations.
Shortstop Martin Scaffidi was named to the All-Prep teams in 1935 and 1936.
Third baseman Russell Gildig was an All-Prep selection in 1935, 1936, and 1937. He played in the St. Louis Cardinals organization in 1938 and 1939, when he batted .301 for Mobile and Caruthersville. After a four-year absence from baseball, he attempted a comeback with the New Orleans Pelicans in 1944, hitting .278 in 27 games.
Left-fielder Connie Ryan was a sophomore on the 1936 Blue Jay team and was named to the All-Prep teams that year and in 1937 as a shortstop. He was the first athlete to receive a full baseball scholarship at LSU, where he played his freshman season before signing a professional contract in 1940 with the Atlanta Crackers. The infielder made his major-league debut with the New York Giants in 1942 and went on to a 12-year major-league career that ended in 1954. He made the National League all-star team in 1944 with the Boston Braves and appeared in the 1948 World Series with them. Ryan later coached in the majors for several teams and served as an interim manager for the Atlanta Braves and Texas Rangers. Ryan’s full biography can be viewed at http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/991f2a43.
Center-fielder Charlie Gilbert was selected to the 1936 All-Prep team, his third of four years achieving the honor. He was the son of Larry Gilbert Sr., former major-league player and manager of the New Orleans Pelicans from 1923 to 1938. Young Gilbert’s professional debut occurred with Nashville in 1939, where his father was then the manager. He was touted as the greatest 20-year-old outfielder the Southern Association had ever produced. However, his major-league career didn’t live up to his billing as a prospect. He made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1940, when he hit .246 in 57 games. He spent parts of the next three seasons as a backup player with the Chicago Cubs, before joining the Navy during World War II. He played two more seasons after the war, split between the Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies, and then played his last pro season with Nashville in 1948, when he hit 42 home runs and batted .362. His two brothers, Larry Jr. and Tookie, also played baseball for Jesuit and had professional careers.
Right-fielder George Digby made the All-Prep teams in 1935 and 1936. He was a high school baseball coach in New Orleans when the Boston Red Sox signed his star pitcher Dick Callahan in 1944. The Red Sox then offered Digby a job as a professional scout, and he continued in that role for 50 years, followed by a stint as a baseball consultant for another 14 years. He is credited with signing 53 major- league ballplayers, the most notable one being Hall of Famer Wade Boggs. Digby was inducted into the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2008, and the organization’s annual scouting award is named after him.
Catcher John “Fats” Dantonio was an All-Prep selection in 1935 and 1936. He was initially signed to a pro contract by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1938 and was a teammate of future Hall of Famer Stan Musial in Springfield, MO in 1940. He and Musial would develop a life-long friendship from that experience. Dantonio was promoted to the New Orleans Pelicans in 1942, when he batted .256, and then he .hit 299 for them 1943, although his play was limited to part-time duty (only playing in home games) because he was also holding a defense-related job in the New Orleans shipyards. He made his major-league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1944, but appeared in only three games with them that year. He returned to the Dodgers in 1945, hitting .250 in 47 games, but ultimately lost his major-league roster spot. He played three more minor-league seasons, including one in New Orleans. Dantonio’s full biography can be viewed at http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/65a7919c.
Pitcher Dave Hecker was an All-Prep selection in 1936 and 1937.
Pitcher Malcolm Plaeger was an All-Prep selection in 1936 and 1937.
Pitcher Jesse Danna was an All-Prep selection in 1935 and 1936. He was the winning pitcher for the Blue Jays against Ouachita in the 1936 state title game. He played at LSU before signing a pro contract in 1942. Danna pitched four full seasons with the New Orleans Pelicans during 1942 and 1946, when he won a total of 65 games. He finished his minor-league career in 1949 with a total of 114 victories, but never played in the major leagues.
Allen Heidingsfelder was a member of the 1937 All-Prep team as an outfielder.
Harold Burke played in 1935 and 1936.
Larry Stumpf played in 1936 and was an All-Prep selection in 1937 as a first-baseman.
Gustave “Shorty” Heintz rounded out the squad in 1936.
Lloyd “Hap” Glaudi was team manager of the Jesuit baseball squad from 1932 to 1936. He is better remembered for his long career as a sportswriter and a radio/TV sportscaster in New Orleans.
An extensive list of New Orleans area high school players who went on to play at the college and professional levels can be viewed here.