In my ongoing quest to add to my database of New Orleans area baseball players who went on to play at the collegiate or professional levels, I recently came across West Bank product Nolan Vicknair. His aspiration, starting at a very young age, was to be a career professional baseball player.
Vicknair indeed reached baseball’s minor league level, but his stint in pro baseball consisted of only 56 games during 1946 and 1947. In a recent interview with hm, Vicknair claimed, “I was born to be a professional baseball player, but I was the victim of circumstances that worked against me in realizing my dream of making a career of baseball.” However, this statement does not come from a man who suffers from a case of “sour grapes.” His bulging scrapbook attests to his still managing to have an outstanding career in sports in the New Orleans area.
Vicknair was born in Marrero, Louisiana, where he attended elementary and high school. One of the athletic skills that he would use throughout his sports career began to blossom as an early teenager, when he set a school record for the 75-yard dash as a 13-year-old. According to Vicknair, minimum age requirements for high school sports were often overlooked at that time, so he was enlisted for the high school football team in the sixth grade because they could use his speed as a scatback, an old term for a speedy, all-purpose halfback.
He played baseball, basketball and football in his first two years at Marrero High School. It was there that he first gained attention as a baseball player. He recalls an American Legion game against the Jesuit-based team in his sophomore year in which he struck out the first nine batters of the game. It happened that Branch Rickey, the St. Louis Cardinals’ general manager, was in attendance that day. Rickey had occasion to be in town for a prospect tryout camp, since the New Orleans Pelicans were a minor league affiliate of the Cardinals.
Vicknair crossed paths with Rickey after the game. According to Vicknair, Rickey told him, “Kid, you have talent.” After you finish high school, you should consider a baseball career.” That assessment further fueled Vicknair’s dream of playing pro baseball.
Vicknair relocated to Port Arthur, Texas, for his junior year of high school to live with relatives. He attended St. Mary’s High School there, contributing as a starter at halfback on the 1941 football team, which ultimately won the south-east state championship that year.
World War II was well underway by this time, and Vicknair enlisted in the Navy in April 1943, immediately upon turning 17 years of age. He served almost three years which included a six-month stint in Australia and a tour of duty on the destroyer USS Bearss that saw action against the Japanese in the South Pacific.
Still interested in pursuing a baseball career after his military service ended in December 1945, Vicknair attended a tryout camp with the New Orleans Pelicans in the spring of 1946, after which business manager Vincent Rizzo wanted to sign Vicknair as a pitcher.
Near the same time, one of Vicknair’s acquaintances from school got him an appointment with Gretna native Mel Ott, then the New York Giants manager. Ott passed on the information about a Giants spring training camp at Fort Smith, Arkansas, where 150 prospects showed up, vying for forty spots that would make up two minor league rosters in the Giants’ system.
Vicknair opted to go to Fort Smith, fortunately making the cut, and was assigned to the Class D roster of the Oshkosh Giants of the Wisconsin State League. He figured he was on his way to the big leagues. He started the season as a regular outfielder where, once again, speed was at the core of his game. Vicknair recalls that he could change a game with his base-running skills. As a leadoff batter, he would give pitchers fits once he got on base. One of his favorite situations was the double steal.
Vicknair missed games due to a leg infection from being spiked, as well as chronic pulled muscles, which kept him off the field numerous times. Toward the end of the season, he was involved in an unfortunate accident, as he was was struck in the jaw by a ball thrown by the opposing second baseman as he approached second base on a double play. His jawbone was broken in six places, which required it to be wired shut. To make matters worse, he contracted blood poisoning during the recovery process, and at one point he was not expected to live.
As a testament to his being a fan favorite in Oshkosh, Vicknair’s scrapbook contained numerous get-well cards from devoted fans while he was in the hospital. He recalls that a local Oshkosh businessman befriended him, several times writing him checks to supplement his meager baseball income, as well as allowing him to take his boat out on a nearby lake. Altogether, Vicknair appeared in 45 games and hit for a .193 batting average for the 1946 season.
In the spring of 1947, the Giants organization conducted a minor league camp in Lakewood, New Jersey, on the site of John D. Rockefeller’s mansion and estate. Vicknair recalls getting his weekly pay from legendary pitcher Carl Hubbell, who was the head of the Giants minor league organization at the time. Most of the players on the 1946 Oshkosh club advanced to the next level, but Vicknair started the regular season again in Oshkosh.
When he didn’t get any playing time at the beginning of the season, Vicknair asked for and received his release from the Giants. He vividly remembers the feedback he received from Oshkosh manager Ray Lucas, “You are a valuable player with your speed, good in the clubhouse. But we expect our outfielders to hit home runs, and you are more of a contact hitter.” At 5’ 6” and 150 pounds, Vicknair was at a disadvantage in meeting these expectations.
He returned to New Orleans where he received a call from Harry Strohm, who was the manager of New Iberia of the Evangeline League. He signed on with New Iberia, where one of his teammates was fellow New Orleanian Lenny Yochim. Vicknair recalls about Yochim, “Besides being a good pitcher at that time, Lenny could really hit the ball too. He would play first base when not pitching.” Yochim would go on to play briefly in the majors, but actually made his biggest mark in professional baseball as a scouting supervisor in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.
Shortly after the start of the season, Strohm was fired as manager and replaced by Vernon Thoele, who came from the New Orleans Pelicans. After appearing in only eleven games, Vicknair was released by Thoele. Vicknair believes the new manager acted on advice from the Pelicans’ Vincent Rizzo, who likely held a grudge because Vicknair had rejected Rizzo’s offer in 1946.
So, Vicknair’s dream took a big step backwards.
With baseball still in his blood, Vicknair began playing in semi-professional leagues in the New Orleans area. It was a usual practice for the semi-pro teams to include former-minor league players, as well as active players during the minor league off-season. For example, Vicknair played against New Orleans professionals like Fats Dantonio and Pete Modica. Vicknair’s scrapbook shows a 1950 newspaper clipping of a prominent independent baseball team, the Mohawks, he managed on the West Bank. Over the years, he also played for various teams in the Audubon League and the Mel Ott League. Vicknair says his performances were frequently featured in the States-Item newspaper by sportswriter Hap Glaudi, who later became a legendary sports radio personality in New Orleans.
Eight years after he had last played in the minors, Vicknair got one more opportunity for a professional tryout with the Milwaukee Braves minor league organization in Waycross, Georgia. Vicknair recalls the tryouts were being conducted by former major leaguer Skeeter Webb. However, Vicknair says he was not fully in shape when he reported. After striking out three times in a scrimmage game, he decided to finally give up on his dream as a professional player.
Vicknair began working as a machinist for Avondale Shipyards in 1951. This began another phase of his sports career, when he pitched for company-sponsored teams in over-hand-pitch softball leagues for 15 years.
A knuckleball pitcher, he once hurled a no-hit, no-run game in 1963 for Avondale in the local CAA Softball League. A newspaper article in his scrapbook reported that it was the first no-hitter hurled in that league. Vicknair was a significant contributor to Avondale Shipyard’s perennial reputation for fielding superior teams, including several league championships. He kept himself in shape and continued to play softball in various leagues until he was 65 years old.
In addition to playing all sports, Vicknair also took an active interest in coaching. He firmly believed he had a knack for picking talent, as well as learning and applying game strategies in each of the sports. He was often the player-coach for many of his teams.
He was among the first members of the New Orleans Diamond Club, a fraternity of former professional baseball players who met regularly and played occasional “old-timer” games.
Vicknair will turn 90 years old in April. A self-described “people person,” he comes across as someone who is willing to talk to anyone about sports or practically anything else. For example, just ask him about the champion show dogs he once had or the Cajun-style dancing he has done. He might also give you a photo of himself in a New York Giants uniform from his minor league days.
Vicknair’s baseball dream was not unlike that of thousands of youngsters before and after him. In another time or in a different set of circumstances, Vicknair’s dream might have been more fully realized. He missed three prime years of development as a player due to his time in the service. Injuries in his first minor league season further hampered his development and adjustment to professional baseball. It turned out he didn’t exactly fit into the Giants’ mold for outfielders in those days. Yet all these deterrents didn’t discourage his love of sports, especially baseball, since he still became an accomplished player and coach during his era of local sports.
Vicknair’s career is a meaningful part of the sports history and lore of the New Orleans area. Indeed, he has much to be proud of.