World War II: When New Orleans “Hometown” Heroes played in their hometown

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The current New Orleans professional baseball team, the Triple-A Zephyrs, rarely have area natives on the roster.

If you scan the current Triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs roster, you won’t find any native New Orleanians playing for the club. But that’s not really unusual nowadays for most professional teams to not feature local players, because of Major League Baseball drafts that draw from a national pool of amateur players as well as the significant number of international players who come to the USA.

The traditional newspaper and local website lists of local amateur “hometown heroes,” who go on to play professional baseball, are comprised of players who usually don’t get a chance to play in their hometowns anymore.

However, that wasn’t the case with the local New Orleans professional baseball team, the Pelicans, during the first half of the 1940s. Of course, it was a different time from today, the main factor being World War II’s dramatic effect on player availability for professional baseball teams.

A significant number of major leaguers entered the military service after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Beginning with the 1942 season, major league teams struggled to keep their rosters filled with experienced players. The teams drew on their farm clubs to supply fill-in players, which in turn created hardships for the minor league organizations.

It was not uncommon for a minor league team’s roster to have vacancies at various times throughout the season. This drought of players lasted through the 1945 season. Major League stars Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams each missed three seasons in the prime years of their careers because of their military service. Their absences were indicative of the type of impact the war had on the game.

Not unlike many other professional baseball towns during these times, several native New Orleans ballplayers, comprised of former high school stars and minor leaguers who returned to New Orleans during the war, benefitted from the situation. They signed contracts to play for the home town Pelicans, a Class A1 team in the Southern Association at that time. For some of these players, it was their only opportunity to advance past lower-level clubs. Furthermore, a few of them also managed to get brief call-ups to the big league teams to fill gaps in those rosters during the war years.

Some of the local ballplayers who were exempted from military service worked in defense-related jobs. The New Orleans Semi-Professional Baseball League organized into four teams was formed in 1943. Delta Shipyards, for example, fielded one of the teams, and it included New Orleans natives Paul Bruno, who managed the team, Russell Gildig, Eddie Pepper, and Fats Dantonio. Dantonio, who had played for the Pelicans in 1942, was re-signed by them in 1943, but he only played in home games as he kept his defense job. He actually continued to play for Delta Shipyards, appearing in their games on Sundays, while also playing for the Pelicans at home. Pete Modica, a Pelicans player in 1943, pitched for Higgins, another team in the semi-pro league.

During his three seasons with the Pelicans during World War II, Dantonio was a battery-mate of several local pitchers on the team: Jesse Danna, Al Jurisich, and Ray Yochim in 1942; Danna, Modica, and Gus Mills in 1943; and Danna and Al Briede in 1944. Dantonio, Jurisich, and Yochim would eventually be promoted to the major leagues. Dantonio and Danna had been teammates for Jesuit High School in 1936, when they won the Louisiana state prep baseball championship. Danna led the Southern Association in victories (22) in 1943.

George Strickland was just out of S. J. Peters High School when he appeared in three games for the Pelicans in 1943. He would go on to a 10-year major league career and parts of two seasons as manager of the Cleveland Indians.

Eight home-grown players made appearances with the Pelicans in 1944: catcher Dantonio; pitchers Danna and Briede; infielders Martin Shepherd, Russ Gildig, and Mel Rue; and outfielders Paul Bruno and Freddie Helwig. The locals could have fielded seven out of the nine positions on the team.

In 1945, James “Pel” Hughes played 72 games with the Pelicans. At age 30, that season was the extent of his professional baseball career. Eddie Pepper, who had two fabulous seasons as a pitcher with Class D New Iberia of the Evangeline League before the war, pitched in only two games for the Pelicans in 1945. His professional career ended after that.

For several of these players, the highlight of their professional careers was playing in front of the home town crowds in the Crescent City. Had it not been for the general shortage of players, several of them probably would not have even gotten a shot at minor league baseball, much less the big leagues.

By the way, a quick look at the 2014 Zephyrs roster revealed former Tulane All-American Brian Bogusevic, who had played 56 games with the team this season as of this writing, although he is not a native of New Orleans. Beau Jones, a former first round MLB draft pick from Destrehan High, appeared in 22 games for the Zephyrs in 2012, and former Northshore High School player Logan Morrison performed briefly for the Zephyrs in 2010 and 2011.

The New Orleans area players mentioned in this article are included in the New Orleans Area Player Database located at http://thetenthinning.com/articles.html.

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Richard Cuicchi

Richard Cuicchi

Founder, Metro New Orleans Area Baseball Player Database

A New Orleans area baseball historian, Richard maintains TheTenthInning.com website. He also authored the book, Famly Ties: A Comprehensive Collection of Facts and Trivia About Baseball’s Relatives.

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