Flashback: Yankees vs New Orleans Pelicans (1948)
Flashback: New York Yankees drub New Orleans Pelicans twice in 1948 exhibition games
Contributed by Richard Cuicchi
With spring training winding down this week, it’s a good time to recall a couple of spring exhibition games the Yankees played in 1948.
After breaking spring training camp in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1948, the New York Yankees made a stop in New Orleans on its way back North for the start of the regular season. In a much-anticipated exhibition series against the minor-league New Orleans Pelicans on April 10-11, the Yankees displayed a power surge in dumping the Pelicans in two lop-sided contests.
The New Orleans Pelicans of today refer to one of the 30 NBA teams, but in 1948 the Pelicans were the Double-A minor-league affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. New Orleans had long been considered a “baseball town” after the Pelicans started playing in the late 1880s. Their 1947 campaign was one of their most successful in terms of attendance, drawing 400,000 fans, as the Pelicans finished only one-half game behind the Mobile Bears in the regular-season standings.
In Bucky Harris’s first year season as Yankees manager in 1947, the team rebounded from an uncommon three-season drought in winning the American League pennant. They captured the World Series championship in seven games against the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Harris believed the Yankees would repeat in 1948. In a pre-game interview, he said, “Who’s going to stop us? Sure, the Red Sox, Indians and other clubs have been strengthened. But so have we. We will open the season twenty-five percent stronger this year than we did last.”
However, Harris was concerned about Joe DiMaggio’s arm that required surgery during the offseason to remove bone chips, as well as Charlie Keller’s ability to come back full-time from a spinal problem that had plagued him since 1946.
While local New Orleans fans were largely pulling for their hometown Pelicans, there were probably some who quietly rooted for a few of the Yankees players. With New Orleans having a large Italian-American population, they were anxious to see their Italian hero Joe DiMaggio play in the city. Furthermore, the fans were familiar with Yankee outfielder Tommy Henrich who had been a popular player with the Pelicans in 1935, when the team was a Cleveland Indians affiliate. And the Yankees’ roster also included infielder Bobby Brown, who had previously played for Tulane University in New Orleans.
New Orleans was getting its fill of major-league competition, having also played host to a two-game series between the Boston Red Sox and Pelicans on April 8-9. The Pels lost both games, 14-6 and 6-2.
In the first Yankees-Pelicans contest on Saturday afternoon before 4,750 fans at Pelican Stadium, Harris started lefty Eddie Lopat, who had been acquired in a trade with the Chicago White Sox at the beginning of spring training. His opponent on the hill was right-hander Lloyd Dietz, who had last pitched in the majors in 1943 for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Dietz essentially provided additional batting practice for the Yankees lineup during his outing, as he ended up yielding 11 runs in four innings. The Bronx Bombers earned their nickname that day by hitting four home runs in the second inning and two more bombs in the fourth. DiMaggio and Henrich led the attack, with each hitting two home runs.
Dietz served up home runs to Bill Johnson and Phil Rizzuto in the second inning, to go along with the first of DiMaggio’s and the first of Henrich’s. Altogether, the Yankees scored seven runs in the second.
In the fourth inning, DiMaggio and Henrich each belted two-run homers off Dietz. With Jim Patton later pitching for the Pelicans, the Yankees scored three more runs in the seventh on two hits, including Brown’s second triple of the day.
Dietz attempted to make up for his ineptness on the mound when he hit a solo home run off Lopat for the Pelicans’ only run. Lopat pitched a complete game, giving up only five hits and striking out three. The final score was 14-1.
The Yankees’ onslaught of the Pelicans continued on Sunday afternoon before a crowd of 8,500 fans. The Yankees piled up another 14 runs, on 19 hits, while the Pelicans improved by scoring six runs on 11 hits, for a final score of 14-6.
Yankee ace Allie Reynolds (19-8 in 1947) got the starting assignment against the Pelicans’ Johnny Humphries, who won 20 games for the Pelicans in his pro debut in 1937.
DiMaggio hit his third homer of the series, while Bill Johnson added two more. The Yankee scoring machine was also aided by five doubles. Heinrich added three more hits and two RBIs, while Gus Niarhos collected four RBIs on two hits.
New Orleans native Billy Adams and Stan Wentzel led the Pelicans with two hits apiece.
Humphries gave up 10 of the Yankee runs in four innings. Three Yankee runs in the first inning were unearned. Reynolds pitched five innings, also giving up three unearned runs on three Yankee errors in the first. In the fifth, three earned runs by the Pelicans also came against the right-hander. Randy Gumpert relieved Reynolds and held the Pelicans scoreless in the last four innings.
Other native New Orleanians who appeared for the Pelicans during the series were pitcher Lenny Yochim and catcher Fats Dantonio, both of whom had brief major-league careers.
The 1948 season ended up being a disappointment for both the Yankees and Pelicans. The Yankees were 94-60 but finished behind pennant-winner Cleveland (2 ½ games) and Boston (1 game). Harris was replaced by Casey Stengel for the 1949 season. The Pelicans finished fifth in the Southern Association, 25 games behind league-leader Nashville.
The Yankees’ relationship with New Orleans baseball actually began in 1922 when they spent spring training in the Crescent City. They returned in 1923 and 1924.
The Pelicans became affiliated with the New York Yankees for the 1957 and 1958 seasons.
In April 1971, the Yankees and Red Sox played an exhibition game in New Orleans’ Tad Gormley Stadium, to promote the anticipation of the Louisiana Superdome’s (then under construction) availability for a major-league baseball team in 1975.
The Yankees returned to New Orleans in 1980 to play a two-game exhibition series against the Baltimore Orioles in the Louisiana Superdome. At a time when New Orleans continued to actively pursue a major-league team for the Dome, the 88,000 attendance for the two games made a good impression on baseball officials. The Yankees returned to the Superdome to face multiple teams in exhibition games for the next three years and in 1994.
This article was contributed by Richard Cuicchi. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org