Major League Opening Day is a major holiday on a sports fan’s calendar. However, in Louisiana, it’s just a Thursday. The marriage of professional baseball and Louisiana never made it for the long haul.
While the area is rich in baseball history and the state still possesses a handful of small franchises, baseball and Louisiana mix like salt and fresh water: in a word, unevenly.
There are lots of reasons why that might be the case. Professional baseball has tried in Louisiana multiple times, been off to a good start- then fizzled. But, whenever there is mention of possible Major League expansion, New Orleans and Louisiana are long shots at best.
The Original Pelicans and Innings Past
Louisiana is dotted with cities that have had professional baseball teams. Shreveport had the Shreveport–Bossier Captains, who played at Fair Ground Field (not to be confused with the New Orleans Fair Grounds) from 2003-2011.
Lake Charles has had teams in the Gulf Coast League and Evangeline League. Alexandria has the Aces in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League. Baton Rouge now has the Rougarou (it’s cajun mythological creature, half-man, half-wolfdog) that plays in the Texas Collegiate League.
While, New Orleans now has the NBA’s Pelicans, old-time residents know that the first New Orleans Pelicans were a minor league baseball franchise that played off and on from 1900 through 1959.
When then-owner Tom Benson went to rebrand the New Orleans Hornets basketball franchise, he cited the Pelicans baseball team as one reason why he chose the name.
Of course, New Orleans’ true basketball franchise name should be the “Jazz”, but that’s a story for another day.
The Superdome for a Super Baseball Team
When the Caesars Superdome was originally built and opened in 1975, it was believed that it could attract a possible MLB expansion franchise. The original footprint of the Superdome could be configured for baseball. It played big, but was still fun.
The St. Louis Cardinals put an American Association team in the Superdome in 1977. The team had current Chicago White Sox coach Tony LaRussa on it and was named, guess what? The Pelicans.
But a 70,000 seat Dome and minor league baseball were no match. The Pelicans averaged 3,205 a game, and then moved to Springfield to become the Redbirds.
The Superdome was relegated to hosting college baseball tripleheaders from 1987-1999. A crowd of 27,673 roaring fans saw LSU and Tulane play in the Superdome in 2019.
Let’s ride the Zephyrs and Baby Cakes
New Orleans won when MLB expanded in 1993. When baseball came to Colorado, the Denver Zephyrs had to leave, so they moved to New Orleans.
The Zephyr name fit, because a generation of New Orleanians rode the Zephyr ride at the Ponchartrain Beach amusement park.
The Zephyrs originally played games at Maestri Field on campus at the University of New Orleans. Then moved to Zephyr Park in Metairie in 1997.
Zephyr Park, now called the Shrine on Airline, was a perfect Triple–A baseball facility. Boudreax D. Nutria and his big orange teeth, followed by his wife Clotile, entertained the crowd. There is a grassy area in the outfield for fans called “The Levee.”
The baseball was good, the beer was cold, but fan support lagged after a while. The Zephyrs rebranded as the clumsy Baby Cakes in 2017, then relocated to Wichita in 2020.
New Orleans and Louisiana hasn’t had real professional baseball since.
Why doesn’t Louisiana support professional baseball?
The easy reason people cite is that Louisiana was and is a football town. That argument is bogus. How is Louisiana any more of a football area than Texas? Last I checked Texas had MLB franchises.
Hurricanes and infrastructure devastation have certainly hurt. The population footprint of New Orleans has shrunk. But let’s be clear, the state does support baseball. If anything, maybe too well.
LSU has frequently led the nation in attendance at Alex Box Stadium. The Tigers have won six national championships, the last coming in 2009. But it was UNO who is the first Louisiana school to have been to the College World Series back in 1984.
Tulane, who plays in a sweet stadium that opened in 2008, made the CWS in 2001 and 2005 and has a good following.
If you put all those people together in one market, don’t forget the junior college powerhouse Delgado in New Orleans and LSU-Eunice (NJCAA 2021 Division 2 national champs) there’s plenty of baseball fans to go around.
Will Louisiana get another minor league baseball team?
When the Baby Cakes left, the Governors office expressed a commitment to finding another franchise to move to Metairie.
Yeah, then COVID happened, minor league baseball underwent a radical reconfiguration squeezing out a lot of markets. New Orleans and Louisiana just had the scraps. In a way, all it did was galvanize the fan bases of LSU and Tulane baseball programs. They get what they want from those teams.
New Orleans is the biggest city in Louisiana, but it’s time to realize it will never be a major league city.