Ghosts of Sports Teams Past: A Remembrance of NOLA’s Former Teams

09:00 August 11, 2021
By: Steven Melendez

Today, many people see New Orleans professional sports as essentially synonymous with Saints football and Pelicans basketball (and Jazz basketball, before the team decamped for Salt Lake City in 1979 but inexplicably kept its name). But historically, the Crescent City has played host to other teams in a wide variety of sports from baseball and tennis to alternative football leagues.

Arena Football

Arena football team The New Orleans VooDoo played in the Smoothie King Center [@AFLVooDoo]

While the NFL has remained the only major football league in the United States, that hasn't stopped other leagues from trying.

The Arena Football League, which sought to make the sport more exciting by playing in smaller quarters like basketball and hockey stadiums, fielded a team called the New Orleans Night in the 1991 and 1992 seasons. The team played in the Superdome but in a smaller configuration of the arena than used by the Saints. Unfortunately, as newspapers reported at the time, the team didn't win a single game in its second season, which didn't do much for bringing in fans or revenue, and the owners gave up after that year.

Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson brought Arena Football back to New Orleans in 2004, setting up the New Orleans VooDoo in the Smoothie King Center. Naturally, its cheerleaders were dubbed the VooDoo Dolls. Benson disbanded the team after 2008, but the name was revived in 2010 when Bossier-Shreveport Battle Wings owner Dan Newman moved his team to the bigger market of New Orleans. The team never built up a winning record or a strong fan base and was again dissolved in 2015. The league itself shut down after the 2019 season.

New Orleans Baseball

While there were exhibition games played in the city in the past, professional baseball is generally considered to have arrived full-time in New Orleans in 1887 with a team then known as the New Orleans Pelicans. Part of the regional Southern League, the team won the league championship in its initially year. It played to crowds of thousands in a field known as Sportsmen's Park, or Crescent City Baseball Park near Metairie Cemetery, before moving to a new Pelican Park, located in Mid-City at Banks Street and Carrollton Avenue.

1910 Pelicans Southern Association Champions team photo, exceptional with player #12: "Shoeless" Joe Jackson before he became a major league superstar—and later disgraced—player for the 1919 Chicago White Sox [wikimedia commons / Infrogmation]

In 1914, the ballpark was moved a few blocks down the street to Tulane and Carrollton Avenues, with newspaper reports at the time describing the grandstands being slowly hauled down Carrollton by mule-driven machinery. The new venue was soon dubbed Heinemann Park, after Pelicans' president and part-owner A. J. Heinemann, known for wearing outlandish outfits to home games.

Opening Day for the Zephyrs [file image]/NO Zephyrs]

The Pelicans were known for offering Ladies' Days and Kids' Days, where women or children could come to games for free in order to boost crowds, and for inexpensive refreshments—Heinemann boasted of freezing soft drink prices at just 5 cents. Probably the team's best-known player was "Shoeless Joe" Jackson, the player depicted in the movie Field of Dreams, who'd go on to play for the Chicago White Sox (and be implicated in the infamous "Black Sox" scandal, where players took money to fix the 1919 World Series, though Jackson's role is still debated).

The team continued to play minor league ball until the 1950s. In 1977, a new minor league team by the same name would appear for one season, playing its games indoors in the Superdome. Minor league ball would return in 1993 when the triple-A Zephyrs moved from Denver to Metairie. Renamed the Baby Cakes in reference to king cakes for the 2017 season, the team ultimately departed for Wichita, Kansas, after 2019.

Heinemann Park also hosted games by a number of Black baseball teams during the sport's segregated days. The New Orleans Black Pelicans of the Negro Southern League were perhaps the most famous. Other Black teams in the city included the Crescent Stars and the Algiers Giants. In the 1880s, a Black team called the New Orleans Pinchbacks—named for Reconstruction-era governor P.B.S. Pinchback, the first Black U.S. governor—defeated teams from Chicago and St. Louis in a tour of the Midwest and claimed a national championship.

Even Louis Armstrong briefly sponsored a local team in the 1930s that came to be called the Secret Nine. Though the players' identities are largely still unknown, the team drew attention for the fashion-forward uniforms the players wore, which bore Armstrong's name, as they faced off against other local teams, including the Black Pelicans.

Tennis, Anyone?

NETS logo [wikimedia commons.]

World Team Tennis, sometimes simply Team Tennis or World TeamTennis, is a mixed-gender league that's existed in various forms since the 1970s, designed to provide audiences with a more exciting alternative to the staid tennis competitions at fancy events like the U.S. Open. One account in a Honolulu newspaper quoted a team official looking to woo the "beer and peanuts crowd." Team members play in traditional singles or doubles matches, with their victories accumulating to the team's overall performance.

In 1978, the team known as the Cleveland Nets relocated and became the New Orleans Sun Belt Nets, soon to simply be the New Orleans Nets, playing home games at the Superdome and other regional venues. The Nets were one of several tennis-punned names—newspaper accounts mention the Indiana Loves, Phoenix Racquets, Los Angeles Strings, and even Boston Lobsters—but lost top players Björn Borg and Martina Navratilova before the move to the Crescent City.

The team lasted only a single season in New Orleans before the league folded. When the league reformed in 1981, there was no local team.

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