Baseball diamonds in the New Orleans area have come alive again with the onset of Spring. There’s always the hope that new stars will emerge, whether a high school freshman who is pitching in his first game or a New Orleans Zephyrs prospect trying to break in with the parent club, the Miami Marlins. Furthermore, this time of year is always a good occasion to reflect back on the stars of the past.
The history of amateur baseball on the West Bank of New Orleans has produced many stellar players over the years. There is a rich tradition of baseball in West Bank playgrounds like Harvey, Terrytown, Mel Ott Park, and King’s Grant, as well as high schools like Archbishop Shaw, John Ehret, and West Jefferson. Prominent in a recent publication of a New Orleans-based website are a number of West Bank-based ballplayers who went on to play collegiately and professionally.
As the name suggests, http://www.neworleansbaseball.com is a website devoted to the history of baseball in New Orleans at several levels—high school, college, and professional . One of the recent articles posted on the site (http://www.neworleansbaseball.com/articles/richardcuicchi.html) contains my compilation of an expansive list of baseball players who played for high schools in the New Orleans metropolitan area and later continued their careers at the college, minor league, and major level levels. Among those players catalogued are names that long-time New Orleans baseball enthusiasts will easily recognize.
Following are brief highlights of selected West Bank players from the list.
Undoubtedly, the most notable West Bank baseball player of all time is Mel Ott. In 1926, at the age of 16, he was recruited straight out of then Gretna High School by the New York Giants (0302) and immediately brought up to the major league club under the tutelage of Giants manager John McGraw. He became the regular right fielder at age 19, and proceeded to become one of the most feared sluggers in history. In 22 major league seasons, the 5’ 9” left-handed hitter bashed 511 career home runs, second only to Babe Ruth when he retired as a player in 1948. Ott’s career total of 1,860 RBI still ranks 12th all-time in major league history. Mel managed the New York Giants from 1942 to mid-way of 1948, but his teams never finished higher than 3rd place in the National League. Nicknamed “Master Melvin”, he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1951. Mel Ott Park in Gretna is obviously named in his honor. On March 7, 2009, on the anniversary of his 100th birthday, Mel was further celebrated by the City of Gretna with the dedication of life-sized bronze statue at the Visitors Center, illustrating his trademark high leg kick as he swung the bat.
Lou Blanda attended West Jefferson High School and then Tulane University, where he pitched for the Green Wave from 1963 to 1965. In his senior season, Lou tied for the team lead in wins with five, as Tulane posted a 15-10 record while playing in the Southeastern Conference. Lou’s father also played baseball for Tulane.
The first African-American to compete in a varsity sport for any college in the Southeastern Conference was Steve Martin. After playing high school baseball at Marrero High, the outfielder began his Tulane University career in 1966 and lettered for three years.
Cary Livingston prepped at West Jefferson High School before being selected out of high school in 1968 by the San Francisco Giants in the 22nd round of the major league draft. However, he passed up that professional opportunity to attend Tulane University, where he became one of its all-time best players. He was a four-year starter for the Green Wave from 1969 to 1972, when their won-loss record was 79-26. His career batting average was .337, including a then school record .390 in 1971. Cary was the team’s Most Valuable Player in 1971 and 1972. His Number 12 was retired by the Green Wave.
An All-District and All-Metro New Orleans catcher at Archbishop Shaw in 1977, Sam Dozier then lettered in three seasons at Tulane University. He was captain of the Green Wave during his senior season. Sam won a state title as coach of St. Martin’s High School in 1991 and also later coached at Jesuit High School.
Paul Mancuso played at Archbishop Shaw High School and was one of the stars on the 1978 Shaw-based American Legion team that won a state title. He signed with the University of New Orleans in 1979 and wound up lettering all four years he attended. In 1981, the lefty led the Privateer pitching corps with 10 wins and 73 strikeouts. In 1982, he repeated as the team’s strikeout leader. Paul signed with the Minnesota Twins organization in 1982. He pitched for four seasons with them, and his best season in 1984 included a 12-7 record, 18 saves and 1.86 ERA. He pitched one season for the San Diego Padres organization before ending his career.
Kenny Wilson prepped at John Ehret High School, where he was an All-District and All-City selection twice. He landed a scholarship with the University of New Orleans, where he lettered from 1982-1985. When the Privateers advanced to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1984, Kenny was the designated hitter against powerhouse teams such as Texas, Michigan and Oklahoma State. The first baseman batted .328 for the season, as UNO finished as as the 6th ranked team in the nation.
Joe Zimmerman finished his senior season in 1983 at Archbishop Shaw High School with a 12-0 won-lost record and 1.90 ERA. His post-season honors included 4A State MVP, All-City MVP, and All-District MVP. The right-hander signed with LSU for the 1984 season, and he lettered for the Tigers in 1986 and 1987. He was named to the All-SEC Academic teams in 1985 and 1986.
A product of Terrytown Playground, Steve Stanson chose to play high school baseball for Holy Cross. The left-handed hurler posted a 26-7 won-lost record in three varsity seasons for the Tigers. He was selected to Class 5A All-State and All-Metro New Orleans teams in 1994. Steve signed with the University of New Orleans, where he immediately made an impact as a freshman in 1995 with an 8-3 record and 2.20 ERA. He was named the Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year and selected to the Freshman All-American team that season. He went on to letter in two more seasons for the Privateers.
Blair Barbier was a standout player at King’s Grant Playground before selecting Brother Martin High School to play baseball and football. He lettered in four baseball seasons at Brother Martin, culminating with a 5A state title in 1996. He earned All District, All-Metro New Orleans and All-State honors that year. He was drafted out of high school by the Tampa Bay Rays, but chose to attend LSU instead. As an LSU freshman in 1997, Blair played second base and batted .353 with 15 home runs and 57 RBI. The Tigers won the College World Series, and Blair was named to the Freshman All-American team. As the third baseman on the 2000 Tigers team, he helped win a second national championship. Blair hit three home runs during the College World Series that year and was named to the All-Tournament Team. Blair followed his collegiate career with four minor league seasons (2000-2003) in the Chicago Cubs organization and one season in the independent Northern League.
Scott Tranchina was a four-year starter for Archbishop Shaw High School. As a senior in 1995, he was selected to the 5A All-District team. He set a school record of 20 career home runs at Shaw. His collegiate career started at Wallace State College (Hanceville, AL) in 1996, when the right-handed pitcher posted a 6-3 record, helping his team to a second-place finish among Alabama’s junior colleges. He transferred to the University of New Orleans in 1997, but was redshirted that season due to shoulder surgery. He then proceeded to letter in 1998-2000 at UNO before signing with the Chicago Cubs organization in 2000. He posted a 14-10 won-lost record in 67 games over two minor league seasons at the Single-A level.
A sampling of additional West Bank players from the New Orleans Area Players List referenced above include: Chase Dardar, Greg Delaune, Marc Dejardins, Brad Farizo, Darin Fernandez, Lloyd Hecard, Lucas Fortenberry, Jason Fortenberry, Terry Joseph, Webster Garrison, and Chuck Voorhies.
Do some of you New Orleans area residents recall additional baseball stars from the West Bank? Use the blog’s Comments feature to add your favorite recollections.