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 The Tenth Inning Blog
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Turn Back the Clock: Former S.J. Peters star pitcher Pete Modica made name for himself in Southern Association

Pitcher Pete Modica never made it to the big leagues, although he came close on two occasions. Instead, he became a permanent fixture in the minor-league Southern Association during the 1940s and 1950s, including parts of five seasons with the hometown New Orleans Pelicans. He was a five-time All-Star and played in three post-season Dixie Series (Southern Association champs versus Texas League champs). The lanky hurler got his start as a star pitcher with S. J. Peters High School in New Orleans in both prep and American Legion competition.

Modica’s name first appeared in the local sports pages in 1938 as a member of the Peters-based American Legion Class B team. As a 15-year-old pitcher in 1939, he played well enough to be recognized with honorable mention on the city’s American Legion All-Star team.

With the 1939 experience under his belt, he was one of the primary starters for the Papoose American Legion team in 1940. He started the season with back-to-back one-hitter and a no-hitter and went on to win 12 games in his first 13 starts. His 13th win came in the state championships, as Papoose defeated Ruston. They advanced to the Legion regional tournament but were ousted by Little Rock. Modica’s performance earned him a selection for the city’s Legion All-Star team.

Peters High School was a favorite to win the city prep title in 1941, behind a group of standout players that featured future major leaguers Ray Yochim, Mel Parnell, and Bo Strickland. In addition to Modica, the roster also included Ed Lavigne, Ray Campo, and Nelson Nocheck, all of whom eventually played in the minors. However, Peters ended up losing out in the championship round to Jesuit.

Modica, who was reported as six feet tall and weighing 130 pounds, played for Papoose again in the summer American Legion loop. The team was unable to repeat their prior season’s success, but the slim side-armer again made the All-Star team.

The 1942 Peters team won the state championship behind Modica and his batterymate Campo. Despite Modica’s defeat of Holy Cross twice during the regular season, Peters lost the city championship to the Tigers, who were led by their sensational pitcher Dick Callahan.

A week after the prep season ended, Modica and Campo were signed by St. Louis Cardinals scout Wid Matthews. Modica was sent to Class C Springfield where his catcher was 16-year-old Joe Garagiola, the future major-leaguer and later a celebrated baseball broadcaster.

New Orleans Pelicans general manager Charlie Hurth signed Modica for the 1943 season, but after only two appearances, the pitcher received his military service induction papers. He missed the rest of the season and all of 1944 and 1945 during World War II. However, Modica was fortunate enough to play on Army baseball teams while stationed in the States. He defeated the Detroit Tigers in an exhibition game.

Modica returned to the Pelicans for a brief period in 1946 before spending most of the season with Class B Anderson in the Tri-State League to get more experience.

1947 was Modica’ breakout season. The 23-year-old finished with a 13-10 record for the Pelicans, then an affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. In one of the more exciting seasons in recent Pelican history, the team finished second in the Southern Association behind Mobile by one-half game.

Boston purchased the rights to Modica over the winter for $10,000. He went to spring training in 1948 with the Red Sox, where former S. J. Peters High School pitchers Jack Kramer and Mel Parnell were his teammates. But the Red Sox ended up shipping him to Triple-A Louisville. (Parnell and Kramer wound up winning 33 games between them for the Red Sox, who lost a one-game playoff to Cleveland for the American League pennant.)

After a 2-7 record with the Colonels, he was sent to Birmingham, a competitor of the Pelicans in the Southern Association. The Barons won the league championship playoffs, with Modica contributing seven wins. Birmingham also went on to win the Dixie Series, versus Texas League champion Forth Worth.

Modica became a journeyman pitcher during the next two seasons. He was with Birmingham and New Orleans in 1949, then Indianapolis, New Orleans, and Nashville in 1950. He pitched for Nashville in their Dixie Series loss to Texas League champion San Antonio.

He earned a full-time job in 1951 with Nashville, where former New Orleans Pelicans player-manager Larry Gilbert was the business manager. Modica appeared in both starter and reliever roles, finishing with a 13-6 record.

With Nashville in 1952, he was used strictly as a reliever and ended up setting a Southern Association record for appearances (66) in a season. He won 13 games again. By this time, he had developed a tantalizing screwball pitch to go along with a good fastball.

Modica earned a promotion to Triple-A Minneapolis in 1953 after winning nine games for Nashville, then a New York Giants affiliate. The big-league Giants conditionally bought Modica from Nashville in the offseason, with the intention of using him in the bullpen to augment their new relief specialist Hoyt Wilhelm. But Modica developed a sore arm and wasn’t able to stick with the Giants in 1954. Coming out of spring training, he returned to Nashville. Unfortunately, he missed out on being with the Giants team that won the 1954 World Series.

The Atlanta Crackers acquired Modica in June 1954. In a reliever role, he helped them finish in first place during the Southern Association’s regular season. Atlanta also won the postseason playoffs against New Orleans and defeated Texas League champion Houston in the Dixie Series.

In an article in the Times-Picayune in 1990, Modica said, “The Southern Association was a fast league after the war in the 1940s. We had guys coming home from the military and some coming down from the majors. It was popular with the fans. In 1947, when I was with the Pelicans, we drew over 400,000, and in ’54, when I played for Atlanta, we set an attendance record of more than 500,000.”

Some of Modica’s best seasons came in Nashville, where they played at Sulphur Dell Park. Modica said, “I liked pitching there because you didn’t have to throw strikes.” With the right field fence only 250 feet from home plate, he explained, “The short porch was appealing to hitters. They usually get anxious at the plate and swung at almost anything pitched.”

Modica finished his career in 1955, splitting his time between Atlanta, Beaumont, and New Orleans. He retired at age 31.

Altogether, Modica played for four different teams in parts of 11 seasons in the Southern Association. He is credited with a 55-41 win-loss record in 284 league games.

Modica died at age 69 on September 3, 1993. His brother Sal also played professionally from 1942 to 1949.

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