The Tenth Inning
 The Tenth Inning Blog
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Mel Ott League part of the fabric of New Orleans baseball in '60s, '70s, and '80s

When the New Orleans Pelicans minor-league baseball team ceased to exist following the 1959 season, their absence created a void for baseball fans in the metropolitan New Orleans area. While local baseball diehards could still follow American Legion and All-American League teams during the summer, the level of competition in the city for players over 19 years old was limited. A group of businessmen banded together in 1961 to create the Mel Ott League, which was best described as a semi-pro league. Remarkably, its existence lasted nearly 25 seasons.

The new league was named for Gretna’s Mel Ott Park, where all of its games were played. Ott had been a Gretna native who played in the major leagues from 1926 to 1947 and went on to be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

The new league became extremely popular with fans because they could follow teams featuring former professional and college players, as well as current college players who were no longer age-eligible for other amateur leagues. Most of these players had been the fans’ hometown heroes at one point.

The players favored the league because it provided an opportunity for former pro and college athletes to continue playing competitive baseball. Current college players were able to stay in “baseball shape” during the summer.

Unlike other notable semi-pro leagues across the country, such as the Cape Cod League, Kansas Baseball League, and Alaska Baseball League, the Mel Ott League did not recruit players from outside of the metropolitan New Orleans area.

Walter “Tiger” Ruiz was one of the first organizers of the league. He was also the coach of the Gretna Stars, one of the early dominant teams. The teams were generally sponsored by local businesses such as Deviney Clothiers, Buster Hughes, Lafitte Sash, M & W Marine Service, Roy Supply, and Staples Sporting Goods. Team sponsors recruited local players to fill their rosters. Players were allowed to switch teams from year to year.

The league usually had four to five teams per season. Initially, all of the games were played in Sunday doubleheaders, but it later expanded to play on Saturdays as well. In the early days, the season ran from April to September. The season was divided into two halves, with the winners of each half playing for the league championship at the end of the season. League organizers typically planned multiple games on July 4, in conjunction with other Gretna city celebration activities.

Local newspapers routinely reported on the upcoming schedule of games and then the weekend’s results and standings.

Some of the league’s players, particularly the former professionals, played well into their thirties. In a 1964 Times-Picayune article, it was noted that several Southern Association alumni, who were familiar to local baseball fans of the New Orleans Pelicans minor league team, had continued their passion for playing the game in the Mel Ott League. They included such players as Billy Reynolds, Charlie Williams, and Emil Panko. Nolan Vicknair, who had played a couple of seasons in the New York Giants organization in the late 1940s, competed in the first couple of seasons of the league.

Local professional players who came back to New Orleans following their careers and played in the Mel Ott League included Jim Harwell, John Olagues, Jim Moser, Fabien Mang, Wally Pontiff, Mike Trapani, and Keith Graffagnini. Local fans had followed these players during their high school and American Legion careers, when the players were first making their mark in the game.

Former University of New Orleans head baseball coach Tom Schwaner had played in the minors from 1959 to 1962 with the St. Louis Cardinals and Kansas City A’s organizations. He said the Mel Ott League gave him the opportunity to continue to play after his years in the pros. He remembers it as a very competitive league, but he also had fun. He said there would be as many as 300 to 400 people in the stands each Sunday rooting for their favorite team.

Yet the league wasn’t entirely dominated by ex-professional players. High school coaches Tony Reginelli and Joe Brockhoff played during the summer months. Former prep players Bill “Brother” Burke, Rick Tranchina, and Kenny Golden were long-time players in the league. Others like them were talented players who stayed in shape to compete each summer.

The league gradually turned to more college players to fill out team rosters. A 1974 States-Item article reported that the rosters “looked like a ‘Who’s Who’ of college baseball.” Tulane players Steve Mura and Jim Gaudet used the Mel Ott League as a steppingstone to major-league baseball careers. Maurice Ogier and Wayne Francingues played in the league before pursuing pro careers.

College players who didn’t want to leave the city during the summers opted to play competitively in the Mel Ott League to sharpen their skills. Players such as A. J. Musso, Jeff Fay, the other three Golden brothers (Pat, Wayne, and Steve), Jimmy and Larry Cabeceiras, and Wayne Silva were among them.

Terry Alario, a pitcher who prepped at West Jefferson High School and played collegiately at Northwestern State, played in the Mel Ott League during and after his college days. He said, “I played until I couldn’t get batters out anymore.” He says that players weren’t paid to play, but on occasion were the beneficiaries of fans passing the hat for donations when a home run was hit. Alario says there was also money passing hands in the stands among the older fans who liked betting on their favorite team.

A number of Mel Ott players eventually became prominent high school baseball coaches, including Jesse Daigle, Billy Fitzgerald, Frank Misuraca, Larry Schneider, Sam Dozier, Frank Cazeaux, and Barry Herbert.

Teams from the Mel Ott League often provided competition for the All-American League All-Star teams as they were preparing for national tournament competition in Johnstown, PA. In the early years, winners of the Mel Ott League and the Audubon League, another semi-pro league in the city, competed in an inter-city championship playoff.

The Times-Picayune reported in 1978 that the Mel Ott League was named the best semi-pro league in Louisiana for the fourth consecutive year.

Wayne Silva assembled a team of Mel Ott League all-stars in 1981 through 1983 to participate in the annual National Baseball Congress tournament in Wichita. Semi-pro teams from across the country vied for the prestigious championship in a 32-team double-elimination format. The New Orleans entries were entirely made up of local players, unlike most of the other teams who drew college players from around the country. Silva’s teams held their own with finishes of 14th in 1981 and fourth in 1982.

Former major-leaguer Ron Swoboda, then 39 years old working in New Orleans as a TV sportscaster, joined Silva’s team in 1983. Competing against players half his age, one of Swoboda’s contributions was a grand slam home run in the tournament. However, the hitting star of the team was Tulane first baseman Tommy Matthews, who hit five homers in the tournament. Silva’s team was eliminated by Fairbanks, Alaska, which featured future major leaguers Barry Bonds, Oddibe McDowell, Shane Mack, Joe Magrane, and Dave Stapleton. New Orleans finished in 5th place.

Marty Wetzel, who had been an All-Metro high school player in both football and baseball (as a pitcher), experienced a unique route to the Mel Ott League. His participation came after he had played football for Tulane and one season in the NFL as a New York Jets linebacker before an injury derailed his pro career. Wetzel says he had always favored baseball over football. Consequently, after he returned to New Orleans, he joined a few of his former high school teammates who were still competing in the Mel Ott League. He played a couple of seasons toward the end of the league’s existence, filling multiple infield and outfield positions, as well as pitcher.

The Mel Ott League established itself over the years as an important part of the baseball fabric of New Orleans. It became home to hundreds of men who wanted to continue competing at a level to which they were accustomed as professional, college, and high school players. Players such as Kenny Golden, Mike Culotta, “Brother” Burke, and Fred Krennerich were mainstays in the league year after year.

Perhaps no one was more committed than Krennerich, who participated as a player, coach, and president of the league, beginning in 1968 though the end of the league in 1983. In a Times-Picayune article in April 1984, Krennerich attributed the lack of a volunteer to replace him as the league president for the 1984 season as the main factor in the league’s demise.

Similar to the end of the old Pelicans minor-league team, the end of the Mel Ott League closed out a popular era of baseball in the city.

(Author’s note: There were other outstanding players, coaches, and teams in the Mel Ott League that are not mentioned in this article. I apologize up front for not being able to acknowledge all of them.

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