A League of Their Own
The 24-year run of the Evangeline League was marred by scandal, but the colorful group was also a huge source of Acadiana pride.
In what was undoubtedly a typically sultry southern Louisiana night, the Jeanerette Blues came to Rayne to play an Evangeline League baseball doubleheader against the Rice Birds.
It was July 16, 1939, and the two umpires manning the diamond that night, head ump Lynn Dowdy and his assistant, Leonard Montelbano, couldn’t have possibly anticipated that by the end of the evening, one of them would be whacked in the face by a flying pop bottle and the other would be conked from behind by a baseball bat.
But then again, this was the wild and woolly Evangeline League, where the fact that a group of irate Rice Birds fans would physically attack the officiating crew after their home team suffered a disputed 8-4 loss wasn’t really out of the ordinary.
Over the 24-year span in which the minor, minor league existed – in two versions, a pre-war Class D edition and a post-World War II Class D-turned-C one – life in the Evangeline was unpredictable, volatile, often surreal and sometimes even seemingly impossible. But it was also, quite simply, a huge bundle of fun.
“It really was a league that was a wild and crazy one in a lot of ways,” says author Gerald Duff, whose novel, Dirty Rice: A Season in the Evangeline League, was a fictionalized but research-based work.
Doug Taylor, who has extensively researched and written about the Lafayette White Sox – the winners of the league’s first championship in 1934 – says Evangeline League games were just too compelling, in good and bad ways, for people to stay away.
“While that may not seem like much today, when observed against the relatively small populations of league towns in the 1930s, the crowds made up an amazingly large percentage of the local population,” Taylor says. “In short, the Evangeline League game was the biggest show in town. If you weren’t at the game, you wanted to talk to someone who had been. A marriage on the diamond, a bench-clearing brawl, an umpire’s ejection, the clutch hit – these were the things the old men at the post office were talking about the next day in Lafayette.”
In a league composed largely of teams in the small cities and towns that dotted the Acadian part of the Pelican State – Lake Charles to Lafayette, Houma to Hammond, Opelousas to Thibodaux – games in the circuit existed as some of the most beloved and popular social events in the league’s respective towns, which numbered 17 in all over the years.
Although only one franchise, the Alexandria Aces, lasted for every Evangeline League season, the communities of the circuit nonetheless embraced their teams and players, making them like family and showering them with adulation. Some Evangeline League contests even had higher attendance than Major League ones.
“In those days, there wasn’t much else for people to do in these towns,” Duff says. “People had to go to these games to have some fun.”
And those fans were often rewarded for their loyalty with some stellar playing by stellar athletes. In 1948, for example, Houma’s Roy “Tex” Sanner laid out one of the most remarkable efforts in baseball history. He not only won the batting triple crown with a .386 average, 34 homers and 126 RBI, but he very nearly picked up the pitching version, too, posting a 21-2 record, 251 strikeouts and a 2.58 ERA. The Evangeline launched dozens of players on to Major League careers, including one Hall of Famer, pitcher Hal Newhouser, who began his pro career in 1938 for the Aces before becoming perhaps the Majors’ best war-period hurler with the Detroit Tigers.
Terry Fox was another Evangeline alumnus who made it all the way to the Majors. A Chicago native, Fox was taken in baseball’s amateur draft after high school and ended up in tiny New Iberia in 1954 as a fresh-faced 17-year-old, where he was surrounded by a mixture of young prospects like himself and well-traveled veterans who helped teach him the ropes of professional baseball. And that’s not to mention the incredible fans.
“The people were always very supportive, especially for someone like me, being from out of town,” Fox says. “Baseball was always very interesting to the people of the town. TV hadn’t taken over yet, so they’d come out to the ballpark. We’d get 2,000 or 3,000 for games.”
Fox eventually played in “The Show” from 1960-66 with Milwaukee, Detroit and Philadelphia, but his two initial years in South Louisiana made such an impression on him that he married a local woman and, after retiring, settled in New Iberia permanently. Today, memories of joining teammates at the Iberia Cafe after a game and squaring off against their intense rivals in Crowley fill Fox’s thoughts and warm his heart.
“I think God meant for that to happen,” he says of being sent to New Iberia as a teen. “I drank the water here, married a local girl, and so I’ve stayed. Baseball was very successful for me. But [the Evangeline League] set the background for me to understand baseball. My life is so much better because of everything I’ve experienced. The people here in South Louisiana enjoy life. It’s been a great experience.”
But the Evangeline also had a murky, dark and at times tragic side. Gamblers corrupted players and officials with bribes – a practice that peaked with a massive scandal in 1946-47 involving four players from the Houma Indians and one from the Abbeville Athletics who allegedly accepted money in exchange for altering the course of games. The illicit behavior marred what should have been the league’s triumphant, re-emergent season after the war.
“The long-smoldering fire of scandal finally has burst into leaping flame in the Evangeline League,” clucked longtime New Orleans Times-Picayune sports editor Bill Keefe in November 1946.
“An example should be made of these contemptible culprits,” he added. “Their names should be published so that all honest employes [sic] will shun them. You’d think that the miserable lives eked out by men who were in the Black Sox scandal would serve as an eternal warning to young men to keep themselves clean and keep above suspicion the great sport that gives them a livelihood.”
The Evangeline League also wasn’t spared the painful, turbulent process of integration that began in late 1945 when the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson. In early 1956, for example, the Chicago Cubs signed two black players – including Ben Banks, Hall of Famer Ernie’s brother – and assigned them to the Evangeline League’s Lafayette Oilers.
That triggered action by East Baton Rouge Parish, the home of the Baton Rouge Rebels, that promptly forbade visiting league teams from playing black players in its city-owned stadium. Just weeks later, the Evangeline League itself banned all of its teams from carrying non-white players and ordered all five black players currently on league rosters – namely, in Lake Charles and Lafayette – transferred elsewhere.
Despite frantic PR backpedaling by league President Ray Mullins, the move triggered outrage among regional black groups as well as the national black press. Boycotts of league games were organized, and black writers such as Marion Jackson of the Atlanta Daily World reacted with outrage. Their ire was stirred even more in June 1956, when the Louisiana House of Representatives passed a bill nixing all racially mixed sporting events in the state.
Jackson delighted when the controversy forced the Evangeline to cancel the rest of its playoffs after the first round.
“Now, with tears flowing in uncontrolled volume, the Evangeline League, which ousted Negro players at Lake Charles and Lafayette because of a Baton Rouge park ordinance barring them, is ready to throw in the towel,” Jackson crowed in his Sept. 19, 1956, column. “It is amazing how these Nullicrats white-wash wrong to make it look right. The Evangeline League was a thriving, red-corpuscled loop a few months ago when bronze players were making the turnstiles click. Then the segregationists seized control of mass opinion and ramrodded a series of segregation measures.”
Nicholls State professor Paul Leslie, who has researched and written about the league extensively, says the league’s racial ban hurt the loop’s teams at the turnstiles because it meant rejecting a potentially significant fan base.
“[League officials] integrated very reluctantly,” Leslie says. “The major league sponsors would send players to the teams, and in a couple of instances, this involved African Americans. One thing that people forget or don’t know is that the use of black players filled the stands and sold tickets. This is something that has been shown as a backdrop to Branch Rickey’s decision to sign Jackie Robinson.”
The Evangeline also succumbed to the economic realities of World War II in mid-1942 after valiantly trying to continue playing despite the drafting or enlistment of dozens, if not hundreds, of courageous players. In May of that year, the New Iberia and Lake Charles franchises dropped out of the league, leaving only four teams in the loop. On May 29, 1942, circuit officials announced that play would cease June 1. The league then went dormant for another three seasons.
“We have fought every inch of the way to keep the loop in operations,” league President Judge A. Wilmot Dalferes told the Associated Press, “but now we are saying au revoir and not goodbye … After the war is over you’ll find the Evangeline League, about the finest little league, back in baseball.”
He was right, but, as previously stated, it wasn’t all good times in the Evangeline League, and the circuit’s most famous – or, perhaps more appropriately, infamous – season came in 1946, which started with a wave of post-war optimism but concluded with an ugly gambling scandal that continues to tarnish the league’s history to this day.
It commenced with a furious process of cooperation among numerous cities to get the Evangeline restarted after World War II, and this time the loop would take a step up in level of play, from Class D to C, another reason for hardball fans to harbor optimism. In addition, the geographic proximity of the league’s teams doubled the tight-knit feeling that developed among the member towns.
“The Evangeline League is going to the post this summer with eight teams,” wrote Keefe in late January 1946. “… That is a circuit that just about meets the dreamed-of condition where every game will be a home game because in most of the jumps, a team’s followers can hop in a car and within an hour be in the ‘enemy’ town where their heroes are playing.”
The situation almost instantly triggered the establishment of intense but respectful rivalries that were savored by the clubs’ respective faithful. By the time September 1946 rolled around, the Houma Indians had thoroughly outclassed the rest of the league and breezed through the playoffs, posting a blistering 92-38 regular-season mark before conquering Alexandria in the first round and Abbeville in the title series, both by the count of four games to one.
Pitcher Edward Burkett “Pat” Patterson had an amazing campaign, going 35-7, and second-sacker Mike Conroy paced the league in batting at .372. Center fielder Lanny Pecou won the stolen-bases crown with 53 swipes, and first baseman Paul Fugit led the loop with 130 RBI.
Overall, the Indians’ incredible display of prowess had journalists naming them the best Class D team in the country and declaring that the 1946 season had been an overwhelming success. The fact that the Indians were initially a last-second replacement for an aborted Opelousas franchise – in less than a month, Houma organizers sold stock in a team, secured a field, hired management and gathered players – only added to the sweetness and pride Houma residents felt in their team’s title.
Then it all came crashing down. Soon after the Indians donned their 1946 crown, allegations of impropriety erupted; several Houma players were accused of taking bribes from gamblers in return for losing two games in the playoffs and winning another one. An investigation was launched, and on Jan. 18, 1947, Judge W.G. Bramham, president of the minor leagues-governing National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, announced the banning of five Evangeline players from organized baseball.
Implicated were Houma players Pecou, Fugit, pitcher William Thomas and Alvin Kaiser, as well as Don Vettorel, Abbeville’s catcher. (Popular speculation has that several other players were guilty of game-fixing, but those were the only five named.) Several player appeals were denied, and the scandal became closely followed national news. It also elicited indignant scorn from the media, which lamented the fact that gambling was so rife in baseball and, perhaps, all of sports.
“Houma’s professional baseball scandal brings the trail of the gamblers’ schemes to turn sports into a racket pretty close to home,” the Times-Picayune editorialized. “Developments … indicate that gamblers and their ‘fixers’ have been trying to make for themselves as soft a place in other sports as they have had in racing. … As long as they are allowed to set up in this ugly business, some of them will be ready with big money to engineer a bigger ‘killing’ in sports where their influence is unsuspected.”
But, says Nicholls professor Leslie, even such media fury reflected a naiveté about the undercurrent of illicitness that flowed through the state.
“Gambling and corruption are always rampant in Louisiana,” he says. “It is a way of life for Louisianians. You have too many people who feel that it is a legitimate form of expression.”
The Evangeline League rallied and survived, however, even being bumped up to Class C beginning in 1949 and continuing to draw large crowds. But even that gradually came to an end, Leslie says, largely due to the advancement of technology that encouraged people to stay in their homes instead of sitting outdoors at a sticky, mosquito-infested ballfield. With the evolution of television and air conditioning, Leslie says, baseball fans now could enjoy America’s pastime in the comfort of their own homes.
And that, in the end, provided the final death knell to the Evangeline. With attendance – and, correspondingly, revenue – sliding for most loop teams, the league shuttered its doors for good in 1957.
With it went an institution that had, over nearly a quarter-decade, become an integral part of life in Central and South Louisiana. In fact, an estimated 7 million people went through Evangeline League turnstiles over the years. At its height, the league – with nicknames such as the Pepper Pot League, the Hot Sauce League and the Tabasco Circuit – was a uniquely zany Louisianian entity that represented the character, both good and bad, of its towns and people.
Not only did the league draw faithful fans, but it also garnered the devoted coverage of numerous South Louisiana sportswriters, including Fred Bandy, who in the last stop of his five-decade career was the editor of and columnist for the New Iberian. In an April 1990 edition of his column, “Bandying About,” the journalist waxed poetic about the way younger generations simply didn’t understand the meaning and importance of the Evangeline League to the people of its era.
“[T]hey have no reason to understand the attachment some of us old-timers may have to an era that gave us the best and worst of America’s favorite pastime,” he penned. “Wild and crazy games were the norm rather than the exception in the old Evangeline League. There were some good players, some good games of baseball … but when things were going right those in the stands and in the press box knew that at any second it could blow wide open and look very much like Junior’s Little League in City Park.”
Not everyone has forgotten, though. In July 2000, Crowley Mayor Isabella L. de la Houssaye signed a proclamation declaring Evangeline League Baseball and Crowley Millers Day, the crowning event of the 11th annual reunion of league players, officials, fans and historians.
Along with those reunions, Leslie and Charles Gaharan founded the Evangeline Baseball League Memorabilia Society and established the university archives as the official repository of league documents; reports; and ephemera, such as uniforms, mitts and autographed baseballs.
Such efforts have helped preserve the heritage and history of the Evangeline, and it’s indeed quite a history. Each season of the Evangeline League began with the fervor only a nascent season of baseball could bring, and each campaign was indelibly marked by unique, colorful and sometimes quirky players and teams.
“… If you weren’t at the game, you wanted to talk to someone who had been. A marriage on the diamond, a bench-clearing brawl, an umpire’s ejection, the clutch hit – these were the things the old men at the post office were talking about the next day …”