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Sports and Recreation in Louisiana

Louisiana first added the title of “Sportsmen’s Paradise” to its license plates in 1954, a declaration of the state’s reputation as a destination for outdoorsmen. Along with the natural bounty available to hunters and fishermen, Louisiana is home to storied traditions in team and individual sports, games, and other forms of recreation.

Native American Games

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An Indian inhabiting the country Northwest of Louisiana in 1741. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

The indigenous tribes of Louisiana almost certainly knew who among them was the most accurate archer, who could throw a tomahawk with deadly precision, and who was the most skilled horseman. However, the preferred recreational game among the Indians was a stick and ball game we know today as lacrosse. Documented by the very first Jesuit explorers in Louisiana, it is a variant on one of many stick and ball games that have been popular since the ancient Egyptians. The games were attended by large crowds and brought together members of different tribes for competitions, cultural exchange, and tribal practices that include songs and dancing.

Eighteenth Century (1701 – 1800)

Given the physical nature of work during the French and Spanish colonial periods, most adults probably felt little need to engage in further activity for recreation. Hunting and fishing were utilitarian pursuits rather than recreational endeavors. The few diversions were limited to those brief social occasions where music and dancing could make one forget about the grind of daily life. What leisure time remained for adults might be spent reading, playing card games such as whist or cribbage, or enjoying board games such as backgammon, dominoes, or chess. Theatre, vaudeville, and puppet shows were available on all levels, from taverns to town squares. Songs and ballads touched on politics, love, and sports such as boxing, cricket, fencing, and horse racing.

Children in colonial Louisiana played games such as fox and geese, hare and hounds, hopscotch, hide and seek, leapfrog, marbles, and jacks. The French introduced croquet while the Spanish popularized a counting game called ‘cuantas naranjas.’

Of the stick and ball games played across Louisiana, the French introduced ‘poison’ ball; the British had rounders, peckers, and town ball; and the Spanish brought ‘pelota.’ Each game was played with endless variations and rule revisions such that a game of rounders played in New Orleans could be markedly different than a game of rounders played in Baton Rouge.

Nineteenth Century (1801 – 1900)

A wave of immigration between 1791 and 1809 brought new residents of all socio-economic strata to New Orleans, along with their diverse and colorful forms of recreation. The game of craps was introduced in New Orleans by the Baron Xavier Phillippe de Marigny de Mandeville following a trip to London in 1801 where he learned a similar game called hazard.

Leisure time increased as society moved from rural-agrarian to urban-industrial. Cities planned and built public parks and squares, and New Orleans emerged as a premiere winter resort for visitors in search of balmy climate and diverse forms of amusement.

The 1830s provided another wave of immigration, primarily from Europe, and settlers brought with them an even broader array of sports and recreation, among them the ‘blood sports’ of cock fighting and bull-baiting. Through economic downturns, political turmoil, natural disasters, and even the Civil War, Louisianans turned to sports as a means of making life more enjoyable.

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Metairie Race Track seen here during spring meeting. From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, May 4, 1872.

 

With the establishment of Wade Hampton’s Houmas House plantation upriver from New Orleans in 1814, horse racing grew more popular. When Francois Livaudais laid out a dirt racecourse in 1820 on his plantation near present day St. Charles and Washington Avenues, New Orleans got its first taste of organized horse racing. Over the next twenty years New Orleans would establish four major racetracks. The arrival of Richard Ten Broeck in 1848 was the beginning of New Orleans’ reputation as a world-class racing venue. The rivalry between two racehorses – Lexington and Lecomte – at the Metairie Course between 1854 and 1855 is the stuff of legend. Horse breeding and racing flourished throughout Louisiana, from Shreveport to Alexandria and throughout south Louisiana, where a tradition of informal bush track racing produced both champion racehorses and courageous jockeys.

The Civil War caused all of the region’s racetracks to be pressed into military service, first by the Confederate army as campgrounds and training areas, which were later abandoned by the Union forces following the capture of New Orleans. After the war, horse racing and boxing continued and the expansion of gambling opportunities in southeast Louisiana resumed.

Baseball

While sports such as golf and tennis originated with the upper class, their very design based on private clubs and often requiring vast tracts of open land, they eventually wound up in the hands of the common man. Baseball is one such sport. Beginning in 1859, and with a significant expansion following the Civil War, numerous clubs were established in the city, including the Lone Star Base Ball Club and the Empire Base Ball Club (1859). These clubs were soon joined by the Comet Base Ball Club (1860), the R.E. Lee Base Ball Club (1864), and the Pelican Base Ball Club (1865). The teams played on the cricket grounds on the DeLaChaise estate (near present-day Touro Infirmary).

The Louisiana Base Ball Association was formed in 1867 and continued to operate until 1873. The Crescent City League set up shop in 1880 and operated until 1884, when New Orleans businessman Toby Hart’s unsuccessful bid to obtain a franchise in the newly formed Southern League led him to form the Gulf League, which consisted of two teams from New Orleans and two teams from Mobile, Alabama.

Hart was eventually successful in securing a franchise for New Orleans in the Southern League for the 1887 season, during which the New Orleans Pelicans captured the first of three Southern League championships.

Intercollegiate Sports

In the latter part of the century, sports and recreation programs became increasingly popular at Louisiana’s growing number of colleges. The state’s very first intercollegiate sporting event in occurred on January 8, 1888, when a group of students from Tulane University traveled to Baton Rouge to engage their counterparts from Louisiana State University (LSU) in a game of baseball.

During the latter half of the nineteenth century, colleges and universities across the state began to broaden their recreational resources for the ever-growing number of students. The Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference was founded in 1894; Tulane and Louisiana State University were charter members.

The first recorded game of football in Louisiana is said to have taken place on New Year’s Day, 1890. The Southern Athletic Club assembled the first organized football team in December of 1892 for the specific purpose of meeting the Birmingham Athletic Club at Sportsman’s Park in New Orleans. On Thanksgiving Day 1893, the Southern Athletic Club squad defeated the University of Mississippi 34 – 0 for the Championship of the South. LSU played its very first football game in 1893, a 34 – 0 loss to Tulane University.

Football became a college sport at Tulane (1893), LSU (1893), the University of Louisiana – Lafayette (1901), Loyola University (1913), Southern University (1916), Southeastern Louisiana (1925), Grambling 1928), LSU – Monroe, and McNeese State University (1940).

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Jim Sullivan and John L. Sullivan and ‘Gentleman’ Jim Corbett at the Olympic Club

Boxing in New Orleans took on national importance, beginning in 1870, with the first world’s championship prizefight between British champion Jem Mace and American champion Tom Allen held in Kennerville, Louisiana. Beginning in 1890 with the further expansion of athletic clubs, where it would now be legal to stage prize fights, New Orleans became an epicenter for major boxing events such as the middleweight title bout between Bob Fitzsimmons and Jack Dempsey (1891) and the Carnival of Champions (1892). The event featured three world title bouts on three consecutive days, culminating in the heavyweight championship match between the renowned John L. Sullivan and newcomer ‘Gentleman’ Jim Corbett at the Olympic Club.

Twentieth Century (1901 – 2000)

At the turn of the century, all classes of citizens participated in some form of sport or recreation, either as a participant or a spectator. Louisianans supported traditional sports like horse racing, boxing, billiards, and cricket while embracing new sports like baseball, cycling, basketball, and football.

Baseball was quickly becoming the most popular sport in the country, and New Orleans had numerous amateur, semi-professional and professional teams. Abner Powell, a former player-manager with the New Orleans Pelicans in the now defunct Southern League, gathered two other veterans of the Southern League from Memphis and Nashville to establish the Southern Association. The league would operate continuously from 1901 through 1961 and was one of the most successful professional baseball circuits in the country.

Notable players with the New Orleans Pelicans include Ted Breitenstein, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Larry Gilbert, Joe Martina, Zeke Bonura, and future Hall of Famers Joe Sewell, Dazzy Vance, Earl Weaver, and Bob Lemon. The New Orleans Pelicans would win nine Southern Association titles and two Dixie Series championships between 1901 and 1959.

The intransience of team owners to integrate seating at Pelican Stadium eventually led to the collapse and sale of the franchise in 1959. Despite the intervention of baseball-fan Mayor Chep Morrison, New Orleans would remain without professional baseball until 1993 when the AAA-franchise from Denver relocated to Louisiana as the New Orleans Zephyrs. The team continues to attract fans annually to Zephyr Field on Airline Drive in Metairie. Between 1993 and 2013 the Zephyrs captured three minor league pennants (1998, 2001, 2007).

College sports continued its rapid growth in the twentieth century, with LSU, Tulane, and Loyola producing national champions in both team and individual sports. Loyola’s football team defeated LSU 7 – 0 in their first meeting on October 7, 1922. Tulane fielded the number two ranked football team in the country in 1932, eventually falling to USC in the Rose Bowl on January 1, 1932.

The record books felt the impact of Louisiana’s thriving collegiate programs. Loyola’s Bucky Moore broke Red Grange’s single game rushing record in 1926. Loyola football coach Clark Shaughnessy (1927 – 1932) developed the ‘T-formation,’ once the staple of every college and professional football team’s offense. Coach Tad Gormley (1928 – 1932) produced two athletes who won gold medals in different sports during the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles – Emmett Toppino (relay sprinter) and Eddie Flynn (boxing). The 1945 basketball team won the NAIA national championship. In 1965, Loyola became the first college in Louisiana to integrate its athletic programs.

Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, the largest university in the state, has produced the most NCAA team and individual championships of any college statewide. While known for its football program, the most successful athletic programs at LSU are the men’s and women’s track and field squads, producing an impressive 158 team titles and 283 individual championships combined. Established in 1897, the track and field program won the inaugural Southeastern Conference (SEC) outdoor title in 1933 and has added another twenty-one titles since then. Among the fabled coaches who have led the Tigers are Tad Gormley (1916 – 1927), Bernie Moore (1930 – 1947), Al Moreau (1949 – 1963), and Pat Henry (1988 – 2004).

Between 1984 and 2001, the LSU baseball program was under the guidance of Coach Stanley ‘Skip’ Bertman. The Tigers won five NCAA national crowns (1991, 1993, 1996, 1997, and 2000) under Bertman and continued their winning ways under Coach Paul Mainieri, taking the national championship in 2009.

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LSU’s Tiger Stadium. Courtesy of Wikimedia, photo by Infrogmation.

LSU has played football since 1893. The football program produced national championships in 1958 under Coach Paul Dietzel (1955 – 1961), then again in 2003 for Coach Nick Saban (2000 – 2004), and finally in 2007 for Coach Les Miles (2005 – present). However, die-hard Tiger fans will be quick to claim national titles in 1908, 1935, 1936, 1962, and 2011, and they would have a very strong case in their favor. The LSU football program produced fourteen Southeastern Conference (SEC) titles and twenty-seven All-Americans such as Billy Cannon (Heisman Trophy 1959), Jerry Stovall, Tommy Casanova, and Abe Mickal.

The university has also produced NCAA team championships in basketball (1935) and boxing (1949) as well as numerous individual national titles in boxing (11), gymnastics (10), swimming and diving (6), golf (4), and tennis (1).

Founded in 1834, Tulane University began offering sports and recreation programs in the 1880s and was a charter member of the Southeastern Conference (SEC). Just before withdrawing from the SEC in 1966, Tulane became the first SEC school to allow a black student to participate in varsity sports when Stephen Martin played second base on the school’s baseball team.

Although nationally known for their academic programs, Tulane has produced several NCAA national championships. Golfer Fred Lamprecht took back-to-back titles in men’s golf (1925 – 26), followed by Vincent d’Antoni in 1939. Men’s tennis took center stage when Cliff Sutter won the men’s singles (1930, 1932), followed by Ernest Sutter (1936 – 37), Jack Tuero (1949), Ham Richardson (1953 – 54), and Jose Aguero (1955). Crawford Henry and Ronald Holmberg won the NCAA men’s doubles crown in 1957 and again in 1959 as part of Coach Emmet Pare’s national championship team.

Among the most recognizable Tulane alumnae in professional sports are Tommy Mason, Bobby Duhon, Mwelde Moore, Matt Forte, and Patrick Ramsey.

Among college football’s most intense and anticipated rivalries is the annual Bayou Classic, between Grambling State University and Southern University, that has taken place every Thanksgiving weekend in New Orleans since 1932.

High school football became popular during the 1920s and Minden High School captured the first state championship in 1921. In the intervening years, John Curtis has won eight state titles, followed by Haynesville with seven, six schools with six state titles, and another eight schools that have each won five state championships.

The New Orleans Saints

Louisiana’s focus shifted from baseball to football during the latter half of the twentieth century. Through the focused effort of Dave Dixon, New Orleans began hosting National Football League (NFL) exhibition games at old Tulane Stadium, hoping to prove to league officials that New Orleans could support an NFL franchise. With the help of Louisiana Governor John McKeithen, New Orleans Mayor Victor Schiro, and the state’s legislative contingent, the city secured an NFL franchise on All Saint’s Day 1966. From 1967 through 1974 the New Orleans Saints played in Tulane Stadium in uptown New Orleans. Fans began their love-hate relationship with the team. On November 8, 1970 Tom Dempsey kicked a 63-yard field goal in the final two seconds of the game to defeat the Detroit Lions 19 – 17. Although tied three times, it still stands as the longest field goal in NFL history.

The Saints moved into the Louisiana Superdome (now the Mercedes-Benz Superdome), for the 1975 season and have played their home games there continuously, with the exception of the 2005 season, when the facility was severely damaged during Hurricane Katrina.

Former Ole Miss quarterback Archie Manning was drafted by the Saints with the second overall pick in the 1971 NFL draft and spent the next eleven seasons as the face of the franchise. However, not even Manning’s considerable talent was enough to produce a winning season for the hapless Saints. The franchise’s low point came during the 1980 season, when fans began wearing paper bag masks over their heads. Attendance dropped from 78,147 to 30,936 and the national media picked up on the phenomenon. In May of 1985 the ownership of the Saints was transferred to local businessman Tom Benson, who put together a management team and coaching staff designed to turn the team’s fortunes around. In 1986 Jim Mora became the 10th head coach in franchise history. Over the next ten seasons his teams won 93 of 167 games, a .557 winning percentage, and went to their first playoff game in team history.

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The Superdome after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Photo by Corey Seeman.

The team’s fortunes took another turn in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Superdome. In 2006 the team hired Coach Sean Payton and signed quarterback Drew Brees. Following a $220 million renovation of the Superdome, the Saints opened at home on September 25, 2006 against their division rival, the Atlanta Falcons, before a capacity crowd of 70,000 and a national television audience on Monday Night Football. It was an electric, seminal moment when Steve Gleason blocked a punt on the fourth play of the game that resulted in a Saints touchdown.

The Saints would finish the 2006 regular season at 10 – 6 and capture the NFC South championship. The 2009 season produced the team’s fourth division title with a record of 13 – 3 at the end of the regular season. A victory over the Arizona Cardinals 45 – 14 in the Divisional Playoff was followed by a dramatic 31 – 28 win in overtime against the Minnesota Vikings in the Conference Championship game. On February 7, 2010 the Saints over-ran the Indianapolis Colts, led by New Orleans native Peyton Manning, by the score of 31 – 17. The agony of forty-three seasons was erased.

Basketball

New Orleanians have long embraced the game of basketball. A 2013 exhibit at the Newcomb Art Gallery on the campus of Tulane University presented photographs of Newcomb students engaged in outdoor ‘basquette’ ball as early as 1895, just four years after the game was introduced at the YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts. Tulane’s Devlin Fieldhouse is the 9th oldest basketball venue in the country.

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East side entrance of Devlin field house, Tulane University.

Over the years the state has produced numerous athletes who achieved success among the ranks of professional basketball’s elite. Louisiana native sons and NBA Hall of Famers include Bob Pettit (Baton Rouge), Bill Russell (Monroe), Willis Reed (Hico), Karl Malone (Summerfield), Elvin Hayes (Rayville), Clyde Drexler (New Orleans), and Robert Parish (Shreveport). These men were also named by the NBA to the 50 Greatest Players of All-Time in 1996. Indeed, it is significant that fourteen-percent of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players of All-Time were born in Louisiana.

New Orleans secured its first professional basketball franchise in 1967 as a charter member of the American Basketball Association. The New Orleans Buccaneers lasted for four seasons and won a division title in 1968 before was relocating to Memphis in 1970. Four years later the city was awarded a National Basketball Association (NBA) franchise, aptly named the New Orleans Jazz. The city supported the team from the outset. Between 1975 and 1977, the average NBA attendance was 10,700 per game while the Jazz averaged 11,871 per game. Despite holding several NBA attendance records during this period, the Jazz played in the cavernous Superdome, that looked half-full at best in its basketball configuration. Behind former-LSU standout ‘Pistol’ Pete Maravich, the Jazz failed to produce a winning season, and relocated to Utah in 1979.

In 2002 the NBA Charlotte Hornets relocated to New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina forced the team to move to Oklahoma City for the 2006-07 season. When they returned to New Orleans the Hornets finished up 56 – 26 in 2007, earning their first and only division title under the direction of point guard Chris Paul. In early 2010 owner George Shinn entered into discussions to sell his majority stake to South Lafourche businessman Gary Chouest, but talks stalled when Chouest’s oil service business came under pressure following the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. The NBA purchased the franchise from Shinn and Chouest in December of 2010 for an estimated $300 million. The NBA sold off all of the team’s marquee players and there were persistent rumors that the league wanted to relocate the team to a larger media market.

Those rumors came to a grinding halt in April of 2012 when Saints’ owner Tom Benson purchased the franchise from the NBA for $338 million. In 2013, Benson renamed the team the New Orleans Pelicans.

 

—Written by Derby Gisclair

 

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