September 27, 2013
Unbeknownst to many pundits who weighed in on the New Orleans NBA franchise’s decision to select the nickname “Pelicans,” the moniker is far from a new one. In fact, “New Orleans Pelicans” is one of the oldest names in professional sports, dating all the way to at least the Civil War era.
New Orleans native and resident S. Derby Gisclair, who wrote a book on baseball in the city, notes in his 2004 tome “Baseball in New Orleans” that sports organizations with that name were in place by 1865. When the city’s minor league professional baseball team became a member of the Southern League in 1887, it was named the New Orleans Pelicans, a tag it kept all the way through its final season in 1959. The Pelicans returned for one summer in 1977 to play their home games inside the Superdome, marking the 74th season that the city’s baseball team went by that nickname.
In order words, when Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and their teammates take the floor in October, they won’t be the first local pro athletes to rep the name “New Orleans Pelicans.” Just the first to do so in the 21st century.
The most famous player in Pelicans baseball history is arguably outfielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, who helped lead New Orleans to the 1910 league championship. Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver and Hall-bound skipper Tony La Russa also played for the team.
When Gisclair learned in January that the Crescent City’s NBA team would become the New Orleans Pelicans, the historian realized it could be a win-win for area sports. Gisclair is also a supporter of the current Triple-A minor league baseball New Orleans Zephyrs, who moved here in 1993 from Denver.
“The fact that people will pay attention perhaps to the rich baseball history here, I think it will be good on a couple levels,” said Gisclair, who also authored a book on Tulane University baseball. “It helps interest in baseball in general, as well as in the Zephyrs. It’s wonderful that it makes people start thinking about the history again.”
Gisclair maintains a list of 2,700 men who were members of the baseball Pelicans, regularly receiving phone calls or e-mails from descendants of players seeking statistics or details on their kin’s time in New Orleans. For many decades prior to the Saints joining the NFL in 1967 and the Jazz debuting in the NBA in 1974, the Pelicans were the Big Easy’s lone prominent professional team. In fact, in 2008 The Times-Picayune ranked the 1910 Pelicans as the greatest single-season New Orleans sports team of all time (incidentally, the 2007-08 Hornets ranked fourth on the rundown).
“The baseball team was probably the most successful franchise we had in this city for years and years and years,” Gisclair said.
In one interesting example, the Pelicans were forced to leave New Orleans in 1905 due to a yellow fever epidemic (the final outbreak of the disease in U.S. history). The city was quarantined. The Pelicans ended up playing two-thirds of their games on the road, but still won the pennant, the second of the team’s 10 league championships.
Gisclair chuckled when he heard initial second-guessing that the pelican animal was not sufficiently intimidating to serve as an NBA team’s nickname. Some of the popular perception of pelicans comes from the fact that they’re frequently depicted as cartoons, including by athletic teams.
“The Myrtle Beach Pelicans have a logo with a pelican who’s at bat with a stern look on his face,” Gisclair said of the Single-A minor league baseball team. “But all of the rest of the (pelican) logos are very cartoonish. But I think they did a heck of a job with the (NBA team’s) logo, because it’s fierce-looking.
“People kept saying, ‘Pelicans is not a very fierce mascot.’ But go on YouTube and search for pelican videos. There are videos of them sitting in a lagoon and scooping up schools of ducklings. If you’ve ever seen them swoop and dive-bomb, it’s an impressive thing. I wouldn’t want to tangle with a pelican.”
Gisclair also sees the timing of the nickname as fitting, because much like the city’s post-Katrina revitalization, the pelican has bounced back from severe adversity following the disastrous 2010 BP oil spill.
“It’s very emblematic because several years ago, brown pelicans were almost extinct,” he said. “They made a comeback. New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina, made its comeback. To me, the name represents a whole new renaissance. It’s a wonderful thing for the city.”