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Evangeline Baseball League

The Evangeline League was a minor league baseball circuit in southern and central Louisiana in the first half of the twentieth century.

Evangeline Baseball League

T he Evangeline League was a lower-level minor-league baseball circuit located in southern and central Louisiana; it operated for more than two decades in the early twentieth century. Named after the fabled Acadian folk heroine Evangeline (from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1847 epic poem) and comprised of teams based in smaller cities and towns—such as Lafayette, Lake Charles, Houma, Rayne, Alexandria, Thibodaux, and New Iberia—the Evangeline League thrived as an entertainment option for residents of such municipalities, who were fiercely devoted to the squads that represented them on the baseball diamond.

The Evangeline League launched play in 1934 and ran until 1957—not counting the three seasons when it temporarily disbanded during World War II. Although the league itself was stable, dozens of franchises came and went during its quarter-century existence, with only the Alexandria Aces lasting all twenty-one seasons of play. As a result, the number of teams in the league fluctuated almost yearly. Most franchises served as so-called farm teams for major-league teams, which sent young prospects as well as grizzled veterans to their Evangeline League affiliates for professional seasoning (in case of the rookies) and senior leadership (in the case of veteran players).

Evangeline League games were known for their feisty play, enthusiastic crowds, and unpredictability—both on the field and in the stands. The small scale of Evangeline League games meant that they were intimate affairs, with fans able to interact with players and umpires—occasionally to volatile effect. It wasn’t completely unusual for spectators to accost those on the field, sometimes physically and almost always verbally.

In addition, because of the relatively limited geographic range of Evangeline League franchises and the proximity of league towns to each other, fans of the various teams frequently followed their favorites when the squads hit the road for away games. Although competition between the teams—and the devotion of local residents to those teams—was heated and intense, the players, executives, and fans of the Evangeline League formed a tight-knit baseball family that reflected the culture and social mores of the region.

Over the two-decade-plus existence of the league, numerous outstanding individual performances were posted. In 1948, for example, Roy “Tex” Sanner of the Houma Indians recorded one of the most remarkable all-around seasons in minor-league history. That year, Sanner won the Evangeline League’s “triple crown” with thirty-four home runs, 126 runs batting in, and a batting average of .386. Sanner was also the league’s outstanding pitcher that season, posting twenty-one wins against just two losses, with 251 strikeouts and a 2.58 earned run average.

The league witnessed a bizarre tragedy in June 1951, when Andy Strong, a likable, 24-year-old center fielder for the Crowley Millers, was struck and killed by lightning during a game against Alexandria at that city’s Bringhurst Field.

Scandals and Integration Battles

The league was perhaps best known in baseball history for a game-fixing scandal in 1946 that made national news and incurred the wrath of executives at the highest levels of organized baseball. Evangeline League games were notorious hangouts for gamblers and racketeers who created a thriving cottage industry of illicit behavior. Such activity came to a head in 1946, when several members of the championship-winning Houma Indians and one player from the Abbeville Athletics were punished for reportedly trying to fix several playoff games. The scandal corrupted the image of the league, rocked the baseball world, and invited the derision of journalists and pundits.

The Evangeline League also suffered from the unwillingness of involved parties—from players to owners to politicians—to let the league integrate. That intractability was perhaps most evident during the 1956 season, when the Chicago Cubs assigned several African American prospects to the Lafayette Oilers, their Evangeline League affiliate.

The move created such a stir—including an action by East Baton Rouge Parish officials that banned black players from its city-owned baseball stadium—that the league instituted an informal racial injunction. Much like the betting scandal a decade earlier, the ruckus drew rebuke from across the country, especially in the African American press. That reluctance to integrate contributed to the ultimate demise of the Evangeline League, which gradually suffered from the refusal of local black residents to attend league games.

But also triggering the end of the league was the development of air conditioning and television broadcasting. Residents used to braving sticky humidity and swarming mosquitos at Evangeline League games found appeal in the free entertainment alternative available in the comfort of their own homes. The league wheezed its last breath during the 1957 season.

Nostalgia for the Home Teams

While the game-fixing scandal and the integration controversy sullied the reputation of the Evangeline League, the organization is remembered fondly by many Louisianans. In 2000, for example, the town of Crowley celebrated an Evangeline League Baseball and Crowley Millers Day by proclamation, and an official repository of league artifacts, articles, and other ephemera was created at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, a town that served as host to three Evangeline franchises over the years.

In 1990 journalist Fred Bandy wrote: “[Younger generations] have no reason to understand the attachment some of us oldtimers may have to an era that gave us the best and worst of America’s favorite pastime. … 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.”