A New Orleans baseball institution – Crescent City Sports
New Orleans baseball fans from the mid-1950s to 2000 knew Tom Schwaner well. That’s because his baseball career spanned those years of playing in high school, college, and pro, followed by long stints as a high school and college coach. Except for the years he played professionally, he was a fixture in local baseball, crowned by his 14-year tenure as head baseball coach at the University of New Orleans.
Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking to Schwaner, now 83, about his long career.
A three-sport man at St. Aloysius, Schwaner also played football and track and field in addition to his favorite sport, baseball.
“I couldn’t wait for one season to move on to the next, but baseball was the one I thought I had the best chance of excelling at,” Schwaner recalled.
After his senior season in high school in 1957, Schwaner played for coach Rags Scheuermann as New Orleans entered the All-American Amateur Baseball Association national tournament in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. It was through this relationship that Scheuermann offered him a baseball scholarship to Loyola University in New Orleans.
“I had already applied to LSU, but when Rags came up with the scholarship offer at the last minute, I couldn’t pass it up,” Schwaner explained.
Schwaner played two seasons at Loyola for Scheuermann. “He taught me pretty much everything I know about baseball,” the former shortstop said.
After his stellar second season that included a .415 batting average, six homers, six triples and seven doubles, Schwaner believed he would be signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Dodgers scout Tony John had followed him closely to Loyola and indicated he would get an offer. But the Dodgers’ offer never came and Schwaner signed with the St. Louis Cardinals who produced a lucrative bonus offer, reported by the Associated Press be $50,000.
According to the AP, Cardinals farm manager Walter Shannon called Schwaner “the outstanding shortstop prospect in the United States.” Shannon said: “Tom has shown marked improvement over the past two seasons. He can run, line up, hit and throw. He’s aggressive and has a wonderful attitude towards the game.”
Scheuermann, who had coached other City fans receiving substantial bonuses, told the Timetable-Picayune, “I have to say Tom is probably the best boy I have ever coached.” Scheuermann said, “He thinks like a major leaguer. I am happy to see him get this wonderful opportunity. I’m sure he’ll do the game proud.”
Schwaner’s first minor league assignment was with Class A York in the Eastern League in 1959. Schwaner recalls his first batting game being against a menacing future Hall of Famer Juan Marichal. San Francisco Giants. “I was overwhelmed in my first season in a minor league,” he said. “Remember, I had only played 18 games with Loyola that season.” He was moved to Class D Keokuk later in the season, where his roommate was 17-year-old Tim McCarver, who played 21 major league seasons.
He worked his way up to Class AA Tulsa late in the 1961 season and then started the 1962 season with them. However, he was hitting under .200 when he was released to Class A Binghampton in the Kansas City A organization near the end of what was his final season. In four minor league seasons, he batted .246 with 34 home runs and 218 RBIs.
Schwaner talks about his professional career. “I had a lot of fun, but I had to weigh my chances of making it to the majors, and I remember the majors were only making about $12,000 a year at the time. I didn’t see that as an attractive future. And being married with two children, I decided to move on.
Schwaner returned to New Orleans and got a job as a math teacher and baseball coach at Rummel High School for the 1962–63 school year, the school’s first year of operation. Having earned his master’s degree at Loyola, he also served as an assistant manager during his last two years with Rummel. After a two-year stint as principal at St. John Vianney in 1972 and 1973, he became a baseball coach at Brother Martin High School until 1977.
During his years as a prep coach, his Rummel-based Schaff Brothers American Legion teams won the district championship in 1968, followed by state titles in 1970 and 1971.
With Brother Martin-based DeViney’s, he won the American Legion district title in 1974, when he was named coach of the year. In 1975, Brother Martin High School won its first-ever district title and finished second in the state playoffs. Schwaner was named All Towns Coach of the Year.
After 16 years in a prep coaching career, Schwaner applied for a coaching position at the University of New Orleans. Schwaner says head coach Ron Maestri first hired him as a volunteer coach, when he was teaching math classes at UNO and Xavier University. The role later evolved into a full-time assistant coaching position.
UNO was at its peak as a college program under Maestri. After reaching the Division II College World Series in 1974, he led the Privateers to seven NCAA Division I regional appearances from 1977 to 1985, including a Louisiana school’s first appearance in the College World Series in 1984. Schwaner credits Maestri with building teams with top talent from across the country that contributed to a nationally recognized program.
After 13 seasons as UNO head coach, Maestri retired and passed the reins to Schwaner after the 1985 season. With his first season at the helm in 1986, Schwaner continued the winning tradition of the Privateers with three consecutive NCAA regional teams in 1987-89. UNO had a fourth regional appearance under Schwaner in 1996.
Schwaner recalled, “I had a number of good teams, but I have to say the 1988 team was probably the best because it included future major leaguers Ted Wood, Brian Traxler and Joe Slusarski.” The team won the American South Conference regular season championship. Schwaner pointed out that Slusarski and Wood represented the UN at the Olympics that summer.
While coaching the Privateers, Schwaner won Coach of the Year honors from the American South in 1989. During his 14 seasons, he coached more than 40 players who played professional baseball, including another the major league, Jim Bullinger.
Schwaner retired from the UNO after the 1999 season with a 462-373 record, which is currently the second highest winning percentage in Privateers history, behind Maestri.
The Schwaner baseball family tree continued with Tom’s son Jeff, who played for Louisiana Tech, and grandson Tyler, who played for Louisiana Monroe University. Tom’s nephew Scott played for UNO (including in 1984 with the College World Series team), while great-nephews Nick played for UNO and Taylor played for the south -eastern Louisiana. Nick also played two seasons in the Tampa Bay Rays organization. Schwaner is quick to point out that family athletes also included daughter Karen, who played AAU basketball, and granddaughter Lindsay, who played football with South Mississippi.
Whenever the history and lore of New Orleans baseball is discussed, Tom Schwaner belongs in the conversation, not only because of his longevity in the sport, but also because of what he has accomplished as a as a player and coach at many levels of the sport.