Wisner Playground has fostered a lifestyle in the Uptown neighborhood – Crescent City Sports
There was a time, from the 1950s through the 1970s, when Wisner Playground was the center of activity for the surrounding Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans. Men and women today in their 50s, 60s and 60s still vividly remember their teams, coaches, practices and games that filled their days on the playing field in those days. They refer to their neighborhood’s connection to the playground as a “lifestyle” for the children and parents who lived in the area.
According to Timetable-Picayune, Wisner Playground originated in 1938, when the mayor of New Orleans was granted permission to establish a playground in the plaza bounded by Upperline, Lyons, Annunciation and Laurel streets. The playground was named after the late Edward Wisner and funded with proceeds from the Wisner Foundation established upon his death in the early 1900s. The houses that occupied the area were purchased and razed to make way for the new playground.
The New Orleans Recreation Department (NORD) was founded in the late 1940s to organize the city’s playgrounds and recreational facilities to provide opportunities for young people ages 8 to 18 to participate in sports, swimming and other recreational activities. NORTH became the envy of other American cities for its progressive organization of citywide facilities and leagues, particularly for youth baseball. The Wisner Playground was one of many other recreational facilities in the city to eventually fall under NORD’s management, and it still does today.
Larry Scott was the NORTH playground supervisor assigned to Wisner from 1970 to 1980. He had participated in playground sports from six years in college. He remembers it being a baseball diamond backstop and a cement basketball court.
There was not enough space for a full 100m football pitch, so practices were held on a shortened pitch. Scott recalled that the field of play was used practically all day in the summer for the training sessions of the various teams and the league games that were scheduled there. He spent all day coaching his teams and pitching batting practices for other teams.
“Wisner Playground was the hub of the neighborhood. It was like a second home for the children. said Scott, who credits Ronnie Aucoin, Rene Esquerre and Jerry Burrage with setting the standard for Wisner coaches. Scott believes Wisner’s successes are largely due to his dedicated coaches and committed parent group.
Esquerre was recruited by Aucoin, the first playground supervisor, as a summer coach in 1956 at the age of 15. He ended up staying there as a coach and supervisor until the late 1960s.
In some years, its baseball teams played as many as 60 games per season, competing in multiple leagues and tournaments from April through August. Esquerre remembers what was called the “August League” which was very popular at the playground, as it was a time at the end of the summer when boys of all age groups chose teams and played easy baseball.
Burrage had played sports at the playground as a youth and ended up being hired as a coach by Esquerre. Burrage says, “I probably coached over a hundred kids in various sports during my 3-4 years at the playground. My time there was a contributing factor to my entire future as a coach. which included various high schools in the New Orleans area.
Johnny Arthurs, who played basketball and baseball for Tulane University and played in the NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks, says he started participating in playground sports when he was eight years old. He was part of the 10- and 12-year-old Wisner teams that won the NORTH city championships in 1957 and 1959. His coach for both teams was Aucoin, while his older brother Billy helped the 12-year-old team.
Arthurs remembers leaving his house early in the morning and spending the whole day on the playground with the same group of boys, usually grabbing a po’boy for lunch at nearby Munster’s Bar and Grill. His parents told him he just had to be home by nightfall.
“The playground provided a level of comfort for us and our parents as we stayed busy there all day.” Arthurs said, reflecting on those bygone days. “Wisner was the springboard for my entire athletic career which included high school, college and professional levels.”
Wisner Playground had girls’ teams for softball, basketball, volleyball, and track and field. Ann Nunez says she played all sports from the age of six, with Scott as her coach. She loved that the teams had dedicated coaches who taught the fundamentals of the sport.
“There was something to do every day at the playground, if you did all the sports. There was a wonderful, family-oriented environment. It was a big moment in my life. I wish my son could grow up and play sports in this environment,” Nunez noted.
One of Nunez’s teammates was Erin O’Connor, who also played all sports. She was proud of being able to eliminate the boys during pick-up games in the playground. She recalls that her teams have won municipal championships in all sports.
O’Connor, whose nickname was “Skinny,” says her athletic experience at Wisner Playground helped her get a volleyball scholarship to the University of New Orleans. Scott calls O’Connor one of the best female athletes to step out of the playing field.
Alden Hagardorn coached baseball, basketball and football at Wisner Playground from 1970 to 1981. He was a product of St. Henry’s and lived a few blocks from the playground. He admits he never wasn’t really an athlete, but turned to coaching instead, after he started keeping score for the teams his dad coached and younger brother Jerry played with.
At the age of 20, Hagardorn became an officer of the Wisner Playground Boosters Club, made up mostly of parents of children. He eventually became president of the organization. He remembers the dedicated involvement of parents in the club who organized full uniforms and equipment for all the teams on the playing field. The boosters organized an annual awards banquet for the children, offering trophies and from jackets to championship teams.
During football season, they sponsored a neighborhood-wide homecoming parade, where players rode on trucks, the homecoming court rode in convertibles, and the police department marching band marched with the children. The football team had cheerleaders and there was even the crowning of a chosen homecoming queen in the playground. Hagardorn says the homecoming was a neighborhood-wide event, with strong parental involvement.
Hagardorn said, “The Booster Club supported all sporting programs and events without ever having the kids pay anything.” Boosters provided most of the funding, with help from companies that helped with the boys’ baseball uniforms.
Instead of having a concession stand on the playing field to raise funds, refreshments were purchased at nearby Munster’s Bar and Grill, and parents often gathered there after games. Hagardorn added: “We brought them business and in return they helped us raise money for the playground by hosting bingo at their house. Munsters owners have been very generous to Wisner. They were part of the neighborhood experience.
Gasper Mangerchine played on the same championship teams with Johnny Arthurs in the late 1950s. He says that in addition to the sports that were an integral part of the playground, there was a covered shelter where children could also play board games in the summer.
Currently, Mangerchine is one of the organizers of an annual reunion of Wisner alumni. It brings together people who have been part of the Wisner experience over the years, to reminisce about the playground’s heyday. Mangerchine says meetings are usually held at the Grits Bar on Lyons Street, and there have been years when up to 250 people attended the event. O’Connor says she created a photo album for Wisner Playground meetings years ago.
Bob Braniff remembers playing on 11-and-under NORTH baseball teams in Wisner in the mid-1950s. His coaches were Aucoin and Esquerre. He remembers playing against a talented Allan Montreuil, who eventually played in the major leagues with the Chicago Cubs. Years later, as an adult, Braniff returned to play at Wisner Playground with his company’s softball team in a citywide men’s league that held games there.
In addition to Arthur, Wisner Playground produced other athletes who went on to play professional sports: Frank Wills with the Kansas City Royals, Cleveland Indians, Seattle Mariners, and Toronto Blue Jays; Marty Wetzel with the New York Jets; Dow Edwards with the New England Patriots; and Gerry Schoen with the Washington Senators. Joe Scheuermann, athletic director and head baseball coach at Delgado Community College, is a former playground athlete.
Smaller neighborhood playgrounds with extensive recreation programs like Wisner no longer exist in the city. Wisner Playground remains under the NORD umbrella, but it does not have sports programs like it once had. According to Hagardorn, there is an eight-year and a 10-year Little League schedule with games currently being played in Wisner. We now have a dog park.
Playground coaches such as Aucoin, Esquerre, Burrage, Scott and Hagardorn, as well as neighborhood parents, have put their hearts and souls into Wisner Playground over the years. The children were the beneficiaries of their efforts. It was a time and an environment long cherished by athletes, parents and coaches.