Heart of Louisiana: Sports Hall of Fame

Published: Aug. 20, 2014 at 2:16 AM CDT
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NACHITOCHES, LA (WVUE) - Louisiana has a rich sports history that goes far beyond the gridiron. From dirt horse tracks to Olympic medals and the now-banned sport of high school boxing, you will find those local sports legends on display at a new state museum in Natchitoches. It's the perfect place for sports junkies, as FOX 8's Dave McNamara found out in tonight's Heart of Louisiana.

It sits on a corner of one of Louisiana's most historic streets. The state's oldest city is home to the state's newest museum. A $23 million architectural marvel with hallways and stairways that flow like a river through more than 150 years of Louisiana sports history.

Although the building is new, the artifacts have been collected over decades.

The Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Foundation had the collection, and they were the ones that were collecting over the years," said museum manager Jennae Biddiscombe. "It started in 1959, but we have many items that go back further to the 1800s."

There are items that you would expect to find here that commemorate the Saints long road to a championship. That started with a very different looking cheer squad. And other pro football greats that got their start in Louisiana – the size 16 EEE cleat of Ernie Ladd of the San Diego Chargers, an all-American from Grambling. Or the pro-bowl jersey of Southern University's Aeneas Williams, just inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame. And other items that tell of a different age in pro football.

"We have a contract for the Brooklyn Dodgers football team from 1934 for Paul Geysler, and it was for, I believe, $150 a game was what he was going to make in 1934, and he turned it down," Biddiscombe said.

But it's not all football, baseball and basketball. Audrey Patterson of New Orleans wore this shirt in the 200-meter dash of the 1948 Olympics and became the country's first African-American woman to win an Olympic medal. And there is the now extinct sport of high school and college boxing.

In the state it became so popular, especially in some of the smaller schools where they didn't necessarily have the money for football or basketball, and it would draw crowds rival to basketball games and that sort of thing," said curator Shawn Ryder.

You can see the New Orleans Lawn Tennis Club of the 1880s, the first such club in the country. The 1934 state amateur golf trophy. And the rich tradition of horse racing that has taken Louisiana jockeys from the Cajun bush tracks to the Triple Crown.

And you can follow this sports digital timeline back to the 1850s.

"At the very beginning you'd see about horse racing, horse racing and boxing are two of the oldest sports here in Louisiana," Ryder said. "In 1852, you will read about the Fairgrounds and its predecessor."

There is a growing list of Louisiana hall-of-famers that includes recent inductee Tom Benson.

The Louisiana Sports Writers Association started picking these top athletes back in 1959. Today are there are more than 300. Each of their stories can be accessed digitally, and nearly every major sport is represented.

From major league pitchers to a modified 1956 thunderbird built in a New Orleans garage that set land speed records in the early 1960s and hit a speed of over 240 mph. From individual achievements to team sports, history was made, and it's now on being shared in this state-of-the-art museum.

The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday. For more information, click here.