For a moment, let’s set aside the fact — and yes, it is a fact — that it’s ridiculous and insulting that the Baseball Hall of Fame has decreed that no more segregation-era African-American figures will be inducted into those “hallowed halls.” In essence, the grand Cooperstown institution has once again shut its doors to the Negro Leagues, even though they still remain woefully underrepresented in the Hall.
So aside the fact that a slew of induction-worthy African-American players will, apparently forever, continued to be denied their just due. What about the Negro Leagues managers, who are even more poorly represented in Cooperstown? Just look at this year’s induction roster: Three of the half-dozen guys going in are managers.
I’m not saying that Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa and Joe Torre don’t deserve to go in. They do, at least certainly Torre and LaRussa (For all of his great Braves teams, Cox’s squads still only won a single World Series win, instead choking in the playoffs year after year.)
But what about the Negro League managers? What about, for example, Dave Malarcher, who some believe is second only to his mentor, the great Rube Foster, in terms of segregation-era black skippers? That’s not to mention that “Gentleman Dave” was a true Renaissance man who more than lived up to his famous nickname.
Then there’s the case of one Winfield Scott Welch, who, like Malarcher, was a native of Louisiana. (Malarcher was from Whitehall, La., a couple stones’ throws north of NOLA, and, as I detailed in this article, he was a graduate of New Orleans University, one of the precursors to modern-day Dillard University.)
Welch, who hailed from tiney tiny Napoleonville, La., was so good as an on-field general that in September 1944, just about as Welch was guiding the Birmingham Black Barons to their second straight NAL title after they thoroughly dominated the league all year, the New York Amsterdam News tabbed him “baseball’s best pilot.” Welch, the story asserted, was what today would be called the ultimate “player’s coach.” Said the article:
“Many go so far as to say Welch is the greatest manager Negro baseball has ever produced, and they may not be far wrong. One look at the brilliant ball club he has fashioned, the way it hustles and plays heads-up ball at all times backs up an assertion of that kind. Sure, it’s a powerful club with every man a star, but more than that it’s a team that plays its head off for Welch. Every man on his squad idolizes him; they’d sooner lose an arm or leg than let him down.”
By the time Welch finally retired from the gametwo decades later, he had garnered a resume not only as a stalwart coach, but a true hardball kingpin who helped keep blackball together after the integration of the majors. He became a confidante of sports magnates like Bill Veeck and Abe Saperstein — oh, for whom, by the way, Welch also coached a little basketball operation called the Harlem Globetrotters.
He had become an owner of arguably the most storied club in African-American baseball history, the Chicago American Giants. And he earned a rep as possessing one of the finest eyes for talent, and as one of the keenest developers of said talent, in the horsehide world.
And, to cap it off, he became, as many top former Negro League figures — such as, of course, Buck O’Neil — did, a major league scout, scouring the South for diamonds in the rough for the Phillies. It was in this capacity that Welch arrived in Atlanta in the summer of 1961, at which time the Atlanta Daily World interviewed him and captured this quote from the man whose nicknames included “Lucky” and “Gus”:
“There is very little money in the minor leagues, and when I sign a ballplayer, I want to have every confidence that he can go all the way. You can ruin a kid’s life by signing him if his qualifications are doubtful. I do not sign just to show officials I am working. I may go all season without coming up with the right man, but meanwhile I am looking at every prospect with a critical eye.”
That reflective, judicious and compassionate attitude toward the game was developed over almost a half-century of immersing himself in America’s pastime, and it all began in sparsely populated Assumption Parish, Louisiana, just about at the turn of the century. Welch earned his stripes, and his own shot at the big time, by playing for and managing some of the best local and regional teams in New Orleans — and other Pelican State cities like Alexandria and Shreveport — for 20 years. He also organized and operated a state-wide “baseball academy” that tutored kids in the sport and nurtured their love of baseball.
The result of that culturing — aside from an incredibly deep knowledge of and acumen for the game — was a fierce loyalty to his home state and to the Crescent City that remained throughout his fascinating baseball career. He helped cultivate, train and shepherd dozens of New Orleanians into the blackball big time, many of whom remained with the skipper throughout their careers.
Consider this, then, the introduction of a series of posts about Winfield Scott Welch, a native Louisianian who is among the ranks of pre-integration African-American baseball figures who should be in the New Orleans Professional Baseball Hall of Fame but aren’t.
The next installment on “Gus” will come early next week, when I examine his roots in Louisiana and New Orleans and the time he spent in his home state accruing his well rounded baseball talent.