When exactly Winfield Welch arrived in New Orleans from his hometown of tiny Napoleonville, La., is a little unclear. But it appears to have happened shortly before 1920, and when he arrived in the Crescent City, he wasted little time launching a career in professional baseball that spanned almost half a century, most of which was spent toiling in the shadows of the Negro Leagues.
As a player, Welch was average at best, manning left field competently and swinging the bat decently when he first started playing for African-American teams in the Big Easy around 1919. But after a so-so career as an active athlete, Welch entered the managerial ranks, a move that took him to dizzying heights of success that peaked in the 1940s, when he led the Birmingham Black Barons to two straight Negro American League crowns.
But Welch, as I’ve asserted before, remains wholly unappreciated and, frankly, unknown to both Negro Leagues aficionados in general and to baseball fans in his home state, despite the success and peer admiration he enjoyed while he was active in the sport. One of the reasons for this modern disrespect undoubtedly is the fact that he’s from Louisiana, which heretofore has, honestly, been regarded as a baseball backwater, the home state of Mel Ott and very little else.
But the Pelican State historically was, in fact, home to a thriving blackball scene. and Winfield Welch is perhaps Exhibit C in of that reality. (Exhibit A is probably Hall of Famer Willard “Home Run” Brown, a native of Shreveport, while team owner and promoter Allen Page is Exhibit B.)
But where did Winfield Welch come from? What was his history rooted? And how did he set himself up for baseball greatness, albeit overlooked greatness?
Gen. Winfield Scott, the Negro Leaguer’s namesake
Winfield Scott Welch — named after decorated and famed Mexican War Gen. Winfield Scott — was born, according to both his World War I draft card and Social Security records, on Sept. 9, 1899, in Napoleonville. However, an airline passenger list from 1943 lists his birthdate as Sept. 9, 1900, in Napoleonville.
Napoleonville is one of the smallest towns in the Pelican State. The seat of Assumption Parish, Napoleonville today includes less than 700 residents. It sits about 75 minutes west of New Orleans and just over an hour south of Baton Rouge, in Acadiana country.
In early documents and official records, the family name is frequently spelled Welsh, included on Census pages, city directories and draft cards. Winfield was the first son of Andrew and Louisa Welsh, who, in 1900, lived with Andrew’s parents, Wilson, a day laborer, and Sopha Welsh.
Andrew Welsh was birthed in 1875, also likely in Assumption Parish, while the former Louisa LaFort was born in 1877 in Ascension Parish. Louisa was the child of a single mother named Mathilde, a seamstress born in about 1835. In the 1880, both Mathilde and Louisa are listed as “mulatto.”
Winfield Welch’s grandfather, and Andrew’s father, Wilson Welsh, was born in about 1856 and, according to the 1870 Census, lived in Napoleonville, with Mary Welsh (likely an older sister), and an elder couple named Frank and Mandy Harris. The 1870 document lists every member of the household as mulatto. The document says both of Wilson’s parents were born in Kentucky. (Incidentally, the same page from that Census report lists one Jack Marquet, a 115 year old (!!!) born in Africa in the mid 1700s.)
Sopha Welsh, meanwhile, was also born in 1856, but her background is a little murkier. She married Wilson while they were both still teenagers, in 1875.
In the 1900 Census, the entire family — Wilson, Sopha, Andrew, Louisa, 9-month-old Winfield (who’s actually listed as “Scott”) and other members — is living on Jefferson Street in Napoleonville. Andrew’s profession is stated as brickmaker. Every family member is listed as “black,” not mulatto.
The 1910 Census still has the entire clan living together in Napoleonville. Wilson is a carpenter, Sopha is a washwoman, and Andrew is still a brick maker. However, Louisa, Winfield and two younger siblings, Dorothy and Wilson, are described as mulatto.
Winfield’s September 1918 draft card lists him as 19 years old, still living in Napoleonville and working as a chauffeur for a man named Paul Carmouche. His name is spelled with an S, and his mother is stated as his nearest relative.
In the 1920 Census report, Wilson, Sopha, Andrew, Louisa, Dorothy and Wilson II are still sharing a household, still in Napoleonville. However, Winfield Welch/Welsh is no longer living with the family.
That’s because he had apparently already made the move to the big city of the Big Easy, where he had started up his career as a baseball player. The Sept. 21, 1919, States-Item — which was published less than two weeks after Winfield Welch’s 20th birthday — includes an article about an early early version of the Caulfield Ads, owned and promoted by Fred Caulfield, preparing to play a team from Pensacola, Fla., following a trouncing of the Mobile Alligators. In the outfield for the Ads? Winfield Welch.
“Welch, who plays the sunfield, is a regular Larry Gilbert for gathering in flies …,” the paper stated. (Gilbert was a New Orleans native, former Major Leaguer and future manager of the minor-league New Orleans Pelicans.) The article, in the unfortunate slang of the time, also states: “Darktown circles are said to be almost as worked up over [the Pensacola series] as when the ‘Black Crackers’ came here from Atlanta.”
Welch was still with the Ads the following year, playing left field for the Caulfield squad in a newly formed “negro southern league,” according to the Item.
By 1921, though, Welch had jumped to the New Orleans Crescent Stars; in June of that year, he was playing left field for the Crescents against the San Jacinto club and the Baton Rouge Stars.
From there, Welch bounced around the local NOLA sandlots for about a decade. The Oct. 14, 1928, has him manning left field and pinch hitting (with one hit) for the Black Pelicans in a loss to the Milwaukee Giants.
The 1930 federal Census lists Welch as living with his wife, Ruby (both are “Negro”), on Touro Street in a largely white neighborhood. His age is stated as 30, while Ruby is 24, and at that point their marriage is about five years old. Their last name is listed as Welsh, and Winfield is toiling as a Pullman porter, at least as a day job.
After that, however, Welch was on the move, first to Alexandria, where, in 1932, as stated in the article discussed at the beginning of this post, he had shifted into managing the Alexandria Lincoln Giants. About a week after Welch and the Giants allegedly “cheated his former teams, the Black Pels, the Giants hit the road to the Big Easy, where they played the Crescent City Stars in a three-game set. Sayeth the Sept. 8, 1932, Atlanta Daily World:
“Having a a swanky [new] park [the Alexandria fans] saw the need for a big time ball team and went out and secured one Winfield ‘Lucky’ Welsh, recognized as one of the brainiest men in baseball in these parts was selected to manage the nine and under his wing the tea, is given credit for winning 25 of the 30 games played against the most powerful clubs in this sector.”
(The run-on sentence is in the original article.)
Also in late summer 1932, Welch led an Alexandria contingent of fans to Monroe, La., where the Monarchs of that city were facing the Pittsburgh Crawfords in the Negro World Series. (In 1932, the Negro Southern League, with the Monarchs as champs, was consider a Negro “major league,” the only season in which the circuit earned that status.)
By 1932, Welch was already developing a knack for getting under opponents’ skin. Reported the Sept. 2, 1932, Atlanta Daily World:
“The New Orleans Black Pelicans returned to the city with horrible tales of raw deals they claim were given them by Manager Winfield ‘Lucky’ Welch and his Alexandria Lincoln Giants. The Pels dropped each of a three-game series to the [G]iants by scores of 6-5, 7-0 and 8-3.
“The Birds declare that their manager was posted by Welsh [sic] before Sunday’s game that ‘There Is No Win For You.’ The Birds state they found that much out when Umpire Sylvester Cotton ‘Robbed them in every way except with a gun.’ So openly were they cheated, declare the Pels, that the majority of the white fans left the game and threatened to stay out of the park if such was the procedure.
“Quite to the contrary reports from Alexandria aver [sic?] that the Pels were simply outclassed and didn;t have a chance throughout the series.”
Strangely enough, though, in 1932 the Shreveport, La., lists Welch as living in that city with Ruby and working as a bellman. Shreveport directories continue to list such information throughout the 1930s and up to 1940.
Despite that, in 1933 Welch was managing the Algiers Giants, a New Orleans semipro team. But five years later, according to the April 29, 1938, Atlanta Daily World, Welch was player-manager of the Shreveport Black Sports.
By the late 1930s, in fact, Welch was already showing up on the national blackball radar. In a wire service article about the Birmingham Black Barons — whom Welch would later pilot to two straight Negro American League titles — rejoining the NAL, Welch is described in the Dec. 16, 1939, Daily World as actively attempting to cultivate the national game among Pelican State youth:
“W.S. Welch of Shreveport, La., well known in baseball circles throughout the south attending the [NAL] meeting in Chicago and presented to the club owners an idea that he is planning to put into operation which met the approval of the club owners. He will conduct a baseball school at New Orleans, Shreveport and Alexandria for the purpose of training players of the various clubs of the [NAL]. He plans to start his school about the middle of February. … any young ball players interested might contact him [in Shreveport]. …”
By the following March, according to the New York Amsterdam News, the farm school was already up and running.
That activity set Welch up for the final jump to the blackball big time in the early 1940s. By the dawn of that decade, the Napoleonville native was becoming a player, so to speak, on the national scene, his influence quickly gathering steam.
However, before we launch into a description of Welch’s top-level Negro Leagues career, in the next installment of this series, we’ll try to more closely examine the years leading up to that national stardom by combing through issues of the Louisiana black press, which further illuminate the training and accumulating experience gained by Winfield Welch as his influence and status grew.