A Pullman porter
In this next installment of the saga of Napoleonville, La., native Winfield Welch — who eventually became one of the finest managers in big-time Negro League ball with the Birmingham Black Barons in the 1940s — I’ll look at his early years in New Orleans while playing for an aggregation of local Pullman porters, especially in coverage of the laborers’ teams in the local African-American paper.
The cultural and socioeconomic dynamics of Pullman porter society make up one of the most fascinating and crucial chapters in the bootstrapping, self-uplifting development and advancing of the African-American condition in the South. For our purposes, it’s important to note that athletic clubs often sprang from the porter society as a means for socializing, recreation and bonding experience among the black workers who toiled at the profession.
The Louisiana Weekly (hereafter called LW) started publishing in 1925, and an article on the front page of the April 10, 1926, issue announces that the local team of Pullman porters — African Americans who basically worked as butlers for white patrons on the Pullman rail lines — defeated the McDonogh High School nine, 11-2, at Tokay Tea park, a ball field located in the developing Broadmoor neighborhood. The squad of porters apparently went by the moniker of the Pullman Porter Stars.
Playing for the porters? “Welsh, l.f.” Given that a) the New Orleans media misspelled Winfield’s name pretty much the whole time he was active in baseball in NOLA; and b) the 1930 federal Census lists Welch as a Pullman porter in the Big Easy, that’s in all likelihood Winfield Welch tasting some of his first baseball action — or at least first action that was documented — in the big city.
The 1926 LW article states:
“Under the direction of Coach L. Thomas and Mr. J. Wolf, the organizers of the Pullman Stars, plans have been perfected to have the strong Pullman nine tour the West and East. Mr. Wolf has been in touch with Pullman headquarters in Chicago and the officials are furnishing the local team with a private Pullman car, with all necessary equipment, from upper and lower berths to sumptuous drawing rooms. Yes, the Pullman Company is proud of its hard-hitting colored team, and this great corporation is showing it to the world. The Stars have arranged important games at Lafayette, Houston, San Antonio and Dallas. The Eastern invasion will include Atlanta, Montgomery, Jacksonville and cities along the Atlantic seaboard.”
Less than a year later, the LW reported that Winfield’s brother, Arthur, had moved to New Orleans from Napoleonville with his wife, which seemingly would help Winfield feel more at home in the Crescent City.
In 1928, Winfield Welch was still suiting up for the Pullman squad, and the Aug. 25, 1928, LW — which was gradually increasing its sports coverage as the 1920s progressed — announced that the porters had pasted an aggregation from Port Arthur three games in a row, 2-0, 13-5 and 6-0, all of them held in NOLA’s Heinemann Park.
Welch — name spelled correctly — is mentioned once, toward the end of the article, when the anonymous reporter appears to state that Welch took the mound and held the Port Arthurs hitless in the third contest. (However, lineups aren’t listed, so Winfield might have been making pretty catches in his regular outfield slot.)
Another notable mention in the article is that Robert “Black Diamond” Pipkins pitched the second game for the Pullmans; Pipkins thus was apparently near the start of a long, colorful career in blackball, both locally and nationally. I hope to one day examine Black Diamond up close. One day …
Anyway, the Pullman Stars wasted no time getting back in action. Just three weeks later, reported the LW, the porters used the long ball to send a team of Louisville & Nashville railroad line workers to a 4-2 defeat — or, as the LW said, “swatted their way” to victory — at Crescent Star Park. The paper reports the porter team as the “T.P.-M.P. Porters,” and the clash was part of a double bill, with the second contest coming between the Autocrat and Iroquois teams.
“Both games were tight affairs and kept the 500 fans in attendance on edge throughout,” stated the Weekly. “The Trainmen played first in a fracas spotted with ‘beanings’ and twin killings.”
The article mentions “Welsh” is mentioned twice, once describing a long fly out by him to centerfield, the other referring to a run he scored on a home run by a teammate named Mollier.
“The game was worth anybody’s seeing,” the LW reported. “It was one of those exciting affairs filled with freak catches and hard hitting.”
The next mention of Winfield Welch/”Welsh” in the LW comes in April 1929, when he’s no longer with the Pullmans but instead hooked on with the Algiers Giants, a longtime semipro team in a neighborhood across the river from N’Awlins proper. In fact, Welch would later return to the Giants, but this time as the manager. However, his trip back to the Westbank, as the “other side” of the river is called, took a lot of twist and turns along the way. But, as per usual, that’s for another post, another story …
Incidentally, the hardball played by New Orleans Pullman porters was actually mentioned occasionally in the mainstream white press in the city, especially in the Times-Picayune in late summer 1924. The Aug. 24, 1924, T-P reported in a headline, “Pullman Porters to Play Baseball,” almost as if the concept of “colored” men playing the national pastime was quizzical. Followed was a one-paragraph brief:
“Three days of baseball will be played at Bissant’s Park … by teams composed of colored Pullman porters. The Pullman Porter Stars will play the Pullman Porter Wonders on Saturday afternoon, while the Pullman Porter Stars play the Pullman Porters of San Antonio … on Sunday afternoon. On Labor Day, the Pullman Porter Stars will tackle the Houston … Pullman Porters. There will be music for dancing after each game.”
The white paper further talked up the event — albeit in a short, two-paragraph story — a week later, when it claimed:
“It is stated that the colored visitors from Texas have one of the best teams in that section of the country and the winner of today’s game will be the champions among the Pullman Porters of the South.”
The contest between the local Pullmans and the San Antonio club, the paper said, “is attracting much attention among the followers of this class of semi-pro baseball.”
Unfortunately, things didn’t go well for the local porter bunch — the Stars lost the first game to the Texans, although they managed to end up with a 6-6, extra-inning tie in the following clash. The locals then tied the Houston Pullmans 7-7 in a contest ended by rain and followed up with another shortened contest, this one called in the third inning because of darkness.
The local Pullmans again hit the field in mid-October 1924, reported the T-P, when the Pullman Porter All-Stars crossed bats with a squad from the Illinois Central line in the centerpiece of an annual “field day” at Bissant Park that also included other games and pastimes. Of the baseball game, the T-P said:
“These two baseball teams are among the strongest of the colored semi-pros and some excellent sport should result when they face each other.”
This time, the local porters fared much better, clobbering the Illinois Centrals 14-4.
The Times-Picayune continued to sporadically give (a minimal amount of) ink to the Pullmans, such as Sept. 7, 1925, article describing ever so briefly how another local semipro club dubbed the New Orleans All-Stars downed the porters 8-5 in the second game of a doubleheader at Bissant’s Park.
One thing that really needs to be explored in depth is the connection to and involvement in athletics, especially baseball, in the lives and society of Pullman porters, who did a thankless job that, however, ended up giving rise to a large portion of a burgeoning black middle class in the early 20th century.
For more information on the socioeconomic developments and improvements to African-American life that arose from porter culture — as well as all the sacrifices that were made and indignities that were suffered along the way — here and here and here are some books to check out.