A stone for the Skipper

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(Photo from Old Timers Baseball Club collection, Amistad Research Center, Tulane University)

It’s happening! Local NOLA black baseball great Wesley Barrow (above, in his playing days) is getting a grave marker!

When Rodney Page, the son of legendary Big Easy African-American promoter-owner Allen Page, read my post about the Skipper being buried in an unmarked grave, Rodney e-mailed me and told me he’d be glad to pay for a stone for the spot, which is pictured below.

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Rodney and Gretna City Councilman Milton Crosby, who’s in charge of rehabbing the New Hope Baptist Cemetery (and so far doing a fantastic job) where Barrow is buried, are in the process of connecting about getting the details done.

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I’d love to see a stone in place and a dedication ceremony set by Christmas because the Skip died on Christmas Eve, 1965, but a lot has to be done and taken care of between now and then for that to happen, so I’m not sure when it can all take place.

Everyone who knew Wesley Barrow and whose lives were touched by his wisdom, dedication and kindness would be welcome to attend a dedication ceremony. Also, any such people who are reading this, you are invited to post comments or testimonials about the Skipper, or to e-mail them to me.

Dear Joe, Dear Dwight

Yesterday I dug into the files of the Old Timers Baseball Club, a former group of ex-Negro Leaguers here in NOLA dedicated to the preserving the history and legacy of African-American baseball. The group’s founder and long-time president, Walter Wright, donated his collection of correspondence, photos, documents, articles and ephemera to Tulane University’s Amistad Research Center late in life.

Wright’s, and now Amistad’s, collection is a treasure trove of fascinating materials and remembrances of a time long ago. Walter Wright never really made it to the big big time in the Negro Leagues, but he was such a mainstay on the New Orleans scene, and his post-baseball career as an educator in the New Orleans Public School System made him a beloved figure in this city.

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Walter C. Wright (from All State Sugar Bowl Web site)

As the head of the Old Timers Baseball Club, he oversaw the annual Old Timers baseball reunion game, which each year honored a different former Negro Leaguer, including, one year, future Hall of Famer Bill Foster. For that edition of the contest he received personal testimonial letters to Foster’s mound prowess from Foster’s manager with the Chicago American Giants, Dave Malarcher, himself a NOLA and Louisiana product.

Wright was also an eternal optimist, and he was thankful how much support gradually grew over time for remembering and honoring the Negro Leagues, and he enjoyed spreading that cheer. Two examples of that are hidden in the files of the Old Timers Baseball Club Wright donated to the Amistad Center, one of which is a May 15, 1975, letter to then NBC announcer and former MLB player Joe Garagiola, who had consistently been vocal in his desire to see the Negro Leagues recognized and respected. Here are some excerpts from that letter on behalf of the Old Timers Club:

“This is just our way of introducing ourselves as an organization that strongly supports your ideals and ideas as they relate to the world of sports, especially baseball.

“We feel deeply indebted to you for the concentrated focus that you have aimed so expertly at the Negro and his exploits on the baseball field and yet because of your youth and limited associations with the Negro player, we fell it is our responsibility to offer you whatever assistance we can give.

“You, we are sure, have played an important role in the selection of qualified Negro baseball players who have been enshrined in the hall of fame and yet it is because of this that we want to help you be aware of certain pitfalls. One that gives us much concern is the fact that so far the area of concentration in search of Negro greats of the past has been mainly in the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia section. The players who have been selected so far are men who have exhibited greatness and we are thoroughly pleased but let’s consider Kansas City, Milwaukee, Detroit, Atlantic City, Memphis, Birmingham and New Orleans. Please accept this not as a criticism or protest but as a constructive observation.”

Wright then offers to help arrange an interview by Garagiola of Bill Foster, who at the time was the deal of men at Alcorn State University in Lorman, Miss. (At that time it was Alcorn A&M College.)

This year, Wright’s recognition of Garagiola’s contributions to the memory of the Negro Leagues takes extra significance because the latter was the recipient of the prestigious Baseball Hall of Fame’s 2014 Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award.

In another letter, this one dated May 27, 1987, Wright contacts former Mets star pitcher Dwight Gooden, who at that time was just getting out of substance-abuse treatment for cocaine problems and was working out in the minors. Wright, as head of the Old Timers Club in New Orleans, wrote to Gooden to offer support and advice:

“We are a baseball club made up of black baseball players from the leagues of yesteryear, 100 members. Our aim is to:

“1) Annually, pay tribute to those men of yesteryear who have contributed to the game of baseball.

“2) Keep the game of baseball alive in the New Orleans Community.

“3) Give leadership to the youth of our city.

“… we want you to be know that to us and millions like us you are still the greatest. Come back with your head high, not as an expression of boastfulness but of simple humility and pride.

“You cannot undo what has already been done but you certainly can make it become a part of your total education and store house of experiences that should make you a better man because of it all.

“Keep in mind that whatever affects you affects us all, that when you cried millions of us cried with you. Let’s vow that from here we’re going to put the pieces together and keep on smiling.

“If you ever again feel that you are weakening just look to the bull pen and see several million anxious faces ready to take the job for you and complete the job at hand.

“That’s a pretty good bull pen, don’t you think?”

Granted, there’s a certain amount of naivete there in Wright’s note to Gooden, and who knows what the struggling star pitcher would have accepted the letter, if he read it at all. But the fact that Wright was moved to, on behalf of his colleagues in the Old Timers Club, take the time to write an inspiring letter of support and encouragement to a player whose name and public image had been tarnished immeasurably took a level of caring and faith in the human spirit that is more than admirable.

So on this day of thanks, try to remember these words from Mr. Wright to Mr. Garagiola and Mr. Gooden, and feel grateful that there still are people like Walter Wright in the community, people who still believe in the goodness of men and women and our ability to overcome adversity and reach out to those in need.

Thank you, Mr. Wright. May your spirit and inspiring light shine forever.

Much to be thankful for …

I was going to head into the Thanksgiving holiday with a depressing post about Philadelphia Negro League pitcher Alex Albritton’s apparent lack of any grave at all, but you know what? Between now and Sunday, I’m posting only good, upbeat news, things for which I and we all have to be thankful. So much negativity around us, and I’ll admit that the frequently somber and even macabre tone of this blog occasionally adds to that. After a while, you just need a break.

So for four or five days, nothing but good news, and actually, I might have a lot of it, starting tonight. 🙂

Herb and the Hog

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Groundhog Thomas (top) in his playing days, and Herb Simpson (bottom) during his trip to Seattle this past July.

A precious few people still living remember Frank “Groundhog” Thomas (or Thompson). That list includes our old friend Herb Simpson, who, at 94, is one of the last, if not THE last, surviving Negro Leaguer in the New Orleans area.

A couple nights ago, I gave Herb a call to see if he might have any idea about the big Hog mystery — whatever happened to Thomas once he retired from baseball circa 1954. According to just about every biography I’ve read about the Hog says something along the lines that he “faded into obscurity,” and no one even knows when or where the sawed-off (and quite homely, by all accounts) pitcher died.

Both Herb’s and Thomas’ baseball careers were birthed in and around New Orleans around the same time — late 1930s and early 1940s — and their lives and hardball trajectories crossed paths frequently. Herb does remember the Groundhog, but not too much.

“He was a pretty fair baseball player,” Herb said of the Hog.

Then there was the big question: Do you know anything about Thomas’ fate?

“I haven’t heard about him in many years,” Herb said. “I don’t know what happened to him.”

The running theme continues. I’m planning on writing a longer piece detailing Thomas’ rise from obscurity in the New Orleans area after the holiday, but here’s a little teaser about how he got his start in paid Negro Leagues baseball.

He first started hurling his fireball for teams based in Houma, La., and 1943 appears to have been his breakout year, when the region’s main African-American newspaper, the Louisiana Weekly, started covering the Hog and his team, the Houma Jax Red Sox, in earnest.

At one point during the ’43 campaign, Thomas — he was still known by the surname Thomas at that point; it wasn’t until he made the Negro League big time that his moniker somehow morphed to Thompson — reeled off an incredible string of victories against regional semipro and industrial squads from NOLA and the surrounding area.

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One of those contests came in late June 1943, when the Tigers downed the Pendelton Tigers, a squad from a New Orleans ship yard. It took a little doing — the Tigers grabbed control of the clash early, but the Sox settled down in the fourth and fifth innings and took over — but the Hog eventually caught fire. Reported the June 26, 1943, Louisiana Weekly:

” … the Hog must have seen his shadow as he mowed them down more and more and with the aid of his battery mate and coach, ‘Steel Trap’ Johnson, to blank the Tigers the rest of the way.”

At the time, the Houma squad was managed by Clifford Matthews and the Houma-based talent scout Irving Picou, who reportedly tipped off his friend, Abe Saperstein, who subsequently shepherded Thomas/Thompson to the pinnacles of blackball.

But then came a contrary report a couple years later from Hall of Fame sportswriter Wendell Smith from the Pittsburgh Courier, who wrote this in the Dec. 1, 1945, edition of his renowned column, “The Sports Beat”:

“Irving Picou, owner and manager of the Jax Red Sox of Houma, La., claims that the Birmingham Black Barons are trying to steal his ace pitcher, Frank (Groundhog) Thompson. He says, however, he has Thompson signed to a contract for ’45 and ’46 and will sell him to anyone but Birmingham, who used the stock hurler the latter part of the past season.”

A few months later, the Cincinnati Crescents barnstorming team, skippered by none other than Louisiana and Big Easy product Winfield Welch, inked Thompson to a contract for the 1946 slate.

The mysterious sage of the Groundhog is ever ongoing …

Giraffe?

Here’s kind of a little follow up to my article on philly.com and my previous posts about Cyclone/Smokey Joe Williams. Bill Staples Jr., whom I quote in the Philly story, sent me an interesting article from the San Antonio Light newspaper in 1907, Williams’ first year in paid baseball when he played for the San Antonio Black Bronchos.

The article is from the Aug. 6 issue of the Light, in which the paper previews an upcoming series of games between the Bronchos and the Birmingham Giants, the “colored champions of the south.” Here’s one of the paragraphs from the story:

“The opening game will probably be pitched by Giraffe Williams, the human Gatling gun, and Black Cat and the Austin Demon will be seen in the affray. …”

Giraffe! So before being Smokey Joe, before being Cyclone Joe, the future Hall of Fame pitcher was … Giraffe? It appears so. 🙂

Another note about Williams’ time with the Black Bronchos, one that is especially pertinent to me, Mr. N’Awlins … According to the Indianapolis Freeman, which was pretty much a national African-American newspaper at the time, in June 1909, the Bronchos hosted the New Orleans Black Eagles and thumped the Big Easy visitors in two games, 5-0 and 9-1. From the Freeman’s article:

“Unable to get any kind of action against the locals, the Pelican crowd was outclassed all the way. Their pitchers were slaughtered, and they were unable to get at either Cyclone Joe or Spider Moonie in the two battles.

“Cyclone was the big breeze on the strip in the first game. he allowed one little skinny hit and fanned fourteen batters. …”

The poor Eagles never knew what hit ’em. They certainly weren’t the first aggregation to be humbled by the Cyclone, and as we well know, they weren’t the last …

Another unmarked grave

I had a dream a few nights ago, one that was, for me, a very lucid one, and it was quite simple: I found Wesley Barrow’s grave in my dream.

I waffle back and forth when it comes to the interpretation of dreams as possible omens of the future, but what happened in the last couple days, culminating Friday afternoon, inched me closer to being a believer in such Freudian hokum.

Yesterday, with the help of city of Gretna Councilman Milton Crosby, I did indeed find Barrow’s grave, this time in real life. After months of futile searching through New Hope Baptist Church Cemetery, I located where the local hardball legend — player, manager, mentor to countless young black men over the span of 30-plus years — is interred.

And it is what I had feared: Barrow’s grave is unmarked. Here it is:

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Quite simply, I want that to change. It must change.

True, Barrow, whose blackball career spanned just about the entire country, Baltimore to the Pacific Northwest to Hawaii and back to New Orleans, does have a beautifully rehabilitated stadium named after him here in the historic African-American neighborhood of Pontchartrain Park — below is a photo of the stadium.

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But being buried in an unmarked, anonymous grave — and with another man, Jim Skillet, whose name is also absent from the burial site — robs such an influential man of  a certain amount of much-deserved dignity in death.

While we were standing at the grave, Councilman Crosby told me a little bit about Wesley Barrow’s life, death and influence on the councilman himself, who, it turns out, played for Barrow on a team sponsored by the Blue Room restaurant.

“Wesley Barrow taught me a lot,” Crosby told me. “I learned a lot from him. He was a great coach and a great man.”

Unfortunately, the councilman said, because the skipper traveled so much in pursuit of his storied managerial career, Barrow never really had a chance to truly lay down roots here in NOLA, meaning he didn’t have much of a family left when he died of a heart attack on Christmas Eve, 1965.

Because of that, there was no one to pay for anything in the way of a dignified grave, including a name marker. New Hope Baptist Church in Gretna appears to have taken his body into its cemetery as an act of charity; Councilman Crosby said the career baseball man wasn’t even a congregant of the church.

The councilman theorizes that Jim Skillet was some sort of distant relative of Barrow’s who died with equally paltry means and was interred with the skipper.

Crosby, who is a New Hope parishioner, recently took control of the cemetery and immediately set about launching an ambitious — and, so far, quite successful — beautification and rehabilitation effort at the historic burial grounds.

Councilman Crosby said he would love to see the placement of a grave marker at Barrow’s burial spot, as well as a formal dedication ceremony, which he said would attract dozens of people, especially local men who played under and were tutored by Barrow.

“I could round up all of them guys,” he said with an enthusiastic grin.

Crosby estimated, from what I recall, that buying a stone for the grave would cost between $100 and $150, which I feel could easily be raised from community groups and local businesses.

So what say you, New Orleans and anyone else who reads this? Can we do it? If you think we can, leave comments on this blog or, even better, e-mail me directly at rwhirty218@yahoo.com.

Winfield Welch and his Travelers

When we last left our intrepid hero, Louisiana native and legendary Negro Leagues manager Winfield Welch, he was wrapping up his first season as the pilot of a major New Orleans team, the Black Pelicans, in 1930. That season ended in somewhat of a fizzle, with the Pels enduring a brutal trip to Bogalusa and a no-show in a home contest with the Houston Black Buffalos.

But Winfield regrouped in 1931, taking what was left of the previous campaign’s Black Pelicans and transforming them into his own squad, known as Welsh’s Travelers. (The Louisiana Weekly consistently misspelled his name early on in his career.)

Welch’s creation, however, didn’t put an end to either the Black Pels nor Welch’s connection to his former team. Entrepreneur A.L. Moss took over the Black Pelicans name as president of a whole new squad under that moniker — rights to the Black Pels name changed hands numerous times over the decades — by Welch and his Travelers continued to travel in the Pelicans bus from 1930.

The name Welsh’s Travelers was apparently bestowed upon Winfield’s 1931 aggregation by Earl Wright, sports editor of the Louisiana Weekly newspaper. The aggregation was led by a robust pitching rotation, paced by Boguille, “Iron Man” Moseley, “Black Diamond” Pipkin and our old friend “Iron Claw” Populus.

The Travelers quickly became one of the elite African-American barnstorming squads in the NOLA region, beginning with, ironically, a trip to Bogalusa, the site of an ugly confrontation with an allegedly “dirty” Bogalusan squad and a local, racist police officer.

After that 1930 contest, Welch indignantly declared, “We will be experiencing zero weather in July and August before I take a baseball team or any other aggregation to play against one representing Bogalusa in that town again.”

Welch’s umbrage with that troubling affair apparently didn’t last long, though — his Welsh’s Travelers began the 1931 campaign with an early April trip to … Bogalusa. The NOLA clan ended up splitting the resulting two-game series, dropping the first tilt 15-3 when the local squad, according to Wright, “knocked the cover off the ball” on hapless Travelers hurler Dickie Mathews over five innings.

Wright added that the Bogalusan “big bats did overtime duty and the Tigers shelled [Mathews] from the hill …” Travelers fireman “Squatter” Benjamin came in and stopped the bleeding, but it was too late.

The second contest, turned out to be a flip from the first one, with Welch’s clan turning the tables for a 12-8 triumph behind the batting prowess of Labat, going 6-for-6. A player named Muse starred in the field for the NOLA aggregation. Wrote Wright:

“Monday found ‘Red’ Boguille holding down Bogalusa and Welsh’s hirelings whanging the agate at a merry clip. They won this game, 12-8, and knocked Payton out of the box and worked on Laurent, something awful.”

“Whanging the agate at a merry clip.” Gorgeous early 1930s sportswriter prose. 🙂

But, most important, Welch found this jaunt to Bogalusa much more pleasant than the previous year. Scribbled Wright:

“The visiting team from New Orleans was well satisfied with the treatment accorded to it in Bogalusa.”

The Travelers’ performance up through that point seemed to impressed officials with the Texas-Louisiana Baseball League, who welcomed Welch’s squad into the fold in late April. The Travelers opened league play with a massively successful trip to Port Arthur, Texas, where they swept the locals in a three-game series.

From there, it was on to northeast Louisiana to face the Monroe Monarchs, a burgeoning Southern powerhouse. The Travelers didn’t fare very well, however, going 1-2 against the home squad. Boguille secured the visiting clan’s only triumph in the series.

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The historical marker noting the location of the Monroe Monarchs’ famed Casino Park, where Winfield Welch’s teams would have played when they visited Monroe.

A month later, the Travelers rebounded by taking two of three from the Dallas Black Giants on the road, then again journeyed to Monroe to square off against the tough Monarchs, who had become something of a farm team for the big-time Kansas City Monarchs.

Welch’s bunch had better luck on this trip to northeast Louisiana, beating the host squad 4-3 in the first game of a twin bill and staying knotted at 0-0 in the second, rain-shortened clash.

The Louisiana Weekly contended that “Welsh’s Travelers [were] continuing their brilliant playing,” thanks partially to the influx of “five college men from various Southern institutions. They play fast baseball and when couple with the older heads … form a formidable nine.”

In late July, the Travelers took a 5-4 decision from the Corpus Christi Big Hits when Iron Claw Populus relieved his brother, Adam, the team’s starting twirler who got shelled early and often. The Claw plugged the leaks and guided his squad to the triumph.

Early August brought this result, reported the Weekly, which also had apparently renamed the squad yet again:

“‘Lucky’ Welsh’s Black Pelicans went a long way toward squaring the count with the Natchez Giants, or Coca-Colas as they’re known in some sections of Mississippi, by taking a pair of the three-game series played with the invaders Saturday and Sunday in Heineman Park.

“The two victories made up for for the pair the Pels dropped to the Giants in Natchez last week …”

Winning hurlers for the NOLA bunch were Iron Claw and “Lefty” Degree, while hard-luck Adam Populus took the only loss of the three-game set.

The following week, Welch’s squad engaged a local NOLA sandlot team, the Melpomene White Sox, in what turned out to be a contest divided into two distinct halves. The Sox maintained a somewhat surprising 5-3 lead into the seventh frame, but then the rechristened Black Pelicans went on an overwhelming hitting spree to cap off a 17-5 victory in the first game of a doubleheader despite a pair of controversial calls by the umpires.

The second contest … What can be said about the second contest other than, “Wow!” Twenty-two runs in two innings. That’s how badly the Welshmen spanked the hapless Sox. And that, apparently, is all they needed, because a Melpomene pitching change plugged the Pels up after the merciless barrage. Reported the Weekly:

“With a 22-0 score staring him in the face ‘Lefty Lee’ pitched like a fool and stopped the Birds dead in the midst of their barrage. They didn’t get a hit off him in the five innings he pitched, nor did a man reach second base.

“The Sox tried feebly to catch up with the Welshmen, even to the extent of raking up four runs in the second semester, but all to no avail. Welsh’s luck peice [sic] had seen to it that the left-handed twirling wizard was found too late and the game simply ended 22-5.”

The Weekly’s coverage of Welch’s 1931 aggregation dropped off after that, and 1932 brought the skipper’s move to Shreveport, where the Napoleonville native took the helm of that city’s Black Sports. Thus launched another phase in Welch’s climb to the top rungs of the Negro League managing world, and that’s where I’ll pick up next time.

But in one final note for this post, it’s worth mentioning how shifting the sand was upon which the NOLA blackball scene was built. While the Negro Leagues remained a vibrant, crucial piece of African-American life in the city, the fact that, for example, the Black Pelicans name changed hands twice during the 1931 campaign, and that Winfield Welch was able to so easily appropriate the 1930 Black Pels lineup for his Travelers — and then Pelicans again — squad at the start of ’31 season reflects the malleability of said hardball scene.

That slippery reality is, perhaps, one reason why the Crescent City never really became a nationally known hotbed of blackball activity despite the fact that it was indeed a very lively, exciting and wonderfully varied atmosphere. Because of that, the national black press might have had a hard time covering Big Easy baseball because grasping onto something solid and stable was almost impossible at times. Thus, I think, is one of the tragedies of NOLA blackball …