On Napoleonville, La., native Winfield Welch’s journey to the Negro Leagues big-time — he managed the Birmingham Black Barons to two straight Negro American League titles in the 1940s and became what the one paper called the best manager in the business — his first big break as a skipper appears to have come in 1930, when he took over the reins of one of the many incarnations of the New Orleans Black Pelicans.
This is back when the local NOLA media was consistently misspelling Welch’s last name as “Welsh,” and when Welch, who moved from the country town of Napoleonville to the big city of N’Awlins in search of hardball fame and steady work, was making the transition from slightly above-average outfielder (like his stint with the local Pullman Porters squad) to manager-on-the-rise.
And 1930, it appears, is when that transition went into overdrive when he started skippering the Black Pels. The season began in March and April, with Welch still seemingly remaining just a player for the Pelicans.
However, according to the local media — namely the Louisiana Weekly black newspaper — he was already accruing a reputation as a guy with a knack for making the best of key opportunities on the diamond. Wrote columnist “Safety” Williams in the April 12, 1930, Weekly (the numerous ellipses, grammatical quirks and poor math are in the original):
“And observe, dear neighbors, from now on its Winfield ‘Lucky’ Welsh … I know Welsh is a smart ball player … (in fact I believe him the smartest on the club), but since Welsh can’t hit, Dame Fortune, or rather her twin, sister, Lady Luck, is sweet on ‘Lucky.’ … Monday Winfield collected three singles, a sacrifice hit and walk in his four trips to the rubber … He is surely the best fielder in the fold … Those sensational catches he made Saturday and Sunday, and his fielding in general, makes him plenty valuable … I wonder if the gentleman who refuted my statement that Welsh was a cracking good fielder after Saturday’s game, was in the stands Sunday and Monday, while ‘Lucky’ was snagging ’em right and left in the right field territory.”
Welch’s big chance then arrived about a month and a half later, when he was tabbed player-manager of the Black Pels after previously serving as captain of the club. In its May 24, 1930, edition, the Louisiana Weekly reported that the move came at a meeting of the officers of the Black Pelican Baseball Club, when the organization declared that Welch “now has the full reins on the team on and off the field.”
The paper continued:
“Fred Caulfield, veteran pilot, whose position ‘Lucy’ [sic] is understood to have filled, was shifted to that of Business Manager of the club. Welsh plays in the left wing of the outer garden.”
Welch was subsequently greeted with a harsh lesson in how tough it is to pilot a club, especially in the 1930s world of semipro and professional black baseball, when the Houston Black Buffaloes took both ends of a doubleheader from Welch’s Black Pels. That prompted Welch to determinedly right the ship as quickly as possible, reported the Weekly’s Earl Wright, most immediately for an ensuing six-game series in Waco:
“Manager ‘Lucky’ Welsh is determined that but very few more ball games will be lost after the fashion of Sunday’s melee and if the new pilot’s faith in his ability to pull the Birds through is to be taken with the same degree of seriousness in which Welsh breathed it, then Waco is going to be a neat lot of stepping stones on which the Black Birds will ascend to a better Tex.-La. League position.”
As late spring flipped to early summer, the Black Pelicans continued to flap their wings through the Texas-Louisiana League campaign, taking a game from Houston but dropping a pair on exhibition contests to the Lake Charles Lincoln Giants.
By mid-June the Pels had a 9-8 mark and were stationed in third place in the six-team league. Different players were stepping up to the plate for young manager Welch, including hurlers Bissant, Allen and the legendary Diamond Pipkins, as well as backstop “Shorty” Walker and a hard-hitting second-sacker named Collins.
A week later, the Birds took over second place behind high-flying Houston, and Welsh reinforced his growing reputation as a firm-handed manager, releasing pitcher “Pepper” Blanks for the latter’s affinity for the bottle, among other managerial moves. Reported the LA Weekly:
“Winding up we flag the change in the Pel play since ‘Lucky’ took the reins. The Birds have come out every one of the series with at least an even break and the last Tex.-La. League standing we lamped, had ’em holding down the second place berth with a .524 average.”
Added the paper, expounding on Welch’s moniker:
“Folks have inquired of us why we nicknamed Winfield Welsh ‘Lucky.’ Well here is one reason for the christening. Welsh, at one time, was regarded as a pitcher’s crip, but by using his cranium for other purposes beside a rest for his hat, he developed the habit of getting on. Lamp his position at the pan and you’ll not wonder why Welsh gets so many walks. Then, watch him come up in a pinch and smack a sweet little single that brings in the tallies.”
Welch was already putting his inherent inventiveness on display in early July of 1930, when officials of the various clubs in the Texas-Louisiana League prepared to gather in Houston for the circuit’s mid-season meeting. Even though the Houston Black Buffs appeared to have rather safely won the loop’s first-half pennant, Welch was working the angles, asserting that his squad were the rightful owners of the first-half flag.
Winfield’s argument? That the Buffaloes had forfeited enough games that, taken together with the Black Pels positive head-to-head record with the Lone Star squad, it should place the Pelicans at the top of the heap.
Welch also pointed to an alleged, general failure of the league’s various team managers to submit timely and adequate game reports to the media, which further skewed the squads’ winning percentages.
On the field, though, Welch and the Birds spent much of July on the road, only occasionally dropping into the Big Easy for a handful of home contests. Jaunts included one to Monroe, La., for a lengthy series with that city’s Monarchs, and late in the month the Pels ventured to Bogalusa to clash with “Slim” Moore’s Kelly Tigers to compete for what the Louisiana Weekly billed as the “colored baseball championship of the state.”
The paper further claimed to have received a correspondence from Welch that, the Weekly stated, “the Birds are still pounding the onion at a terrific clip and just can’t be stopped.” Thus, in addition to sharpening his on-field acumen and his boardroom boldness, Welch was developing a knack for PR that seems to have resulted in a very harmonious relationship with the Louisiana Weekly and its sports editor, Earl Wright.
Welch’s flair for the dramatic was upheld, at least in the ensuing three-game stint with Bogalusa in which the Pels swept the whole trio of contests. But what was perhaps even more significant that the final scores was Welch’s perfectly-pitched claims that the Bogalusans tried to play dirty pool.
“We will be experiencing zero weather in July and August before I take a basebal team or any other aggregation to play against one representing Bogalusa in that town again,” the Aug. 2 Louisiana Weekly quoted Welch as saying. The paper’s writer continued:
“There you have ‘Lucky’ Welsh’s opinion of a visiting contestant’s chance of getting a sporting break in the little village.
“The Black Pel manager got his fill last Sunday when a ‘country cop’ came out on the field in the seventh inning while Welsh was protesting a decision which ‘Lucky’ claims was outright Jesse James stuff, and threatened to beat him over the head with his pistol of he didn’t go out into the field and play ball.”
When the white Bogalusa police officer asked who the Pels’ manager was, Welsh allegedly butted the cup in the chest with his head, prompting the badge-holder to go off on Winfield.
“Well listen here,” the Weekly quoted the officer as saying. “You n—–s [in the article that word was spelled out] can get away with that sort of stuff in New Orleans, but you can’t do it here. Now get back out there and play ball or I’ll knock your black head off with this gun.”
The writer continued, asserting that through the series between the Tigers and the Birds, white Bogalusans continuously tried to “scare” the Pelicans, but Welch used such attempts as fuel for his own players’ fire in their drive to the state flag.
Welch concluded, he told the Weekly reporter, that “Bogalusa’s no place for our people, and I’ve played my last game there. I don’t see how as brilliant a ball player as [Bogalusa’s] ‘Slim’ Moore and those other city boys can put up with that bunch.”
The roughing up the Pelicans reportedly received in Bogalusa must have tuckered them out, because they subsequently dropped three games out of four in a home series against the Houston Black Buffs.
After that mid-August debacle, local coverage of the Tex-La League and the Black Pelicans petered out, finishing with an announcement in the Oct. 4, 1930, Weekly that neither the Pels nor the Black Buffs showed up for a billed Sunday doubleheader at New Orleans’ Heinemann Park. Stated the paper: “A large crowd eagerly and patiently awaited the two teams that failed to put in an appearance.”
That type of erratic behavior was typical among pre-integration African-American teams, which often lacked the steadily sufficient financial and administrative support to complete schedules or even make it to games as planned. Such was life in the shadows of the game, where black players, managers, owners, umpires and officials were forced to adjust on the fly and roll with the punches, of which there were many, even for a burgeoning managerial star like Winfield Welch, Napoleonville native.
In a final postlude that also serves as a prelude to the 1931 season, in which Welch grabbed a firm hold of the Pel rostered and morphed the majority of the 1930 squad into a “new” team for 1931, Welsh’s Travelers. The ’31 campaign for Welsh’s squad began where? Bogalusa. Winfield’s swearing to never again visit that city lasted, oh, nine months. But the 1931 season is, quite possibly, yet another story …