St. Anne Church in Napoleonville
Winfield Welch, who at one point in the 1940s was considered the finest manager in the Negro Leagues after guiding the Birmingham Black Barons to two Negro American League crowns in a row, hailed from the minuscule — 2010 population 660 — town of Napoleonville, La., the seat of Assumption Parish.
I’ve been researching and writing about Welch’s life and career — in addition to this blog, I’m working on an article about Winfield for Acadiana Profile magazine — and in the process, I’ve been slowly learning about the skipper’s hometown in the bayous of southeastern Louisiana.
Today, I’ll try to go into a little detail about the black baseball scene in Napoleonville. It’s quite true that all of these teams were of the sandlot level (at best) and are such not merely obscure, they’re as minuscule as — lame poetic metaphor ahead — single grains of sand on the vast beach of the history of America’s pastime.
But to me, what makes these Napoleonville teams so reflectively important is that each of those grains of sand are crucial parts of the entire, beautiful beach, every one contributing, in its own small way, to the grandiose stage of baseball. Or something like that. 🙂
The usually brief existence of these town-based aggregations is significant because, at one point, just about every similar small town in the nation had teams like that — black teams, white teams, Native-American teams and, as the recently discussed Berkeley International League shows, Asian teams.
Louisiana was no different, including when it came to Jim Crow blackball. There were likely hundreds of nines that clashed with those from nearby towns, took weekend road trips through the bayou to play opponents, and even issued challenges to all comers through the media, including the New Orleans-based Louisiana Weekly. (I’ll talk about such a bold issuance soon in an upcoming post about half-pint hurler Ground Hog Thompson and his origins as a pro pitcher with the Houma, La., Red Sox.)
Naturally, newspaper coverage of black teams from Napoleonville — which is about 75 miles west of N’Awlins — was spotty, with ebbs and tides. First of all, it almost goes without saying that the region’s white papers barely mentioned black sandlot teams at all.
Beyond that, the black media — namely, the LW — often didn’t have sufficient staff to consistently report on small-town hardball action. Plus most of such reportage depending on the various team managers and/or owners calling in, telegraphing, whatever, the results of their games. Finally, we’re talking about a time period — the 1930s and ’40s — that included first a Great Depression and then a World War, both tremendous events that easily could have prohibited even the formation of teams in tiny hamlets like Napoleonville, La.
Before we take a look at some Nap’ville squads, it should be noted that newspaper coverage of the day frequently didn’t include players’ or managers’ first names, which makes it hard to pin down their exact identities. For historians, it is, to say the least, somewhat frustrating bordering on maddening.
Thus, let’s begin our tour through Nap’ville blackball history by zeroing in on the summer of 1931, beginning in May, when the Napoleonville All-Stars hosted the Donaldsonville, La., Black Sox and squeezed out an 8-7 triumph over the visitors. The All-Stars hit Donaldsonville pitcher Murray hard, with Williams going 4-for-4 with three runs and three RBIs.
The same issue of the Weekly that includes that game report features a short article on a nameless Napoleonville team — possibly, again, the All-Stars — that welcomed the Thibodaux Black Pelicans and topped the Birds, 5-2.
The paper states that the Pels “were forced to eat out of Terry’s hand for a while Sunday evening, when the Napoleonville ace fanned 14 Pels, then fell victim to an onslaught of base pelts that suddenly jumped to 10 in number. He finally won out, 5-2, however.” A pitcher named Calon mounted the hill for Thibodaux — a nearby bayou city that served as the birthing locale of legendary (and legendarily short-tempered) Negro Leagues third baseman Oliver Marcell — giving up 14 “safeties” while “standing up” five. (You gotta love the archaic baseball terminology of the day. My favorite baseball words of all time are for pitchers: “chucker” and “twirler.”)
A month later, Donaldsonville exacted revenge on the “Naps” with a 4-3 victory at the Donaldson Fair Grounds. (Donaldsonville is the seat of Ascension Parish, which is southwest of Assumption. Its 2010 population was roughly 7,400.) “The battle was a heavy-hitting affair,” inked the Weekly, “but due to the splendid support given the chunckers [sic], the game was thrilling all the way.”
Two weeks later, the All-Stars again clubbed Thibodaux, this time by a 9-5 count and “led by the terrific slugging of Hayes,” who mashed three triples and a double on the Black Pels. A guy named Johnson also pounded a homer for the Naps, while “Mitchell, doing mound duty for the Pels, was smacked freely throughout the fracas while Allen, on the hill for [Napoleonville], delivered nicely in the pinches.”
Then, on Independence Day weekend, the All-Stars continued their victory march by taking a home twin bill against the Donner Athletics, 14-6 and 5-2. Harkening back to my last post, about wacky Pelican State monikers, the second contest featured a Donner hurler named, simply, Chicken.
The two-set series wasn’t without a squabble, though — apparently the A’s weren’t happy with the scoring and resulting reportage of the game. Sayeth the Weekly:
“A report from Donner has it that the Athletics dropped the July 4th game by a 12-6 score and should have won the second title, 2-0 instead of losing, 5-2.”
(Donner is an unincorporated community in Terrebonne Parish, which is southeast of Napoleonville, Donaldsonville and Thibodaux, near the coast.)
The Napoleonville All-Stars returned in 1932 and again garnered a decent amount of coverage from the Louisiana Weekly, starting with a four-paragraph article on a season-launching organizational banquet. Reported the paper:
“Prospects are exceptionally bright for a good baseball team in Napoleonville this season. There should be a number of powerful nines and the strongest of them will, no doubt, be the Napoleonville All-Stars who were given a chicken and spaghetti supper last Thursday night in the club rooms.
“The club, owned by Charles Gipson, will have a new and well thought of manager in the person of Henry Wise, an old head in the game. Wise succeeds Lenox Charles who retired after an exceptional season with the Stars last year.”
It was then reported that Charles was staying on as the squad’s business manager and that “the pitching staff at present looms up as Joe Ayo, Eddie Hayes, J.D. Kelson and ‘Iron Man’ Putley.”
A little detour for some info on the Naps’ 1932 personnel … Wise, the skipper, was born in roughly 1891 (according to the 1900 Census) and apparently raised in Assumption Parish by his grandmother, who was birthed way back in 1850.
By the 1910 Census, Wise, at the tender age of 19, was toiling as a railroad laborer and had a blossoming family of his own, including 18-year-old wife Rachel and 1-year-old son Percy.
Henry’s 1917 World War I draft card states that he was born on March 9, 1892, and was living in Napoleonville as a farmhand on the Foley plantation. He unsuccessfully claims an exception from the draft because he “had a leg broken once.”
But he appears to then have divorced Rachel and entered into a second marriage with a woman named Kate and was raising niece Amelie. (I can’t make out his occupation on either the 1920 or 1930 Census reports.)
When Wise filed his World War II, he again listed March 9, 1892, as his birthdate and Napoleonville as his residence. By now, though, he’s self-employed.
Lenox Charles, meanwhile, the All-Stars’ field manager-turned-business manager, was born around 1895, was raised by mother Celine Jones, and worked as an insurance collector in Assumption Parish, all according to the 1930 Census.
But Charles’ World War I draft card gives his birth date as Oct. 22, 1993, and spells his name as “Lenex.” The card lists him as a house painter “on the farm” for a “Mr. C.W. Harper.” He’s single and claims a draft exemption due to a “deformed right leg.” Hmmm.
Charles’ draft card for the Second World War again pegs him as a Napoleonville resident, but it now gives his birth date as Oct. 22, 1895. He’s listed as single and unemployed.
And what about Ed Hayes, the ace of the Naps’ pitching staff? A farm laborer with a wife, Mary, Hayes, born circa 1912, went on to enlist in the Army in Assumption Parish in December 1942 as private. In civilian life, he appears to have been married, with a grammar school education and an unskilled job at a manufacturing business.
But I digress … The ’32 Naps immediately got down to business, picking up where they left off by once again swamping the Donaldsonville Black Sox, this time by an 11-3 tab on Easter Sunday.
About a month later, the All-Stars hosted an unidentified squad named the Cardinals and thoroughly pounded the Redbirds, 13-4, with three round-trippers.
Thus ended the Weekly’s coverage of Napoleonville hardball teams not just for the rest of 1932, but apparently until June 1935, when scribe Cliff Thomas, in his “Hits, Runs and Errors” column, reported that the Napoleonville Black Cats pulled off a ninth-frame rally to beat an aggregation simply dubbed the Regulars by a 9-7 count.
Over the next decade, a handful of Napoleonville teams drifted in and out of the newspaper’s pages while, at the same time, the town’s most famous son, Winfield Welch, was climbing the ranks of black baseball skippering, from New Orleans semipro teams to the great Black Barons units.
It’s kind of fascinating to track these two parallel story lines — those of Welch and of his hometown’s scrub teams. To me, what it shows is that even in the most humble of locations, from the most obscure civic wellsprings, can emerge big-time baseball legends because, it seems, baseball is always in the cultural blood, from town to town to town, not only across the Bayou State, but across the country.