We’re (hopefully) on our way!

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And we need your help!

Yesterday (Thursday) I met with Dave Sachs and Tim Grubbs, the New Orleans Zephyrs’ director of media relations and director of broadcasting, respectively. Dave has always been a fantastic guy to deal with, a really big help when I was working at the Advocate, and Tim is kind of the director of the Zephyrs-sponsored New Orleans Professional Baseball Hall of Fame, which has been in existence for roughly 10 years.

The NOPBHOF has always been, truthfully, a source of irritation for me because if its complete lack of pre-integration African-American players, managers, owners and promoters.

That, to some extent, is certainly not the NOLA Hall’s or the Zephyrs’ fault; so little is known about the Negro League scene here in the Big Easy and, indeed, across all of Louisiana. That ignorance is both local as well as, honestly, national — many historians, researchers, writers and enthusiasts in the modern Negro Leagues community have no idea that New Orleans was indeed a blackball hotbed from which great things sprang. When I’m pretty much the national “expert” on New Orleans and Louisiana Negro Leagues, it’s basically by default because no one else has studied it or even acknowledged it.

(The one exception, however, has been longtime New Orleans sportswriter Ted Lewis, who worked for the Times-Picayune for years until the soulless company that owns that paper unceremoniously laid him and hundreds of others off. He’s now the head NOLA sports guy for the upstart New Orleans Advocate daily newspaper. For decades Ted has been just about the only guy writing about figures like Dave Malarcher, Oliver Marcell, Willard Brown, Johnny Wright and other great blackball figures from Louisiana and New Orleans, so much respect and thanks to Ted for keeping the flame alive for so long.)

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Dave Malarcher

Ever since I first wrote this article for the T-P back in 2009 — before the paper betrayed the city that loved it — I’ve worked to bring light to the Negro Leagues scene in New Orleans and educate people about what a rich blackball tradition existed here.

Once I moved down here in February 2012, those efforts have gone into overdrive, and lately I’ve seen a great deal of success and progress. The first positive sign came a couple weeks ago at the semi-annual meeting of the Louisiana SABR chapter, at which I raised the need to research and honor Louisiana Negro Leaguers and educate the public about them. At the meeting, which I wrote about in this post, I received a great deal of support and enthusiasm from the other members, which left me elated.

My next step came yesterday, when I meet with Dave and Tim of the Zephyrs about promoting the Negro Leagues through two primary means: 1) Getting more Negro League figures inducted into the NOPBHOF; and 2) Exploring the possibility of a Negro Leagues Night at a Zephyrs game.

And, once again, I came away from a meeting with a great deal of optimism, nay, ebullience. Dave and Tim were extremely receptive to the possibilities of both ideas. Regarding the Hall of Fame, they were honest in saying that they like to look for living inductees who can actually be personally honored in a ceremony. Lacking that, they like to at least have family members to receive the induction honor in their progenitors’ absence.

Needless to say, option B will have to be the case here. The Zephyrs inducted Herb Simpson last year, who was a perfect selection to “crack the historical color line” of the NOPBHOF. A successful and groundbreaking professional ballplayer on several levels of the sport — especially the top Negro Leagues and the minor leagues — Herb is also thankfully and wonderfully still alive and kicking.

So now the challenge becomes this: Find New Orleans Negro League figures who deserve induction into the local Hall, and especially ones that have living and reachable descendants.

The obvious place to start, for me, is to induct promoter/owner Allen Page, who was black baseball in New Orleans for 30 years and who was an extremely influential figure on the national Negro League stage. Plus, many of his children, including my good friend Rodney, are still alive and eager to help educate people about their legendary father.

But beyond that, there are just so many Negro League greats who were either from New Orleans or played here on their way to the blackball big-time — Dave Malarcher, Oliver Marcell, Johnny Wright, J.B. Spencer, Groundhog Thompson, Winfield Welch, Peanuts Davis, Wesley Barrow, sportswriter Eddie Burbridge, to name a very few.

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John Wright

And Dave and Tim of the Zephyrs were very enthusiastic about doing what they could to honor as many such figures as they could. I was thusly tasked with coming up with a list of Negro League candidates and brief bios stating their qualifications.

Which is the first thing with which I need your help — if anyone has any suggestions I haven’t mentioned, please let me know, either by leaving a comment on my humble little blog or emailing me at rwhirty218@yahoo.com.

(My thought — or my dream — would be to have an initial induction class of two: Allen Page and Dave Malarcher, in my mind the greatest Negro Leagues manager to come out of this city, with Winfield Welch and Wesley Barrow close runners-up. The greatest player from New Orleans would, in my humble opinion, be Oliver Marcell, but, well, he might not be the best candidate to break the barrier, given that no matter how brilliant he was on the field — and he certainly was brilliant — he was, personality-wise, well, an irascible, short-tempered, jerk with a strong affinity for the bottle. Maybe not the best PR move to induct him first, especially when he have Gentleman Dave Malarcher, Marcell’s complete polar opposite, as a viable option.)

Now, on the second goal rattling around in my head — a Negro Leagues Night at Zephyr Stadium — the prospects are a bit iffier, not because the Zephyrs aren’t willing to do it — both Dave and Tim thought that, theoretically, it could be a great idea.

But they key word there is “theoretically.” The three of us agreed that no matter how well intentioned, if it’s not done well, a Negro League Night could end up being a disastrous insult instead a glorious, much-deserved success.

Dave, Tim and I also agreed that to do it right, “we” would need money, i.e. sponsorship, that could, for example, put together a video montage and buy or at least rent Negro League jerseys for the players to wear.

So, I left with the feeling of a second task — find money! And that’s the second area in which I need your help. If any of you have any connections or any ideas whatsoever about where we could get sponsorship — businesses, individuals, non-profits, etc. — please send them my way.

So that’s where we stand. I — and the Zephyrs — need your help! I feel like we are on the cusp of something really great and special. We just heed a little aid and encouragement and, well, money, to get there. Please help, and many, many thanks in advance! Many thanks as well to Dave and Tim being gracious enough to meet with me and for being so receptive to my thoughts. Guys, I hope it’s OK that I use the team logo at the top of this blog. If it isn’t, it’s totally cool, I can take it off. 🙂

Napoleonville, hardball hotbed

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

The (nick)name game

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We have an Iron Claw sighting!

As I was perusing microfilm of the Louisiana Weekly newspaper from the mid-1940s, I came across the above article, which includes a reference to a New Orleans player who, I had thought, vanished into history after a shining couple sandlot seats.

That would be none other than one-armed pitcher Edgar “Iron Claw” Populus.

His name pops up in an April 21, 1945, article on something called the New Orleans Bar Owners League, which included (most likely) amateur teams like Rip’s Playhouse Gyps, Toni’s Tavern Tigers, Marty’s Mugs and Ferd’s Birds.

Apparently the article is a cover the intracity league’s opening-night twin bill, and Populus, with named misspelled “Poplus,” took the hill for Rip’s Gyps, pitching the rollicking squad to an 18-4 crushing of Toni’s by allowing just five hits and posting five K’s. Toni’s at one point sported a player named “Peanuts” Gougies. Another team in the bar league was proferred by the Crystal Club.

I couldn’t find any more immediate references to Iron Claw in the Weeklys from 1943-45, so apparently once again he disappears into the historical ether, only to appear decades later in police blotters as an alleged illegal bookie.

But the article doesn’t just feature an Iron Claw appearance. It also reflects what is turning out to be the New Orleans blackball community’s amazing propensity and aptitude for creating a rainbow of unique nicknames.

We, naturally, can begin with some of the homegrown products who made the big-time Negro Leagues as famed manager “Lucky” Winfield Welch, stumpy pitcher Frank “Groundhog” Thompson (or Thomas, depending on the article), Robert “Black Diamond” Pipkins and, of course, Edward “Peanuts Nyasses” Davis.

But this article here also shows that just about every weekend warrior in NOLA also had quirky monikers. The story refers to players dubbed Snooks, Speedy and a first baseman named, simply, Freddie. (“Snooks,” by the way, appears to have been quite the popular nickname; it also belonged to local blues legend Fird “Snooks” Eaglin.)

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Other Louisiana Weekly articles I ran across last week featured stories on other city amateur, sandlot and semipro leagues and teams — baseball and softball) had additional nutty names for both players and their teams’ commercial sponsors or ownership. There were nines from Foster’s Chicken Den, which included guys like “Dog” Turner; the Rose Room, featuring Red Buster; the Jitterbug Red Sox, with phenom hurler “Speed Ball” Hayes; and the Pepsi Cola Stars, with twirler “Bob Cat.”

But in my mind, a candidate for best moniker in New Orleans blackball history goes to the Jax Zulo Hippopotamus, who existed in the mid-1940s. Jax was a NOLA brewing company that produced locally renowned beer and soda.

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The Hippopotamus, meanwhile, were a comedy aggregation in the vein of the Ethiopian Clowns or various Zulu Giants squads, i.e. blackface, grass skirts, the whole, ahem, nine. Players, for example, were dubbed String Bean Speedy and the slightly-less-goofy Kildee Bowers. However, Kildee’s “last name” was misspelled “Bowels” in one article I found. Eek.

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Finally, over time New Orleans was the locale of leagues of teams from the city’s various housing projects, like Melpomene, Lafitte and Calliope. Players on these teams included Gummy Williams and the relatively pedestrian Big Joe Martin, who did double duty by suiting up for a team in the projects league.

Are you ready for … more Louisiana?

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Get ready, folks — the upcoming week will feature more New Orleans and Louisiana-based posts. In a way, I apologize for being so Pelican State-centric lately. I just have so much great stuff I’ve come across. Next week I’ll hopefully write a lot about Hall of Famer Cyclone Joe Williams, his roots in Texas and, especially, his Native-American heritage, in honor of Native-American Heritage Month.

But for now, it’ll be more news from the bayou, including, hopefully/possibly:

• Another reflection on Napoleonville, La., native and Negro Leagues legendary skipper Winfield Welch’s hometown featuring the history of African-American semipro and amateur clubs from the burg;

• Reporting on my meeting this Thursday with officials from the Triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs and the New Orleans Professional Baseball Hall of Fame about finally honoring and recognizing local Negro League stars like Dave Malarcher, Oliver Marcell and, of course, Winfield Welch;

• An update on the situation with Wesley Barrow’s grave (I’m going to hound the New Hope Baptist Church about the subject and try — try — to attract media attention);

• The tale of a local pitcher named … Ground Hog;

• A possible look at the Louisiana roots of Malarcher, who was born in rural St. James Parish, educated at New Orleans University, played for local semipro teams, evolved into a sturdy star for big-time Negro League teams and, most importantly, became the protegé of Rube Foster himself, inherited Rube’s position as manager of the Chicago American Giants and guided the squad to further greatness.

Still no dignity in death

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That’s a picture from New Hope Baptist Cemetery in Gretna, La., about a half-mile from my house. It could be local Negro Leagues legend Wesley Barrow, a famed manager around these parts. But it might not. Who knows whose final resting place it is?

Yes, prepare for more morbid and macabre here, but this is a topic that just sticks in my craw. Several months ago, I wrote this post about how I combed through the cemetery looking for Barrow’s grave in what turned out to be a fruitless search. It was quite disheartening and, indeed, depressing, not just because I could find the grave of local hero Barrow, but because it gave me an up-close look at the plight of African-American cemeteries, not just here in the NOLA area, but across the country.

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Another grave from New Hope cemetery

Over and over again, we see that historic black cemeteries, for whatever reasons, have fallen into disrepair and, in the process, that’s left the burial places of countless Negro League heroes unmarked and neglected. It’s given rise to the wonderful, nationally renowned Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project and other grass-roots movements to place markers at the graves of forgotten blackball stars.

I’ve done a few articles about the NLBGMP’s efforts and success here and here. This article, especially, was heartrending, because it also examined the sad state of the historic Frederick Douglass Memorial Park cemetery on Staten Island, which, in addition to being home to the previously unmarked resting place Sol White, had become a complete mess thanks to a tragic lack of funds and community involvement.

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A pile of garbage at New Hope

That, perhaps, is what has happened here in Gretna at New Hope Cemetery, and in the process has apparently hidden the grave of Wesley Barrow, who has a stadium named after him here but nonetheless still, in some ways, can’t find dignity in death.

Here’s a page from a March 1945 issue of the Louisiana Weekly, the local African-American newspaper, showing an article and photo of Wesley Barrow, who was taking over the manager duties of the New Orleans Black Pelicans, the local entry in the Negro Southern League:

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During his lifetime, Wesley Barrow was a popular, influential father figure to countless young black players and youth. I want to find his grave and hopefully help bring some final respect to his legacy.

Recently I’ve been seeing some upkeep and maintenance work being done at New Hope cemetery, so I decided to take another walk through the burial grounds, which happens to be right across Lafayette Street from a McDonald’s at which I’m now writing this post.

And indeed, since my last post, at least half of the cemetery has been spruced up, as evidenced by inspiring photos like these:

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But in other spots, there’s still garbage strewn everywhere, including beer and liquor bottles, tipped over grave stones, and rows of plain, overgrown, unmarked, unkempt burial mounds like these:

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Other aspects of the cemetery are simply heartbreaking, such as the fact that so many of the graves are for dozens and dozens of military veterans who deserve more than this. And then there are crushingly bittersweet burial spots like this one of a child, circled by flowers and covered with plush toes, like an orange tiger and Mickey Mouse:

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But this one is the one that truly tore apart my heart, because it was so personal and so tragic:

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But where is Wesley Barrow? Once again, I couldn’t find him. Now, there could be explanations for this: I have the wrong cemetery; I simply overlooked his grave; or his grave is marked but the stone is so faded or obscured that I couldn’t see it.

But in a way, I fear the worst. And I want to change that, but I’ll need help. If there’s anyone out there who can add to this effort or at least provide information, please leave a comment on this blog or e-mail me directly at rwhirty218@yahoo.com.

Jimmy Bonner in his home state

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Jimmy Bonner

Mansfield, La., isn’t a huge city — as of the 2010 Federal Census, its population was a shade over 5,000 — but it’s the county seat of DeSoto Parish, which is south of Shreveport, in the northwest corner of the state. Mansfield is perhaps best known as the location of a significant Confederate victory in April 1864. It was also home to Mansfield Female College, the first women’s institution of higher learning west of the Mississippi River.

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Baseball-wise, the grand metropolis of Mansfield is the hometown of longtime major league pitcher and 1971 AL MVP and Cy Young winner Vida Blue. But it’s also the original stomping grounds of another significant, yet largely unknown baseball figure, this one a trailblazer in a different country: Jimmy Bonner, the first African American to play professional baseball in Japan.

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This post by Gary Ashwill details the career of Bonner, who eventually moved to, settled in and died in Alameda County, California, where he enjoyed a largely semipro tenure that included — surprise! — a stint in the Berkeley International League. I wrote a brief introductory post to Bonner here following Gary’s one.

There was also quite a lively discussion on Rod Nelson’s Facebook page.

Once I found out that Bonner was a native of the Pelican State, I felt obliged and, indeed, eager to explore his roots in Mansfield and DeSoto Parish.

Turns out, however, that those roots are extremely murky, which, of course, isn’t unusual for underappreciated black ballplayers of the early 20th century like Bonner.

So what exactly did I find about the groundbreaking player’s connection to Louisiana …?

First off, it’s possibly important to note that a fairly decent majority of Mansfield’s modern residents — more than 64 percent — are black, making the fact that the city has produced multiple standout African-American baseball players over the decades not all that surprising.

Now, down to James Everett Bonner. Birth date: It appears to be, according to multiple sources (including the California Death Index) to be Sept. 18, 1906 (which means he shares a birthday with my sister, née 1976, exactly seven decades later).

Bonner’s mother was Martha A. Lewis, whose background is shrouded in mystery. The first confirmed appearance in the U.S. Census is 1920, when she and three of her children are living in Mansfield on Gibbs Street with a blend of white, black and mixed-race neighbors. Martha, who is stated as 38 years old with no listed occupation.

Key to the listing, though, is the that she’s widowed, as well as the fact that her children have different surnames. There’s James Bonner, 13, and Bessie Lee Bonner, 15. But there’s also Mamie Goldsmith, 9.

The presence of three last names in the same house — one with a mother and three kids — is just plain confusing.

The 1930 Census lists Martha living with just Jimmy Bonner; their stated ages are (I think, if I’m reading the handwriting correctly) 45 and 22, respectively. But now Martha Lewis is listed as … divorced. The document also states that she’s a laundress with a family, while Jimmy is noted as a tailor in a shop.

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There’s also another hitch in the 1930. While James Bonner appears to be living in Mansfield, La., there’s also a James Bonner noted in … Oakland, Calif., in Alameda County, where Bonner eventually settled for his hardball career. And this James Bonner is eerily similar to the one we “know” — he’s 21 years old, black and a native of Louisiana!

But there’s something else that’s quizzical — this second James Bonner is listed as living with Edward and Lee Freeman and identified as their — get ready — stepson.

However, in my cursory research on Bonner’s background, I haven’t come across that surname in anything other places in relation to Jimmy Bonner. I suppose it’s feasible that Bonner was splitting time between the two locales, but the two Census pages — the one of Mansfield and the one for Oakland — were filled out only nine days apart in April 1930.

Now, speaking of crazy surnames … let’s get back to Bonner’s mother, Martha Lewis and how she a) had children with different last names, and b) is listed in one Census as widowed and the following one as divorced.

According to a (somewhat) handy dandy, bare-bones profile of her I found on Ancestry.com, Martha Lewis allegedly had at least four children with up to three men. In the profile, two of those men are stated as husbands — Peter Bonner (no other information given), with whom Martha had Jimmy as well as Lang Bonner, né 1900; and Rory Goldsmith (born 1880), with whom she birthed Mamie Lee Goldsmith in 1911.

One more child, Bessie Lee Bonner, who is listed as living with Martha, Jimmy and Mamie in Mansfield in 1920, is stated in the profile as the child of an unknown father.

Talk about a family in knots. A guess is that Lewis was Martha’s maiden name, i.e. original surname. But if that’s the case, she never took the name of either of her listed husbands, and she never passed her her own name to any of her children. What???

Perhaps — perhaps — things are cleared up a little bit with the 1910 Census, when Bonner’s mother is listed as 30-year-old Martha … Goldsmith! The wife of none other than 32-year-old Louisiana native Rory Goldsmith! They’re living in DeSoto Parish (not in Mansfield proper, it seems) with their daughter, Mamie Lee Goldsmith, as well as four kids listed as Rory’s stepchildren.

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But the children have two different surnames: Gertrude (I think) Louis, 15; and three with the last name of Bonner, including Bessie, 6, and two other kids — I honestly can’t make out their names, but neither of them appear to be Jimmy or James — ages 10 and 6, both boys.

Martha and Rory are listed as having been married for two years, with the marriage being the first for Rory — who’s stated as a laborer at a saw mill — and the second for Martha.

That clears up the picture a little … a little. It appears as though Martha Lewis married this Peter Bonner (for whom I could find no immediate record), who most likely died after having several children with Martha, who then married Rory and had Mamie Lee. I honestly have no idea who this Gertrude is — yet another child of Martha’s by another man? Quite, quite confusing.

(Incidentally, Rory shows up as 4-year-old Roy Goldsmith in DeSoto Parish, the son of Julius and Juana Goldsmith, both listed as “laborers.”)

OK, what if we shift over the Jimmy Bonner’s wife, Lillian? Will things get any more “normal”? Well, yes, but only marginally. According to the California Death Index, Lillian was born in Louisiana on Aug. 21, 1907.

The index lists both her mother’s maiden name and her father’s surname as Victor, which is a little strange.

Lillian was raised as Lillian Victor, not by her parents but by her grandparents, Abraham and Eliza Stewart, in the unincorporated community of Waggaman in Jefferson Parish, which is across the river from New Orleans and also the parish in which I live.

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Both Abe and Eliza were also Louisiana natives, born in roughly 1878 and 1876, respectively. In the 1920 Census, Abraham is reported as a farm laborer, but by 1940, he went into business for himself, opening a barbershop.

It’s not immediately clear how and when Jimmy Bonner and Lillian Victor met or got married, but it was apparently sometime in the 1930s, because by the 1940 Census they’re married and living in Oakland, with Jimmy officially working as a railroad porter.

Jimmy died in 1963, while Lillian died in 1984, both in Oakland, it seems.

One final note … The 1940 Census lists Martha Lewis as living in Mansfield, still on Gibbs Street, with Mamie Lee Goldsmith. Martha is now 61 and widowed again while toiling as a cook in a private home. Mamie Lee is 29 and working as a home servant.

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That’s what I have so far regarding Jimmy Bonner — trailblazing black ballplayer in Japan in the 1930s and mainstay in the Bay Area semipro hardball scene — and his roots in Louisiana. But I’ll keep at it and work to piece more of it together, hopefully soon …

Heritage of heroes

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Free men of color in the Battle of New Orleans.

The story of New Orleans native and one-armed pitcher Edgar “Iron Claw” Populus would be fascinating by itself. Taken on its own, Iron Claw’s tale — fleetingly becoming an unstoppable sandlot hurler in NOLA blackball circles in the early 1930s — has been enough to enrapture at least this scribe.

But once one looks into Populus’ heritage, one finds an amazingly rich, complex, interwoven tapestry of Creole culture, freedom and bondage in the New Orleans area stretching back to at least the 1750s.

New Orleans has always been … different from much of the rest of the South in terms of race and ethnic relations. In the city’s antebellum years, there was a large population of free, mixed-race people of color called Creoles, descendants of African slaves and their French and Spanish masters.

Creoles held a unique place in early 19th-century NOLA society, often enjoying more (yet still limited, of course) freedoms than other people of African descent. There was a sizable Creole merchant middle class, and mixed-race culture in many ways mirrored that of white society.

One way that was so, apparently, was in military service for the various governments, i.e. French, Spanish, U.S., in charge of the region. On that count, Edgar Populus’ direct family line was studded with men who served their country as free, mixed-race Creoles.

Go back to the Civil War, when Iron Claw’s great-grandfather, Armand Populus, fought first in the Confederate Army (quite possibly because he was coerced into it) when he enlisted in the Louisiana 1st Native Guards Infantry Regiment as a private.

But Union forces took New Orleans early in the war, in 1862, at which time Armand seems to have switched signed and become a blue coat. He enlisted as a private in the U.S. Colored Troops, Company D, 74th Infantry Regiment, which had begun as the 2nd Louisiana Regiment Native Guard Infantry in October 1962 and assigned to the defense of New Orleans.

That regiment became the 2nd Regiment, Corps d’Afrique in June 1863 before evolving into the 74th Colored Regiment in April 1864 and again assigned to the defense of the city. This is what Armand Populus originally enlisted in. The regiment took part in several expeditions from Fort Pike over several months.

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1890 surviving soldiers Census sheet listing Armand Populus.

In July 1864, the 74th was consolidated with the 91st Colored Infantry Regiment, and Armand appears to have re-enlisted in this regiment toward the end of the war, again as a private. But the end of 1865, with the war over, the regiment seems to have mustered out.

Armand Populus, a mason by trade (like many members of the Populus family tree), live a relatively long and fruitful life, from roughly 1839 to 1906. He and his wife, the former Natalie “Amelie” Decoudreaux (sometimes spelled Decoubeau or other variations), had Edgar Populus’ grandfather, Lucien (eventually Lucien Sr.), in roughly 1854.

Armand remained connected to his Civil War service, appearing in an 1890 Census of surviving soldiers in New Orleans and living on Laharpe Street, and filing for veterans benefits as an invalid in 1897.

But the Populus family tradition of military service goes back even further, to the War of 1812, when the state of Louisiana reluctantly re-mustered black militias that had been established by the previous French and Spanish governments but had been disbanded once Louisiana was transferred to U.S. control. The white leaders and citizens, prompted by the slave revolt in Haiti, feared a similar uprising at home if they armed men of color, even in the service of their country. The U.S. commander of the defense of New Orleans, famed general and future president Andrew Jackson, eager recruited and praised free black soldiers who helped fend off British attacks on the city.

Thus enters the story of Vincent Populus, né about 1759, quite possibly as a slave of Miss Juana Kerroley Miears (other spellings exist), wife of Luis Populus. Juana Kerroley (and, by extension, Luis Populus) appeared to own numerous slaves who were given the surname Populus.

One of those, according to Louisiana slave records from 1719-1820, was a “mulatto” named Vicente, born in roughly 1759. That date matches up with New Orleans death records for a Vincent Populus, who died in 1839 and was reported to have been birthed in about 1759, making the likelihood that Vicente and Vincent were one and the same.

Once Juana Miears Kerroley died, she passed on the vast bulk of her estate to her widower, Luis Populus, who subsequently appears to have then freed most, if not all, of the willed slaves, probably including Vicente/Vincent. Vincent Populus would became one-armed baseball pitcher Edgar “Iron Claw” Populus’ great great great grandfather.

Likely born a slave, Vincent Populus went on to great things, especially when the War of 1812 rolled around and Louisiana reluctantly formed African-American militias. Many free blacks, including Creoles, jumped at the chance to serve, some in hopes that outstanding military records would lead to more freedoms and rights in society. Penned Jonathan D. Sutherland in “African Americans at War: An Encyclopedia”:

“African Americans believed that their continuing participation in the defense of the United States would result in gaining the freedoms and rights of other citizens. It should be remembered that the vast majority of African Americans did not at this time enjoy the rights enshrined in the Constitution, but the very real hope was that if they flocked to the flag to maintain U.S. independence, Congress and the public in general would recognize that African Americans were equal to their white counterparts and deserved to be valued as they were.”

Vincent Populus became one of the first black military officers in American history when he joined the 1st Battalion of Fortier’s Louisiana Militia, an organization of free black soldiers that had been disbanded in 1804 soon after the Haiti revolt but then hastily reorganized in 1814 to help defend New Orleans from the British.

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List of free black soldiers during the War of 1812, including Maj. Vincent Populus.

Vincent followed Isidore Honoré, also a free African American who was commissioned to the battalion as a second lieutenant, itself a groundbreaking move. Populus became the ranking black officer of the group of 350 free men of color and the first African American to be given the field rank of major in the U.S. Army.

(It’s also worth noting that at least nine other Populuses joined the battalion, some attaining ranks of lieutenant, corporal and sergeant.)

Vincent Populus’ military service seems to have added to his prestige and place among free Creole society in the first several decades of the 19th century. In her book, “The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World,” Emily Clark describes how affluent Creoles often followed strict societal mores when it came to coupling and marriage.

That included Vincent Populus and his brother, Maurice, both of whom arranged marriages for several of their daughters. Ironically, though, Clark writes, Vincent himself never married his lifelong partner, Marianne Navarre.

Vincent (and likely Marianne) had a son, Vincent Jr., in about 1812, who continued the Populus line down to Edgar, i.e. Iron Claw. Vincent Sr. died on Sept. 23, 1839, a quarter-century after he made military history.

In a postlude, the proud, successful and highly praised battalion in which Vincent Sr. served was disbanded a few years before his death, again because of white racism and fears of a black/slave insurrection. Wrote Bernard C. Nalty in his book, “Strength for the Fight: A History of Black Americans in the Military”:

“Heroism was not enough, however, to save the black militia. White self-confidence reasserted itself, as did the racism that pervaded American life. After all, true Americans need not follow the example of the Spanish or French, themselves lesser peoples, and rely on blacks for their protection. In 1834, a revision of the militia law sounded the death knell of the black militia, which would not be resurrected until the coming of the Civil War.

“Nor did the U.S. Army recognize the contribution of the black volunteers to the victory at New Orleans, for whites alone were eligible to serve in the Army’s ranks. Once again the government had turned to blacks in time of peril, accepted their aid, and then spurned them. …

“White Americans,” Nalty concluded, “remained blind to the military contribution of blacks.”

Winfield Welch and the Black Pels

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 …

The week upcoming — all Louisiana, all the time

Starting tomorrow (Sunday), I’ll have a whole week of Louisiana and NOLA-based posts, mostly about three subjects: Napoleonville native and manager extraordinaire Winfield Welch and his hometown; the war hero ancestors of comet-through-the-sky, one-armed pitcher Edgar “Iron Claw” Populus; and the Louisiana roots of Jimmy Bonner, the first a African American to play professional baseball in Japan.

So buckle up, folks, for a weeklong trip through the Bayou State’s African-American baseball history, starting tomorrow with a piece on Winfield Welch’s first big year as a manager — the 1930 New Orleans Black Pelicans.

Support from SABR

This morning I attended my first meeting of the Schott- Pelican chapter — i.e. the Louisiana/NOLA chapter — of the Society for American Baseball Research, and I had smashing good fun.

I, by and large, stayed quiet, a little nervous and content to sit and listen. I was welcomed with open arms and hearty handshakes, and chapter organizer Derby Gisclair said he and the rest of the crew were glad for some fresh blood, especially someone who could bring a different perspective like the Negro Leagues to the group.

In fact, I was given an assignment: Write the trivia quiz that is ritual for S-P Chapter meetings, with a focus on the Negro Leagues. Derby suggested that half of the quiz be local/Louisiana-based, and half be national in nature. Sounds pretty cool to me.

So, all in all, I left the Holiday Inn Westbank extremely encouraged about the future inclusion of the city and the state’s rich African-American hardball history in the group’s efforts.

I definitely have several goals in mind on which I would like to ask my fellow chapter members for help, such as getting more pre-integration black figures into the New Orleans Professional Baseball Hall of Fame and even perhaps a Negro Leagues Night at a Zephyrs’ game. That, needless to say, would be a dream come true.

So many thanks to everyone who greeted me with a smile and firm handshake this morning. I hope I can contribute, in some small way, to the chapter’s work, even if I am a journalist. 🙂