A version of the Baltimore Elite Giants
Gretna City Councilman Milton Crosby and I are taking a break for the holidays regarding a grave marker for Big Easy Negro Leagues great Wesley “Skipper” Barrow. However, I’m working on turning out a long-ish piece on him for a new New Orleans literary magazine, so I thought I’d focus a post on what was arguably the “peak” of his career, at least on a national scale — managing the 1947 Baltimore Elite Giants …
When Wesley Barrow was tapped to replace ousted Elite Giants manager Felton Snow, Barrow was still in his mid-to-late-40s who had managed Southern “minor league” teams like the Nashville Cubs and his hometown Algiers Giants and New Orleans Black Pelicans. Barrow, who also had served as a coach for the NAL Cleveland Buckeyes for a bit, had more a quarter-century of hardball experience under his belt.
However, his hiring by the Elites — whose most prominent player earlier in the decade had been Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella — to replace a veteran hand like Snow raised a few eyebrows. Stated the Jan. 25, 1947, Pittsburgh Courier:
“Barrow, though practically unknown in Eastern baseball circles, has played with and served as manager of several teams in the deep South. …”
The paper also asserted that Barrow was brought on by Baltimore to improve the club’s performance somewhat significantly, stating that the Elite Giants were putting into place an “overall plan for building a pennant contender in 1947.”
The Courier added about Barrow and the team:
“To help get himself off on the right foot the new field boss has prevailed upon Tom Wilson and Vernon Green, team moguls, to sign five players he has recommended.”
That quintet included for NOLA-area natives Barrow new well from the Big Easy sandlots and ballparks — Bob Bissant, Joe Wiley, Joe Spencer and Gene Hardin — the latter who had just played under Barrow in 1946 with the Portland Rosebuds of the short-lived West Coast Negro Baseball League.
Wilson and Green also promised to sign other players and trade and deal freely with other squads to improve the Elites. The execs followed that up by hiring George Scales as a field coach to help Barrow, both of whom were, stated wire writer Dick Powell, “moulding what they predict will be the team to beat for 1947 NNL pennant honors.”
The Elites ’47 campaign began with a barnstorming trip across the South with the Negro Southern League‘s Atlanta Black Crackers, whose manager, Sammy Haynes, dueled strategically with Barrow across their aggregations’ journeys. The NSL, naturally, was a step below the NNL, but the April 27, 1947, Atlanta Daily World still hyped up an impending double-tilt between the squads in Atlanta, calling the ‘header “the game[s] that Atlanta sports fans have been waiting for” and predicted the event would draw “[t]he largest crowd ever to witness a baseball game in the Gate City …” (Sports pages from bygone days were a little bit hyperbolic.)
But trouble started brewing immediately, or so Hall of Fame Baltimore Afro-American sports columnist Sam Lacy wrote on May 3:
“Report that Wesley Barrow, newly-appointed Baltimore Elite Giant manager, has been fired, was denied this week by the club’s front office.”
In fact, Lacy continued to view Barrow with a jaundiced eye throughout the season; in the May 17, 1947, issue of the Afro-American, the scribe asserted that Barrow “looked decided amateurish when he yanked Second Baseman Junior [Gilliam] from last week’s game against Newark immediately after the young infielder had committed an error afield.”
Lacy, then, must have been positively giddy when the ax eventually did fall on Barrow midway through the season, a development that even a two-game sweep over the storied Homestead Grays in late May couldn’t forestall. The writing might have been on the wall for all parties concerned when Green fined Barrow in early June because players Amos Watson and Butch Davis lollygagged on grounders.
The Aug. 2 edition of the Afro-American broke the news of Barrow’s ousting by calling him the “Elites’ deposed manager” in a cover of the Giants’ 6-5 win over Birmingham. Scales, by then, had been promoted to “acting manager.”
Apparently up until that point, the Elites had been streaky and underperforming as of late, stated the Aug. 23, 1947, Atlanta Daily World:
“The Baltimore Elites who were once showing signs at a real superiority stumbled for a while, fired their manager, Wesley Barrow, shook up the team to get back into the running [in the NNL] and refuse to be counted out.”
It seems that Snow was brought back in to finish the ’47 NNL campaign for Baltimore, or so reported Lacy in January 1948; perhaps needless to say, the Elites hadn’t claimed the 1947 league pennant.
The Taylor brothers
Baltimore’s manager merry-go-round didn’t stop there; in late January of ’48, Candy Jim Taylor, veteran pilot and part of blackball’s royal family, the Taylors, had been hired to bump out Snow. Jim Taylor had just been canned by the Chicago American Giants of the NAL after guiding that team for three years. In a January 1948 article in the Afro-American, Green was quoted as saying, “In any event, you can be sure we will be aiming to strengthen the club.”
So ended arguably the zenith of NOLA legend Wesley Barrow’s career on the national stage. It had been agonizingly brief and, apparently, very volatile from the start. Why Wilson and Green hired Barrow in the first place, then, seems to be something of a mystery, especially because the latter’s stay with the Elites appears to have been destined to fail and was sandwiched between two tenures by Snow as the club’s manager.
But it didn’t phase Barrow, who forged ahead in his managerial career, which lasted practically up until his death on Christmas Eve 1965. It also didn’t dim the love Skipper continued to feel from New Orleans blackball fans and players. He was, and is to this day, still a legend.