I’m working on an article for Acadiana Profile magazine about Napoleonville, La., native Winfield Welch, a longtime Negro League manager who won a couple NNL titles with the Birmingham Black Barons after earning his spikes on the sandlots and ballparks of New Orleans and other Pelican State cities.
As part of my efforts, I interviewed Dr. Layton Revel of the Center for Negro Leagues Baseball Research and one of the preeminent experts on black baseball in the South and Alabama in particular. Dr. Revel offered me intriguing insights into the impact Welch had on African-American baseball.
Welch, Dr. Revel said, was something of an anomaly in blackball; while many of the black managers who had come before Welch — from Sol White on down, with Rube Foster being the blueprint — had been successful players and often player/managers, Welch was the first great African-American skipper who lacked a star-powered playing career. As such, Revel said, Welch sort of broke the mould when it came to finding quality managers in the Negro Leagues.
True, Welch did start his tenure on the diamond as a club and semipro player — what baseball figure of the early 20th century didn’t? — especially in NOLA, he was a marginal player at best who lacked the talent to earn a dependable, everyday place in a lineup or on the field. (I go into Welch’s playing days in N’Awlins a little bit here and here.)
Instead, Dr. Revel stated, Welch’s hardball talent was his acumen for eyeing and developing talent, especially in the South and particularly the deep South:
“The impressive thing about him was that he knew baseball, and he knew brilliant baseball, and he knew how to recognize a ballplayer. He knew how to scout and sign players. When he was putting together his team, he knew what he was looking for, much like Rube Foster.”
Welch also — retread cliché ahead — knew how to get the most out of his team. While his Black Barons teams of the mid-1940s might not have been been studded with superstars, he shaped his lineup into a group of dedicated, committed role players who fit together like a perfect puzzle.
“He knew how to manage a team on the field,” Dr. Revel said. “He found a way to win. He knew the science of baseball.”
Welch was like Foster in another way as well — he became a master at “small ball,” foregoing slugging for game management, speed, aggressiveness and smarts.
And because he possessed such abilities as a locator and groomer of talent, Welch accomplished what no one before him really ever did, said Revel: “He brought championship baseball back to Birmingham. He kind of set the stage for a time of prosperity for the Birmingham Black Barons.”
This is what it boils down to, said Revel:
“He’s probably the best Negro Leagues manager that no one’s ever heard of. Flat out, he was one of the best managers in the Negro Leagues.”
What I hope to show in my Acadiana Profile article is how Welch especially kept a pipeline of talent open from New Orleans to Birmingham and beyond. Welch brought so many great players from the Pelican State to the big time.
In the process, Revel said, Welch deflected the praise and recognition for his teams’ successes from himself onto his players. He was content to stay back and watch his masterful creation shine. Said the doctor: “His players and team got the notoriety, not him.”
Thus, concluded Dr. Revel: “He was a manager first and foremost.”