JB Spencer Park

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Now that Wesley Barrow has a grave stone and, at last, dignity in death, it’s time to move on to a few other New Orleans Negro Leaguers. Like, for example, Gretna’s own JB Spencer, who played in the Homestead Grays’ infield at the height of their success.

One thing on which I want to focus is the park in Gretna that’s named in his honor, and over the next few days I’ll write more. But before I go, I wanted to post this picture of the refreshment/storage/bathroom building at the park.

As you can see, it’s emblazoned with the logos of several vintage Negro Leagues teams in Spencer’s honor and to help teach the community about the history of African-American baseball.

More to follow … And always, many, many thanks for reading!

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Reflections on a rainy day

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From left to right: Former Black Pelican Paul Lewis, Gretna City Councilman Jackie Berthelot, fellow Councilman Milton Crosby, World Series champ and Zephyrs commentator Ron Swoboda, primary grave marker donor Rodney Page, and sportscaster and UNO staffer Ro Brown.

We started to gather, a few of us, at New Hope Baptist Church Cemetery a little after 1 p.m. Saturday. I sat in the McDonald’s across Lafayette Street from the burial ground — I often do work there during the day, evening and on weekends — and watched as 90-plus-year-old Paul Lewis pulled into the cemetery in his gold-colored truck and started talking with Ro Brown, a mainstay on the local sportscasting scene for many years who now works in the University of New Orleans athletic department.

(Ro, by the way, was sporting a wicked awesome Negro Leagues Baseball Museum jersey. I said wicked awesome because I spent two years in Massachusetts. Some people in the Bay State even call soda “tonic.” Or, more precisely, “taw-nik.”)

I decided that I’d better gather up my things and head across the street to meet them. The skies were already looking ominously dreary and overcast, but then again, that’s the way they had looked all day up until that point Saturday, so maybe, I prayed, the rain will hold off for us.

I had been monitoring the local weather radar for a little while, in fact, and it didn’t look like anything heavy in the way of precipitation was on its way to disrupt the dedication ceremony we had planned for months. After all, NOLA Negro Leagues legend Wesley Barrow, whose brand-new grave marker we were coming together to consecrate and celebrate, deserved to be honored without the devious work of ol’ Jupiter Pluvius, as the old Louisiana Weekly editions used to describe rain.

I crossed Lafayette Street and joined Paul and Ro in the conversation, which involved Mr. Lewis reminiscing about the indelible impact, aka the Skipper, had had on his life. But after a few minutes of chatting, I felt them, sensed them plunking on my arms and face — the first drops of rain.

Maybe, a pondered aloud to my companions, it’ll pass over with just a little downfall of the wet stuff, nothing major. But the wet stuff gradually — slowly but surely — started getting worse and worse, steadier and steadier, harder and harder. This, the thought flashed across my mind, is not good.

Gretna City Councilman Milton Crosby, who had worked with me to plan the whole effort to purchase and dedicate a headstone for Wesley Barrow’s previously unmarked grave — a shameful state in which it had rested since he died on Christmas Eve 1965 — soon arrived, dressed to the nines in an elegant brown suit and his trademark City of Gretna hat, clutching an umbrella.

We all piled into Mr. Lewis’ truck to take shelter from the hardening rain, all in the shared hopes that it would pass without it getting much worse by the time the dedication ceremony officially kicked off as planned at 2 p.m. I had arranged for several representatives of the local media to cover the event, but as the rain became more and more forceful, I had a feeling that few, if any, of those reporters would come for this gradually soaking event.

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By the time City Councilman Jackie Berthelot pulled into the cemetery in his car, the skies had opened up completely, dumping sheets of rain on us mercilessly. We huddled to discuss whether we should continue with the dedication ceremony or postpone it until another day.

“We’re here now,” Councilman Crosby said, a smile on his face. “Let’s get this done.”

We deliberated for a minute or so and decided — let’s do this. A quick prayer, some brief words by those of us in attendance, and call it day — a short but, considering the circumstances in which we suddenly found ourselves, extra meaningful ceremony to honor a great man who influenced thousands of young African Americans over 40 years in America’s pastime.

When Ron Swoboda, a former Major Leaguer who was a crucial member of ’69’s Miracle Mets World Series champion team and now the color commentator for New Orleans Zephyrs broadcasts, showed up in a typically natty polo shirt, khakis and loafers, we all knew — if Ron could take time out of his busy day and show up in a torrential downpour to praise a man he never met, we can go ahead and do this.

By now the rain was coming down in sheets, and massive puddles were congealing on the grass surrounding the cemetery graves. We all splooshed our way toward the Skipper’s burial spot, clutching umbrellas that were constantly under threat of being whisked away by the brutal wind — or at the very least being turned inside out, or outside in, I suppose.

Councilman Berthelot said a brief prayer, and the men who had gathered took turns giving moving testimonials to both Wesley Barrow and the Negro Leagues in general. I had planned on taking notes as people spoke so I could include quotes in these blog posts, but the wind, rain and resulting clutching of an umbrella — which, by the time the ceremony, was bent and twisted beyond usefulness anyway — made note-taking impossible. Thus I’m winging it as I write this.

Rodney Page, son of the great sports promoter, owner and businessman Allen Page, spoke about playing for Wesley, as did Councilman Milton Crosby. Ro Brown, draped in a a rain-splattered and wind-blown blue poncho, clutched his plastic hood as he delivered his thoughts.

As we were gathered, my good friend and WWL TV reporter David Hammer arrived, as he had pledged, to join us for the ceremony, a gesture that meant a great deal to me personally and, I know, to the rest of those at the event.

But by far the most impressive, and, even more, the most moving dedication came from nonagenarian Paul Lewis, who played under Wesley Barrow on the New Orleans Black Pelicans.

Mr. Lewis, donning a World War II veteran cap on his head and a determined look on his face, sloshed through the puddles and spots of mud with his walker and umbrella to get to Wesley’s grave and pay his verbal and spiritual respects to a man who indelibly shaped his character and his future. When he spoke, his voice was craggy but firm, quiet but forceful. Wesley Barrow, Mr. Lewis said, was, quite simply, the greatest mentor he had ever known. Teaching was the most important duty for the managerial legend. What more needed to be said?

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We wrapped up the ceremony, loaded into our cars and went our separate ways. A quartet of us — David Hammer, Ro Brown, Rodney Page and I — departed, crossed the street and clustered at a table in McDonald’s so Rodney could show us the goldmine of vintage photos and articles of his father in his scrapbook. We joshed, we laughed heartily, we dried out as we sipped sodas and leafed through Rodney’s book.

After about an hour, we said our goodbyes, shared hearty handshakes and hugs, and went our separate ways. How the other three reflected on their experience that afternoon, I’m not sure. But I went home, shed my wet attire, fired off a quick blog post, jumped in the shower and headed to Zephyr Field for the Z’s 5-0 domination of the Nashville Sounds in the opening game of their eight-game homestand.

I’m back at Zephyr Field now, end of the second, Zephyrs up 2-0. It still hasn’t really hit me, exactly what that hardy group of us accomplished yesterday. Maybe I’ll never fully understand or comprehend it. Maybe I’m not really supposed to. How do you grasp the magnitude of the impact a man like Wesley Barrow had on a whole city, even parts of the entire country?

Well, enough philosophizin’ for now. All I have left to say is that if you’re ever in the N’Awlins area, perhaps driving down the Westbank Expressway and pass New Hope Baptist Church Cemetery, pull into the graveyard, find Wesley Barrow’s grave — the new marker has two crossed bats and a ball in between — and say hi to a New Orleans legend. He’ll appreciate it, and so will we.

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The official line, lol …

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Here’s text the official press release on the ceremony I just sent out. More hopefully tomorrow …

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Ryan Whirty
690-6551

Small group braves torrential rain to honor NOLA Negro Leagues legend

GRETNA — A small but hardy group of City of Gretna officials, former players and media members Saturday afternoon huddled around the freshly painted grave New Orleans Negro Leagues legend Wesley Barrow at New Hope Baptist Church Cemetery in Gretna to honor a man who managed, mentored and influenced hundreds, if not thousands, of New Orleans-area youth.

Clutching wind-blown umbrellas and standing in puddles, the group held a brief ceremony dedicating a new grave marker for Barrow’s burial spot, which had been unmarked for nearly half a century, since the man known as “the Skipper” died on Christmas Eve in 1965.

A community effort led by Gretna City Councilman Milton Crosby, who played for Barrow on the Black Pelicans, and local journalist and researcher Ryan Whirty strove to raise money to purchase and place the new marker at Barrow’s grave. Both were in attendance at the event Saturday.

Also attending the ceremony was Rodney Page, the son of former Negro Leagues promoter and owner Allen Page. Rodney Page donated several hundred dollars toward purchasing the burial marker, and at the event Saturday he spoke of his own memories of playing for Barrow as a youth.

One of Page’s favorite stories came when, as a teen, Page threw out a player at home on the fly from the outfield. As Page retold at the ceremony, he had been proud of what he thought was a stellar play. However, Barrow chastised the young Page by barking, “Little Page! Hit the cutoff man!”

Another attendee at Saturday’s ceremony was another ex-Black Pelican who played under Barrow, nonagenarian Paul Lewis of LaPlace, who told the group that for Barrow, the most important trait of managing was being a good mentor and role model, lessons Lewis said he took to heart.

Also among the group gathered Saturday was former Major Leaguer and World Series champion Ron Swoboda, who now works as the New Orleans Zephyrs’ color commentator. Swoboda spoke of his encounters with former Negro Leaguers and how important the all-black teams and leagues were prior to and just after the advent of integration begun by Jackie Robinson. After leaving the cemetery, Swoboda hustled to Zephyr Stadium to work Saturday night’s Zephyrs game.

Finally, longtime sportscaster Ro Brown, who now works in the athletic department at UNO, also spoke of Barrow’s importance to the NOLA community and the impact he and other Negro League figures had on so many youth in the New Orleans area.

The ceremony Saturday was begun with a prayer by Gretna City Councilman Jackie Berthelot and lasted about 30 minutes.

Attached to this email are photos from the ceremony, as well as a picture of the grave marker itself.

 

Impeccable timing

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I refer, of course, to the weather at the Wesley Barrow grave marker dedication, which is shown above. From the plethora of umbrellas, you can probably guess that it rained.

Not just rained, though. Torrential downpour, just as we started to gather. But we, we of hardy soul and soaked clothes, decided to go for it anyway. There were about 10 of us, and we stuck it out and dedicated Wesley Barrow’s grave marker.

I’m writing on my phone now, so I’ll try to write more as soon as I can. Here’s another photo:

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Why HBCU baseball history matters

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Southern University baseball coach Roger Cador (photo courtesy SU Athletic Department)

Roger Cador has been coaching baseball at Southern University in Baton Rouge, and in that time, he’s seen the importance of America’s pastime at HBCUs like SU gradually decline despite a rich history that stretches back a century or more.

And as the drop-off in interest has taken place, so has the desire among researchers and the public to document and preserve that history. That, Cador says, is unfortunate.

“It’s a story that’s extremely important for the making of the history of American baseball,” Cador says.

He says it’s crucial to remember the sociopolitical conditions in which many HBCU baseball programs developed in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The crucible of segregation and prejudice that existed during Jim Crow shaded everything about the black educational experience. That includes athletics, even into the mid-20th century.

“This happened at a time when baseball was king,” Cador says. “It was played in the deep South and at its height in the 1950s, in the 1960s, in the 1970s. We had a different country then, when people of color were denied social justice.”

Despite this, HBCUs have managed to produce numerous Major League players, led by Hall of Fame base swiper Lou Brock, whose tenure at none other than Southern proved to be a very fruitful experience that helped him blossomed into an elite player.

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The great Lou Brock

Cador also pointed to two-time MLB All Star and 1969 World Series champion Tommie Agee, who attended Grambling, as another example of a top-level star to come from an HBCU. Agee was joined on ’69’s Miracle Mets by Alabama A&M product and childhood friend Cleon Jones, who batted a quite respectable .281 over an MLB career that lasted from 1963 to 1976.

“There were several guys who played in the big leagues at some point,” Cador says. “That says a lot about how important [HBCU baseball] was. There were a lot of great people that played baseball and were important to baseball.”

But the fertile history of HBCU hardball stretches back decades before that; for example, one of my favorite Negro Leagues players, and one of my favorite topics to write about, Gentleman Dave Malarcher, was a graduate, in the 1910s, of New Orleans University (now Dillard), where he led the varsity squad to an undefeated record over three seasons.

But, somewhat ironically, it was the integration of baseball that slowly crippled HBCU ball, much like it did the professional Negro Leagues. That dynamic was triggered in the South right here in New Orleans, when, in 1966, Tulane’s Stephen Martin became the first varsity athlete to compete in any SEC sport. (That was Tulane’s last year in the SEC.)

With the desegregation of college baseball, Cador says, HBCUs had a hard time competing for the attention of both young African-American players as well as African-American coaches, a phenomenon that sucked much of the lifeblood from HBCU programs, a complex development that continues today.

Cador goes so far as to say that major universities hoodwinked parents of African-American prospects into believing that HBCU baseball no longer mattered as a way to lure the youth to their own teams.

“Right now, with the height of baseball at the Division I level, it’s difficult for HBCUs to get coverage,” Cador says. “Everything is so big.”

That trend has been coupled a general decrease in interest in baseball among black youth, who now prefer to play football and basketball over the American pastime despite the rich, historical importance and influence African-American baseball.

But every once in a while, a few HBCU programs manage to return to the national spotlight, like Cador’s Southern Jaguars did in the early 2000s, when they toppled top-level teams like LSU and Southern Miss and had 24 players drafted by professional organizations.

Cador’s 2015 squad is currently a streaky 14-18.

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(Photo courtesy SU Athletic Department)

Such resurgences prove that HBCU baseball can be poised to make a major comeback on the national scene, even right now, Cador says.

“We are in a good situation where we can try to get the good players back,” he says. “We have the right things we need to attract them.”

In the meantime, it’s up to historians and researchers, as well as coaches and officials at HBCUs, to strive to preserve the legacy of baseball at historically black colleges and universities.

“[Many historians] don’t know the history,” Cador says. “I know the history.”

‘We were there until the summer’

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This is kind of a follow-up to my post from last week about Wesley Barrow, Sam Allen and the Raleigh Tigers. Actually, this post here will focus more on Allen and his experiences with the 1958 Tigers, because at least one of them is a doozy.

Allen, a Norfolk, Va., native, joined the ’58 Tiger lineup at an interesting time. He was coming off his best season, 1957, when he led the Negro American League in runs scored and was among the circuit’s leaders in hits.

Meanwhile, the Tigers were a year away from finally making the Negro Leagues big time — after years mostly as a semipro team, the Raleigh club would become full-fledged members of the NAL in 1959.

So the ’58 campaign kind of fell in between a huge season for Allen and a huge season for the Tigers. It was also at a time when the Tigers’ longtime owner, Arthur Dove, was struggling to keep the franchise afloat financially. According to statements by his grandson, Arthur Dove III, even though Dove Sr. derived the majority of his income from his massively successful string of music juke joints in NC, Dove’s true passion, and the one who followed most closely, was the baseball team.

But after I talked with Sam Allen, it seems like Arthur Dove had a funny way of showing that devotion, because Allen told me that Dove was, essentially, a skinflint, one who scrimped on everything from salaries to travel arrangements.

“I didn’t think too much of him as an owner,” Allen says. “He was real cheap.”

To wit … At one point during the 1958 season, things almost literally fell apart for the Tigers as a team when their bus broke down on a northward barnstorming trip. While Allen says the squad usually played contests in NC, like around the Raleigh-Durham area or at Camp Lejeune Marine base in Jacksonville, N.C. (although the Tigers did also square off against the mighty Birmingham Black Barons once or twice), on this instance the aggregation headed up to West Virginia for a spell.

They did that only to have the bus crap out in Welch, W. Va., stranding the team indefinitely. While the players did manage to secure enough cars for a trip to Chattanooga, Tenn., for a game, that was about it. The Tigers were stuck in tiny Welch, which had a population of about 5,300 at the time and that, today, is just over 13 percent African-American.

And what did Arthur Dove do? Nothing. He didn’t spend a dime to help his players get back to the Tar Heel State. He just left them there to fend for themselves, depending on their own resources and the generosity of others.

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Allen says a local hotel took pity on them and gave them rooms and three squares a day, fortunately.

“We stayed up there for a couple weeks,” Allen says. “I got on a telephone and called my mother to ask if she could send me $100. She said, ‘Boy, you must be crazy.’

“[Dove] left the whole team in West Virginia,” he adds. “We were there until the summer.”

So Allen had to resort to hitch-hiking back to Raleigh with a teammate. When he got there, he said, “Forget this,” and gave up on the Tigers, largely because of Dove’s tight yank on the purse strings, and bailed as soon as he could despite his earlier plans to stay with Raleigh in ’59.

Well, actually, he did start the 1959 season in Raleigh, but as soon as the Memphis Red Sox came through town for an early exhibition match-up, Allen hooked on with them and left Raleigh in the rearview mirror.

The 1959 campaign proved to be the end of Allen’s pro hardball career — in 1960 he was drafted into the Army, and although he played military ball while in the service, his days as a paid athlete were pretty much over.

So, nearly six decades later, what are his memories of his time in Raleigh with the Tigers? Surprisingly, not so bad, considering the issues he had with the franchise’s head honcho:

“Raleigh was a pretty good baseball town. We had the Raleigh Tigers on one side, the Raleigh Capitals on the other side. We weren’t that bad a team. But with us, we really didn’t have [togetherness] when we played other teams. But for the sport of baseball, we got along pretty good.”

I should make quick note here that I haven’t had a chance to speak with any of Arthur Dove’s relatives, and I’m sure they might tell a different story about the Tigers’ owner. But Sam Allen’s story has been corroborated on the record — in interviews with the Center for Negro League Baseball Research, multiple ex-Tigers discussed the dire financial straits.

One was Ernest Fann, who played for the team as a youngster in 1962 before heading into the minors of organized baseball. He told CNLBR:

“Blue Moon [John Odom] and I played with Arthur Dove’s Raleigh Tigers baseball team. We didn’t really know much about Negro League baseball, all we knew as that we loved playing ball. Neither of us got a regular salary, but we did get meal money. I think we got about $ 5 a day, but I could be wrong.”

But the testimony of Lakeland, Fla., native Oscar L. Walker is even harsher:

“In 1960 I signed to play with the Raleigh Tigers of the Negro American League. My contract called for me to get $ 350.00 a month and it was even notarized. But all I ever got from Arthur Dove was meal money. I rode with Mr. Dove in his big Cadillac, while all the other players rode on the team bus. Mr. Dove was always talking about selling me to the Big Leagues. They told me the Pirates and White Sox were interested, but I never knew what was going on. To tell you the truth, I felt like a slave. I wasn’t receiving any money and all they could talk about was selling me. After two years of riding with Mr. Dove all over the country, I quit and came on home to Lakeland.”

Wow. I’d say that well, life in the Negro Leagues was often tough all over, but Walker’s tale is especially disquieting. Again, maybe the Dove family would tell a different story. I will try to get into contact with them soon.

And maybe the Tigers, circa 1960, were just suffering through the pangs of their death throes, like the rest of the dying institution known as blackball.

The week ahead …

This week might be a slim one until later in the week, maybe Thursday and Friday. I’m getting ready for the big Wesley Barrow marker ceremony this coming Saturday, plus I’m really plugging away on a project for Jewish American Heritage Month, which is in May. I’m also in the midst of gathering some other pitches together for other publications, so this week will be stuffed.

However, having said that, I’m going to try to get stuff posted as much as I can. I’ll do my best to keep things updated. Have a good week, everybody, and, as usual, many thanks again for reading and coming back!