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.
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?
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.