Wesley Barrow and NOLA integration

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As a follow-up to yesterday’s post about the Wesley Barrow marker finally being erected at New Hope Baptist Church Cemetery, I wanted to use that, as well as a conversation with one of the Skipper’s former players, as a jumping-off point for an historical glance at baseball integration in New Orleans and Wesley Barrow’s role in it …

Last week I talked on the phone with Mr. Gerald Sazon, who played on Barrow’s Black Pelicans for roughly five seasons in the late 1940s into the ’50s. Like another local former Negro Leaguer, Paul Lewis, Mr. Sazon was introduced to me by Ro Brown, a former local sportscaster and current administrator at UNO.

And like Mr. Lewis, Mr. Sazon holds Wesley Barrow as a mentor of the highest regard.

“That was something back in the day, especially playing for Wesley Barrow,” Sazon says. “I was 14 years old playing with these guys twice my age, you know. It was a learning process for me at the time.”

Sazon says Wesley Barrow was able to teach him a great deal about the national pastime despite the fact that life as a semipro Negro Leagues manager was, to say the least, a challenge.

“He knew the game,” Sazon says, “but it’s sometimes hard to manage somebody on the same level as you are. But we can all get together to play a game, and all in all they respected him. But [every player] had their own opinions. We certainly had some characters.”

Sazon says the Black Pels played five or six games a week, especially Sunday contests. On the road, the Black Pels often had to double up in a single bed in hotel rooms to cut costs:

“We would go out to different towns all over Louisiana and Mississippi. People would follow us and come out to see us play. People looked forward to us playing.

“We had Diamond Pipkins, Bob Bissant, Speedball Johnny, guys who really made a mark in baseball, even Herb Simpson. You had guys who played in the Cuban Leagues, or in Canada. Me being just a young kid, seeing the reactions of [Barrow] to all of these guys [was impressive]. It was all good.”

In particular, Sazon recalls being part of an historic, landmark contest. It was July 31, 1954, and the Black Pels squared off against the Keesler Tarpons, a squad from the Keesler Air base in Biloxi, Miss.

The Tarpons were an all-white club except for their ace pitcher, former Kansas City Monarch Al Cartmill, and Sazon recalls that the clash was the first game between a white team and a black team at Pelican Stadium, the home of the Southern Association’s New Orleans Pelicans, who never integrated, even up to their folding (along with the whole SA), in 1960.

So the contest was a big deal.

“We were the first black team to play a white team in the old Pelican Stadium,” Sazon says. “We lost by a run, but it was just a stirring thing.”

Coincidentally, at the same time, in the July 31, 1954, issue of the Louisiana Weekly, the city’s African-American paper, sports columnist Jim Hall reported on two seemingly significant developments along the same lines:

“New Orleans’ City Park will lift its Jim Crow on ’55 … The N.O. Pelicans will hire their first tan player late in the winter.”

Peculiarly, though, Hall had such seemingly big news buried at the very end of his column. (As both a postlude and a prologue, the white Pelicans did indeed sign a bunch of black players for the ’55, but the team cut or otherwise shed them all before Opening Day. I’ll try to have more on that later.)

Anyway, while the Keesler-Black Pels contest of 1954 was a crucial moment in the integration of hardball in New Orleans, more than a year before there was very nearly a preceding interracial contest when, in mid-spring 1953, a contest between the famed religious barnstorming team, the House of David, and the Pittsburgh Crawfords (who were related to the great Craws teams on the mid-1930s pretty much in name only) was carded by legendary NOLA promoter Allen Page. Stated the Louisiana Weekly:

“The game will mark the first time an all-white team will play here against an all-Negro club in professional diamond circles.

“To borrow a much-used slogan, ‘For a treat instead of a treatment,’ turn out to Pelican Stadium Friday night; the game should be worth more than the price of admission.”

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But the game never happened; nary a pitch was thrown. In the Weekly’s May 16, 1953, issue, Jim Hall explained what happened to nix what would have been a momentous occasion — the teams were slated to play an earlier game against each other in Baton Rouge, but, Hall wrote:

” … the Crawfords called off their Southern tour and returned to Pittsburgh, claiming they were losing money of the Dixie trip, while a number of the House of David players had ‘jumped’ the club and returned to their respective homes. …”

But there’s more … in June 1954 — a month before the Black Pels-Keesler contest — the African-American squad was scheduled to play the Navy Braves Algiers aggregation, an all-white team, in a two-game stint at Pelican Stadium. Stated the Weekly:

“For these encounters with the Braves, Manager Wesley Barrow is expected to field his strongest lineup of the season.”

(That lineup, btw, included Milton Crosby, who is now the Gretna city councilman with whom I’ve been working on the Barrow marker!)

Then, finally, there’s an interesting case that took place in late summer 1955, just more than a year after the game that Sazon described with Keesler. I’m let the Aug. 27, 1955, Louisiana Weekly say it:

“Thousands of New Orleanians, both white and Negro, are expected to turn out … for the city’s benefit interracial baseball game sponsored for charity by Dr. David Heiman, friend of charity and philanthropist in the Crescent City, at Pelican Stadium.

“The game will be played under lights between the Heiman Stars, Negro nine of New Orleans, and the Ponchatoula Athletics, white.

“Funds from the game will be given to sick and underprivileged children, Leland College … and to Union Baptist Theological Seminary.”

Another Weekly article also pumped the clash up:

“The Heiman Stars, defending city champions from 1951 to 1955, and the Ponchatoula Athletics, white, will clash in an interracial benefit game at Pelican Stadium …

“The local team has won some 150 games and lost 27from 1951 to 1955, while the Athletics, leading Sugar Belt Leaguers, have won 276 games and lost 74 during the past seven years. …”

So although the New Orleans Pelicans — the city’s top white minor-league team for decades — never integrated at all, they were willing to let their stadium be used for more open-minded, and open-hearted, baseball men and women of the region.

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And Wesley Barrow, along with his players, including Gerald Sazon, were often along for the ride. All this makes clear that the N.O. Black Pelicans were much more instrumental than their lily-white counterparts in the progressive racial movements that took place here in the Big Easy. Credit most certainly also must be given to white organizations like the Keesler Air base team and the Ponchatoula Athletics for helping to bring this city forward.

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