It apparently took his death for the City of Gretna to finally acknowledge Negro Leaguer and Gretna native J.B. Spencer‘s contributions to both the history of baseball and the city community.
Spencer, an infielder whose career included a stint with the Homestead Grays during their prime in the 1940s, died in May 2003. Two months later, the city renamed the park on Fried Street J.B. Spencer Park in a move that was long, long overdue.
Not only did Spencer play in the golden age of the Negro Leagues, but after retiring from baseball he worked for the city of Gretna’s recreation department for three decades, including a tenure as park supervisor.
According to a 2003 New Orleans Times-Picayune article covering the park name change, the move was recommended by City Councilman Jonathan Bolar. At the time, the paper quoted Mayor Ronnie Harris about Spencer: “His memory will live on in a park he truly loved.”
That kinda gives you the warm and fuzzies, but you have to keep in mind that both the T-P and the city of Gretna virtually ignored Spencer’s contributions to baseball and community history right up until his death.
And there’s another factor here: unlike Gretna’s sprawling Mel Ott Park (named, of course, after the New York Giants Hall of Famer, whole was also a Gretna native), Spencer Park has always struggled to be kept up and maintained. That could be due to the notion that it’s located in a majority African-American neighborhood and serves mostly black kids and youth baseball leagues from that area.
It wasn’t until 2012 that upgrades to the park were adopted. The City Council approval of those upgrades in November 2012 was covered by the New Orleans Advocate, which noted that the funding would go toward refurbishing the lighting systems at the park, which was damaged during Katrina.
The project went ahead after the city clinched several hundred thousand collars in Community Development Block Grants and FEMA funding. Prior to that, the paper noted, the Gretna administration never had the money to fund such upgrades.
Leading the charge for the project was Councilman Milton Crosby, who recently also helped get a grave marker placed at the burial spot of local Negro Leagues managerial great Wesley Barrow.
“I don’t know if it was a priority until I started pushing it,” the Advocate quoted Crosby as saying. “I’m trying to look out for my community area. … We need recreation. People in the community are always asking me.”
Will Spencer Park continue to receive the upkeep it needs and deserves? We’ll have to see. But as you can tell from the picture above, you can’t even really make out an actual diamond at the park’s primary ball field. That doesn’t seem good …