This week I trekked westward across the Bonnet Carre Spillway along I-10 to the St. Charles Parish town of LaPlace, La. (population roughly 32,000), where I met with 88-year-old Paul Lewis, one of the few living ex-members of the New Orleans Black Pelicans, and it was a fantastic experience.
When I got to his modest, one-story home just off State Highway 3188, Paul was enjoying a late breakfast — I felt a bit guilty that I arrived a bit early and surprised him a bit.
But when he was finished, he used his walker to get to his comfy easy chair in the front room while I lounged back on a sofa across from him and we had a very nice — and, for me, quite revelatory — chat.
The biggest thing I took away from the experience was the full realization that so many Negro Leaguers of Paul’s era were members of the Greatest Generation whose experience serving in the military was an even bigger source of pride for them than their hardball career. Just like my old, departed friend Herb Simpson of New Orleans — whose most cherished life memento wasn’t anything from his baseball career but a piece of an exploded bomb instead — Paul’s best memories spring from his time wearing the uniform overseas.
The son of Paul Sr. and Dora Lewis, he was born in the town of New Iberia in Iberia Parish but later moved with his family to NOLA. He was living on S. Roman Street and working at the Flintkote Company when he decided to sign up to serve. Paul registered for the draft in ’45 but didn’t become a serviceman until enlisting as an Army private in early 1946 and was assigned to a medical unit in Germany.
Paul eagerly served his country and his fellow servicemen — “I liked so much of the experience of it,” he said — but his favorite aspect of his military service was playing baseball, and some football, for his company and corps while in Germany. His squads faced a slew of competition, including a few teams from the Air Force, with much of the competition coming with and against troops of other ethnicities at a time when the military was gradually being integrated.
“We had some good baseball and football teams,” he said, “and we played against some good teams. We’d be gone every weekend playing somewhere. I love sports and playing sports, and I’m grateful I got to play them. We played against white boys, black boys — anyone in the service, we played against them.”
Baseball, truly, was ever the love of Paul’s life.
“It was everything,” he said with a laugh. “I used to eat baseball, used to sleep baseball. Everywhere I went, I had a baseball with me.”
Paul’s professional baseball career began in 1949, soon after his discharge from the Army, when none other than Wesley Barrow, the greatest manager the Crescent City has ever produced, signed Paul up for the Black Pelicans.
Paul continued with the Black Pels off and on until the early 1960s, when he finally hung up his spikes. In addition to hitting the basepaths for the Pelicans, he also suited up for various NOLA amateur and semi-pro teams, including the Collins Stars, who were also piloted by Barrow for a period.
Paul started his playing days as a catcher, an experience that intimidated him at first.
“I was scared of the ball,” he said. “I closed my eyes. But when that first pitch hit my glove, that was it.”
While Paul could man other positions, he was a second baseman extraordinaire, especially with the leather. Paul definitely was able to put wood on the ball, but it was on defense that he truly shined.
“That’s what I tell people, that I was known for my fielding,” he said. “Anything hit anywhere to the right of second base, I was there. Five feet, 10 feet away, I got that. My glove kept me in the game.”
Paul’s fielding acumen was so acute that he often got the call from various local semi-pro managers who needed a fill-in or sub at the last minute before games. He especially recalls contests in Napoleonville and Bogalusa when managers in a pinch for manpower for pick-up contests and gave him a ring.
Now, although Paul’s pro ball career started after Jackie integrated the Majors, integration was extremely slow in coming everywhere in the South, including New Orleans, so he and his compatriots still dealt with the indignities of Jim Crow. However, when reflecting on his experiences of playing during segregation, Paul kind of shrugs off the question.
“I was like anyone else,” he said. “I could play like anyone else.”
For a while Paul was involved in the Old Timers’ Baseball Club, an organization founded 50-odd years ago by New Orleans blackball mainstay Walter Wright, who for decades served as the spokesman and leading crusader for the city’s legions of proud former Negro Leaguers. Paul even took part in one or two of the club’s All Star games at the former Wesley Barrow Stadium in Pontchartrain Park.
When he wasn’t roaming the infield at the old (and now long-gone) Pelican Stadium at the corner of Tulane and Carrollton in New Orleans, Paul worked as a longshoreman on the river docks and at a roofing company.
These days, Paul is thoroughly enjoying the benefits of retirement; namely, just chilling with his wife of 35-odd years, Ora, in LaPlace. Still lean and lanky but now with graying hair and goatee, Paul has a simple answer when asked what he’s up to lately. “Nothin’,” he says with a grin and a chuckle.
Oh, sure, sometimes he hops on his riding mower to cut the grass, but mostly he settles into his easy chair and watches watching — you guessed it — baseball. Although he doesn’t have a favorite MLB team, it doesn’t stop him from feverishly following the game.
“I look at baseball all day and every night,” he said with a wide grin.
But taking in the game on TV just isn’t the same thing as flashing the leather or cracking the horsehide yourself.
“That’s what I loved,” Paul said, adding, “and I was good.”