Wright, Welch and the Black Diamond

Winfield Welch

The last couple weeks have been somewhat chaotic, and my mind has been a bit scattered. I tend to pinball from topic to topic and subject to subject with a general inability to concentrate what mental aptitude I have left after all these years into one coherent direction.

Over the last month or so that handicap has been compounded by a new steady freelancing gig I landed that has taken up a fair amount of time on a weekly basis. I do (hopefully) have larger posts working around in my head, but in this post I wanted to catch y’all up on some of the pursuits I’ve kind of, umm, pursued lately.

The first is Homestead Grays pitcher, Brooklyn Dodgers signee and New Orleans native Johnny Wright. In this earlier post I examined his tenure as the ace of the Great Lakes Naval team’s pitching rotation during WWII.

It was a pretty solid post, except for what I inexplicably missed — that Wright’s military grave marker says he served in the Army, not the Navy. For a supposedly hawkeyed journalist, I’m sometimes not all that perceptive.

Fortunately, a reader, Richard Tourangeau, did notice that discrepancy, and he thankfully emailed me and pointed it out. So I went through some of the newspaper articles I’d pulled up from online archives about Wright during the war, and, lo and behold, I found a story in the Oct. 7, 1944, issue of the Baltimore Afro-American that says Wright was given a leave to pitch for the Homesteaders in a doubleheader against the Black Barons:

But wait … the article states that Johnny was on leave from Fort Huachuca in Arizona! Not only is that not in Great Lakes, Ill., it’s an Army base, not a Navy installation! That somewhat corroborates his grave marker, at least a little.

Naturally I did a little more poking around to see if I could find any more contemporary articles that place Wright in the Army, but I couldn’t find any other than wire service variations of the one above.

However, things got even murkier when I found this wire service article in the July 26, 1945, issue of the Richmond (Ind.) Palladium-Item about the Fort Bennett Naval Field team in Brooklyn, N.Y., edging out the Chicago White Sox in an exhibition. Check out the reported pitcher for the New York sailors:

Yep, that’s our very own John Richard Wright, who suddenly is taking the hill for a Naval squad in upstate New York. Floyd Bennett Field was New York City’s first municipal airport before being converted to a military base.

At this point I have no idea what’s going on, and unfortunately, deadlines prevented me from digging any deeper into this. Doubly unfortunately, all the answers to the mystery of Johnny Wright’s military service trajectory might only be found in his personnel file somewhere, something to which I as a non-family member wouldn’t have easy access.

So, are there any military veterans or other folks reading this who could maybe explain Wright’s nomadic service travels? Would it be unusual for a serviceman whose primary duty was boosting troop and public morale by playing baseball, i.e. would it not be uncommon for a guy to be shifted around from installation to installation and even from service branch to service branch?

Also, obviously, if there’s any Wright descendants out there who would be able to willing to help clear up the hurler’s military career, definitely give a shout.

And because I like to have my head spinning as much as possible, I’ll throw in another quirky article before we leave the take of John Wright — a line or two in a Wendell Smith column from Dec. 1, 1945:

The Pittsburgh Courier column begins by stating:

“Johnny Wright, gangling right-handed pitcher of the Homestead Grays, has emphatically denied that he has signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Now in the Navy, Wright says he’ll stick with the Grays because Owners Posey and Jackson have been so good to him.”

That came just a month or two after Jackie Robinson had been inked by the Bums — and a just a few weeks before Wright did sign a minor league contract with Branch Rickey. As we know now, Wright never made it in organized baseball, the reason(s) for which are still debated to this day.

OK, on to the second find of the last couple weeks for me … In the past, I’ve written several blog posts (such as here and here) and an article about Winfield Welch, a native of tiny Napoleonville, La., who went on to an illustrious semipro and pro career with a slew of New Orleans teams before winning two NAL pennants with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1943-44 and eventually piloting barnstorming teams for promoter Abe Saperstein.

In all my previous research, I was never able to find an obituary or any other death details for Welch, other that he died in Pineville, La., in March 1980. But recently I’ve been trying to catalogue and locate the graves of various Louisiana Negro Leaguers, and I decided to take one more whack at the demise of Winfield Welch.

By coincidence, at the time I was also working on an article about jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden, a NOLA native who helped lay the foundation for the first truly American musical form. Bolden, you see, deteriorated mentally in his later years thanks to prodigious alcohol consumption, resulting in his committal to and ultimately his death in the Central Louisiana State Hospital, a longstanding and still-standing mental asylum located in, of all places, Pineville.

(After his death, Bolden’s body was moved back here to New Orleans, where he was buried in an unmarked grave in potter’s field named Holt Cemetery. The same fate befell another Crescent City native, Negro Leaguer Ducky Davenport, who starred for several NAL and NNL teams and was selected to multiple East-West All-Star rosters. A couple years ago, I looked into tracking down Davenport’s exact resting spot — chronicled by blog posts here and here — but I ultimately wasn’t able to do so, because, as I learned, many graves in Holt aren’t even recorded or charted. Such was also the case with Buddy Bolden; when grass roots volunteers worked to place a marker on Bolden’s resting place, his couldn’t be traced, but the community activists were able to erect a memorial for Bolden in the cemetery. That gives me hope that I can somehow try to honor Ducky Davenport in some way.)

Anyway, once I learned that the state mental asylum — as well as the facility’s own depressingly bleak cemetery — was in Pineville, I worried that Winfield Welch, who died in Pineville, might actually have spent his last years in the asylum and, as a result, was buried in the forlorn graveyard there.

Alas and quite fortunately, I at long last turned up an obituary for Welch in the Alexandria Town Talk from March 4, 1980 (Alexandria and Pineville are both located in Rapides Parish):

The obituary indicates that Welch died on March 2, 1980, in Pilgrim Manor Nursing Home in Pineville — not, happily, in the psychiatric hospital. He was buried Holly Oak Cemetery in Pineville. Note, though, that the paper spelled his name incorrectly — with two Ns instead of one. The misspelling of his name in contemporary media wasn’t unusual; during his career in New Orleans, Welch’s last name was frequently listed as Welsh. It was those various errors that probably made it tough to track down a definitive obit for him.

Now, onward and upward to the third of this post neat item I found recently — the legend of the Black Diamond.

That would be Robert Pipkins, a Mississippi born, NOLA-bred guy who gained substantial regional and some national fame as a pitcher nicknamed the Black Diamond.

And actually, Pipkins has a connection to Winfield Welch — when the latter was hired to pilot the Black Barons, he brought Black Diamond along as part of his pitching rotation. Here’s a pic from the June 24, 1942, issue of the Atlanta Daily World. To be honest, I’d never seen a good picture of him before, so this was a pretty cool find for me:

Following his stint with the Barons, the southpaw stuck with Welch when the latter managed barnstorming clubs like the Cincinnati Crescents in 1946.

Prior to hooking on with the Barons in 1942, Pipkins found fame on the, ahem, diamonds of New Orleans, frequently with teams owned by Fred Caulfield, such as the Caulfield Ads and the Jax Red Sox. Pipkins hurled for other regional teams as well both before and after his tenure in the national spotlight, garnering major coverage and kudos from the Louisiana Weekly, the Crescent City’s African-American newspaper.

As you can tell from his quirky nickname, Pipkins as such became a legendary figure on the New Orleans blackball scene, and during my research I’ve come across dozens of stories about him, but until now I never really had the opportunity to explore his personal life and background.

Thus, I was ecstatic when I found this picture and caption from the Times-Picayune in 1970, in which Pipkins receives an award from the Old Timers Baseball Club, a celebrated group of former NOLA Negro Leaguers who held an annual all-star reunion game and banquet. The caption for the picture states that Pipkins, at the time the oldest living member of the club, received the Old Timer of the Year Award:

The Diamond subsequently lived five more years before passing away in March 1975. Here’s his obit from the Times-Picayune:

The article indicates Pipkins’ involvement with the Old Timers Club as well as the Ninth Ward Grays Baseball Club, of which I’d never heard before. He was buried in Rest Haven Memorial Park, and I’ll hopefully be able to get out there and find his grave marker. There’s a good chance he does, in fact, have a marker, because he served in the Army during WWII and therefore should have had a military funeral.

According to several governmental documents — including his Army enlistment record from August 1942 — Pipkins was born in August 1907, which would have made him 67 at the time of his death.

Also of significance in the obit is the note about Pipkins’ membership in the local Masons and the scheduling of a memorial service by the organization. The note is signed by Worshipful Master Ellis Marsalis, which is quite intriguing because, if it’s the same guy, Ellis Marsalis was the patriarch of the famous Marsalis jazz musicians, including modern-day luminaries like Wynton and Branford.

OK, finally, on to the last item for this blog screed — expanding on my last entry, which examined at the importance of the contemporary African-American media to the coverage, evolution and progression Negro Leagues history and the integration of the national pastime. …

In another coincidence of my work and research, shortly after I penned that aforementioned post, I was assigned to write a story for nola.com about the founding of the Louisiana Weekly newspaper, a task that resulted in my delving into the archives of various academic journals and newspapers in search of information about the history of the publication.

In doing so, I discovered an essay by Doxey A. Wilkerson in the Autumn 1947 issue of The Journal of Negro Education entitled, “The Negro Press.” In addition to exploring the history of black newspapers, Wilkerson lays out how crucial African-American media have been to our nation’s history, but in a much more eloquent, encompassing way than my blog post did. Here are a few excerpts:

“This special-interest character of the Negro press is the key to an understanding of its unique role in the field of American journalism, and to an appreciation of its importance as a publicity medium. It is also a key to the effective use of that medium.

“From their inception more than 120 years ago Negro newspapers have always been fighting publications, militantly championing the freedom and full democratic rights of the Negro people, stimulating and organizing their struggles, and helping to build an increasingly unified Negro people’s liberation movement.”

The article asserts that “the pioneer Negro newspaper” was Freedom’s Journal, launched in New York City in 1827. The essay then states that the Journal, and all ensuing black newspapers, bore two primary purposes:

“… to promote the struggle for Negro democratic rights and to speak to America and the world in the name of the Negro people, constitute the predominating function of the Negro press today.

“It must be understood that Negro Americans are much more than merely one-tenth of the population which happens to have physical characteristics more or less different from those of most Americans. Their centuries of struggle against the slave system, and their continuing struggles since Emancipation against the social, economic and political discriminations which proscribe most all Negroes to an inferior status in the society-have built up common bonds of understanding among them, a sense of unity far more pronounced than in any other large sector of the population, and an organizational life which is in large measure separate from that of other Americans. As a result there has developed, within the general American population, a definite, self-conscious and increasingly organized minority people, fighting with ever increasing militancy and effectiveness towards its historic goals of full democratic freedom and dignity in all areas of our country’s life.”

As one reads through Wilkerson’s article, though, one must keep in mind that the piece was written in 1947, and as a result, should be approached through that contemporary prism, i.e. the politics and economics of the 1940s. He concludes with a look into the future:

“The outlook for the Negro press is the outlook for the Negro people — continued struggle against the hostile forces of bigotry which seek to negate the inherent worth and human dignity of America’s largest minority population. But it is a winning fight. Despite serious and at times protracted setbacks, the Negro people are, in- deed, moving forward toward their historic goal of full democratic rights and security. As always, the Negro press will continue to play a major role in organizing and strengthening this forward movement of the Negro people; and as they progress, so will the American nation progress-and so also will Negro newspapers become ever more effective instruments for the dissemination of news and insights and opinion.”

But here’s Wilkerson’s bottom line in 1947:

“In short, the Negro press is a crusading press which serves the special needs of a militantly struggling people.” [Emphasis his.]

I’m going to wrap things up with a quote from Dan Burley — a talented musician and bandleader, as well New York Amsterdam News editor, sportswriter and entertainment columnist — whom I referenced in this earlier post.

In August 1942, while discussing the risking career of prizefighter Harvey Massey, Burley stressed the importance of black newspapers to African-American athletes, sports and society, while also grinding an axe with what Burley saw as ungrateful readers and athletes:

“The colored newspaper worker … has a legitimate squawk: The Negro who gets breaks through our columns seldom gives credit where it is due. Many times Negro athletes, theatrical folks and others will take anything they can get through the efforts of a Negro newspaperman and then turn right around and give credit to a daily columnist or some other white person who takes over after the Negro benefactor opens the door.”

Such journalistic grousing, of course, is not unique to any particular ethnicity, era or medium; journalists have always grumbled about being unappreciated ignored by their readers and subjects, a trend that most certainly continues to this day.

But is it a fair complaint instead of simply wounded pride? That, again will be discussed and scrutinized in perpetuity. I’ll just note that in an ensuing post, Dan Burley and his influence will be front and center …

 

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