New Orleans and the NNL’s centennial

Wesley Barrow Stadium in New Orleans.

Editor’s note: Last week I had an article about the 100th anniversary on the Negro National League published in the Louisiana Weekly newspaper, for which I usually do hard-news reporting. Below is an enhanced version of the original article here; I needed to keep the original version halfway short and aimed at a general-interest audience, and it turned out well. Anyway, here’s the buffed-up edition, written for this blog.

Every season, Major League Baseball, its teams, its players, its managers and its administrators celebrate and honor the history and legacy of the Negro Leagues, the all-Black baseball community that thrived despite the shadow of Jim Crow in the national pastime.

Over the last few decades, MLB teams have welcomed former Negro League players for on-field ceremonies, and teams have worn throw-back jerseys during games, replicating the uniforms worn by Negro Leaguers.

But this year’s Negro Leagues memorialization, which took place Aug. 16, was different — the special day of celebration marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro National League, the first sustained, successful professional Black baseball circuit.

In 1920, a handful of trailblazers led by the great Andrew “Rube” Foster met at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City to create the NNL. While Black independent baseball teams and figures had existed and flourished for decades leading back to before the Civil War, it was the crystallization of the first NNL that proved to the globe that the world of Black baseball was dedicated, colorful, powerful and potent — at the gate, on the field, in the boardrooms and in the press.

Oscar Charleston

And while Major League Baseball chose Aug. 16 to official mark its 2020 Negro Leagues Day, those within the modern, tight-knit community of scholars, writers, journalists and fans have been celebrating the special anniversary all year long.

Dr. Raymond Doswell, vice-president and curator of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, said honoring the 100th anniversary of the first Negro National League means recognizing the cultural influence and uplift that baseball had in the Black community.

The creation of a stable league structure in 1920 allowed for baseball athletes to be nurtured in the African-American community,” Doswell said. “Imagine baseball history without a Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron. Would these athletes have gone to other sports? The stable leagues made it possible for them to compete at baseball.”

Doswell added:

“Baseball was arguably the prime leisure activity for Americans, and the success of the leagues’ athletes paved the way for integration in the larger society. The Negro Leagues baseball teams were also part of the many businesses that had to thrive to support African Americans during segregation.”

Dr. Leslie Heaphy, an author and member of the Negro Leagues Committee of the Society for American Baseball Research, said the creation and success of the NNL held special importance because it turned baseball into an economic force within the Black community and provided thousands of Black Americans — not just players — with both livelihoods and leisure.

The first league created a professionalism and structure that had not been there before,” Heaphy said. “It had a huge economic impact on the players and all the support industries throughout the country as the teams traveled. The teams and leagues became a huge part of the Black community — something for people to be proud of, role models, helping to grow businesses like hotels, restaurants, providing jobs for ticket takers, players, managers and owners.”

Independent Black baseball teams, like the Cuban Giants, Page Fence Giants, New York Lincoln Giants and Philadelphia Giants, had existed successfully for decades, the NNL and the formation of lasting professional leagues gave rise to the golden ages of legendary Black ball teams like the Homestead Grays, the Kansas City Monarchs, the Chicago American Giants, the Birmingham Black Barons and the Hilldale Club.

And while pre-1920 Black baseball saw the growth of outstanding players — such as Hall of Famers Frank Grant, Pete Hill, Sol White and Martin Dihigo — the formation of the NNL ushered in the golden age of Black superstars and eventual Hall of Famers like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Bullet Rogan, Buck Leonard, Ray Dandridge and Oscar Charleston, who some feel was the greatest player in baseball history — any color, any league, any era.

After 1920, different top-level Black leagues also formed, like the Negro American League, the Eastern Colored League and a second version of the Negro National League. Beginning in the 1930s, the Negro Leagues had their annual extravaganza of stardom, the colorful East-West All-Star Game, which drew tens of thousands of fervid fans to Chicago’s Comiskey Park each year.

And often each Negro League season concluded with a Colored World Series or Negro World Series between the champions of the top two leagues.

And that’s where New Orleans in particular enters the Negro Leagues picture. During the 1948 Negro League World Series — the very last one to be held — one of the games took place right here in Pelican Stadium. The Homestead Grays squared off with the Birmingham Blacks Barons in that curtain call, with the Grays taking the series and the crown.

However, New Orleans had always had a thriving, rich Black baseball tradition, going all the way back to the 1880s and even earlier, with early powerhouses like the New Orleans Pinchbacks. While New Orleans never really broke into the Negro League big time, the city’s unique geography and cultural melange helped foster a rich African-American baseball tradition in the Big Easy. Said Doswell:

Any place that had a large Black population helped to sustain great interest in baseball. Cities like New Orleans were an ‘oasis’ for traveling Black teams throughout the country, offering safe places for them to stay, vibrant congenial culture and fan support for their play.”

Derby Gisclair, president of the New Orleans Schott-Pelican chapter of SABR, agreed.

“New Orleans has a long and rich history of Black baseball dating back to the 19th century,” Gisclair said. “Black citizens of New Orleans took to baseball with the same fervor as their white counterparts, despite the disparity in resources, access and social acceptance.” 

The African-American players knew they were good, too. But the vast majority of them never got a shot in organized baseball to prove it.

“If they had given us the opportunity at a young age, I would have been in the National League or the American League,” former player Brooks English told Bob Fortus of the Times-Picayune in 1983. “We had good boys in New Orleans, and many of them would have been up there. We had it from the heart.”

The goings were, at times, not always easy in the Crescent City Black baseball community. Just like how even the biggest top-level national teams sometimes had to struggle at the gate, often resorting to exhausting barnstorming tours and a packed league and exhibition game schedule that was often jammed with up to eight contests a week, Louisiana’s African-American teams often had to scratch out what success they could.

“Exhibition games and barnstorming tours were well attended and financially successful,” Gisclair said, “but this did not always translate to success for the local Negro League teams trying to carve out a niche in New Orleans.”

Over the decades, New Orleans saw the rise of several independent team owners and promoters, such as Walter Cohen, a powerful political figure who owned teams in the 19th century; and Fred Caulfield, who ran the Caulfield Ads and the Jax Red Sox. Other popular teams over the years included multiple iterations of the New Orleans Black Pelicans, the Algiers Giants, the Crescent Stars, the New Orleans Creoles and New Orleans Eagles.

Famous local baseball individuals also left their indelible marks on New Orleans, such as manager Wesley Barrow, known affectionately city-wide as “Skipper”; and Winfield Welch, who rose from the sandlots of the Big Easy to manage the Birmingham Black Barons to multiple Negro American League titles.

New Orleans Black teams also figured heavily in regional professional circuits, including the Negro Southern League, arguably the greatest of the Negro “minor leagues.” The NSL was, coincidentally, also founded 100 years ago in 1920, and it featured, at various times, the Caulfield Ads and Algiers Giants.

Such teams provided thrills to spare to the city’s African-American population on a regular basis. At the risk of wandering off on an interminable tangent, I was to highlight the 1933 hardball season as an example of the rough-and-tumble Negro League action in the Big Easy.

Because there was a lot of intrigue mixed in with stellar play on the diamond. A lot.

During a season in which several top-tier Negro League clubs — like Cole’s American Giants, the St. Louis Giants and Nashville Elite Giants — stopped in New Orleans for preseason training camp games and/or postseason barnstorming tours, the city’s most powerful Blackball teams were the Crescent Stars and the Algiers Giants, both of who at the time were members of the Negro Southern League.

The scene also was crowded with other formidable teams, like the Metairie Pelicans, New Orleans Black Pelicans and St. Raymond Giants. But the main event all year long was the lengthy series of tilts between the Crescent Stars and Giants.

But the plot, as they say, quickly thickened. Local team owner, mogul and manager Pete Robertson was ousted as the head of the Crescent Stars, a mysterious and controversial development chronicled over four weeks by the Weekly. The coverage, naturally, raised the ire of the Stars’ management, causing a rift between the city’s leading Black newspaper and one of the NSL’s top teams.

Then the mighty Memphis Red Sox, stalwart members of the NSL, found their bus seized, apparently by court order, by the Crescent Stars, who claimed the Tennessee boys had tried to duck out of a tab the Sox ran up in neighborhood establishments while in town.

John Wright

In August, local stars George Sias and Edgar “Iron Claw” Populus, got into a scuffle after a game at Crescent Park in which one of them (it’s not clear which one) pulled a knife, suddenly throwing the squabble into mortal-danger territory. A mini riot erupted before things calmed down with no injuries. It seems the two were both enamored with the same woman.

After that it was announced that Robertson had now assumed control of the Algiers Giants, adding napalm to the fire raging between the Giants and the Crescent Stars.

Controversy at the league level further complicated matters, with the NSL administration having trouble determining a first-half pennant winner. The flag was ultimately given to the Red Sox, while the Crescent Stars used a late-season surge — including the domination of a crucial series with the Nashville Elite Giants — to nab the NSL second-half pennant and earn them a spot in what was billed as a Negro World Series against Cole’s American Giants of the NNL.

(The series wasn’t really a national professional championship, because the NNL was the country’s only “major league” baseball circuit, while the NSL was a step down in competition. That rendered the postseason “championship” season as essentially a series of exhibition games. It was designed as a big money-maker, not championship-taker, for all involved.)

The first game of the showdown series ended with an American Giants win, but in addition, the massive, overflow crowd resulted in the collapse of a set of temporary stands, sending dozens of fans tumbling. The season, unfortunately for New Orleanians, ended with the American Giants cruising to the “world series” title.

But I digress. The 1933 season was a wacky, topsy-turvy example of the colorful world of Black baseball in NOLA — murky intrigue, suspicion, grudges, league controversies, fired managers, team defections, top-tier visiting teams, court cases, knife fights and collapsing stands. Now that is a baseball season.

But anyway … Individual athletes from the New Orleans region thrived locally before graduating to national Negro League stardom: Oliver “Ghost” Marcell, arguably the best defensive third baseman in Black history who also had a terrible temper; outfielders Lloyd “Ducky” Davenport and John Bissant; “Gentleman” Dave Malarcher, a graduate of New Orleans University who eventually managed the Chicago American Giants to multiple NNL crowns; and Johnny Wright, a pitcher who signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers just weeks after Jackie Robinson did the same.

“Much like the deep reservoir of musical talent coming out of New Orleans who had to leave town to find success and acclaim,” Gisclair said, “the best Black baseball players also found success outside of their home turf.”

But undoubtedly the most important figure in New Orleans Black baseball history was owner, promoter and manager Allen Page, who parlayed his lucrative business at the Page Hotel to on several professional teams and become a power player on the country-wide Negro League scene. His influence in the city was reflected by the plaudits he received upon first entering the Big Easy baseball scene by buying the Black Pelicans in June 1932. Stated the Louisiana Weekly:

“At last they landed him. Time and again it has been rumored that Allen Page, successful hotel proprietor and sportsman, would play a major role in local colored baseball. A number of club managers have attempted to have him sign on the dotted line and purchase stock in their organization because of his popularity and general ability, but always the old boy slipped through their fingers like a will-o’-the-wisp. But Monday night Page came out, bought a half-interest in the Black Pelican team and an hour later drove to Texas to secure ball players who are expected to make the Pels plenty hard to beat.”

Page was eventually responsible for scheduling exhibition contests in Pelican Stadium with teams like the Chicago American Giants, the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Kansas City Monarchs. He was often involved in the administration of the NSL, and he created and sponsored the North-South All-Star games, which ran for a decade starting in 1939 and served as a supplement to the East-West All-Star Game.

Wire service writer Haywood Jackson was usually on hand in the Pelican Stadium press box when the North-South battle was enjoined, and he was impressed from the start with the Crescent City’s ability to bring in top-tier Negro Leagues. In October 1940 following the second edition of the all-star kerfuffle, Jackson wrote that “the Dixieland classic concocted by Promoter Allen Page, [the] South’s foremost Negro sports modul, the North-South game this year stamped itself as a fixture in the sports log of the deep South.”

Two years later, in October 1942 after the fourth contest in the series, Jackson gushed:

“Promoter Allen Page, leading race sports promoter of the South, added another laurel to his wreath when he gave local fans the most colorful setting of any sports event staged.”

In 1940, Page reached the pinnacle of success when brought to New Orleans the city’s only entrant in any major-league-level professional baseball league, black or white — the New Orleans-St. Louis Stars of the Negro American League.

It was in this atmosphere that Rodney Page was raised in New Orleans. The son of Allen Page, Rodney, a resident of Austin, Texas, has retired from a career in education and coaching. Not only did Rodney grow up in a household where numerous visiting baseball legends stopped for food and reminiscences — Rodney has particularly fond memories of Hall of Fame shortstop Willie Wells, a close friend of Allen Page — he also played junior baseball under the Skipper, Wesley Barrow.

Wesley Barrow

“Obviously New Orleans played a major role in Negro League baseball,” Rodney said. “It was a community, and for my father, it was a business. I’m honored that my father was so involved in that over the years.

“I’m just thankful my father had an impact,” he added.

Now, 80 years after his father brought New Orleans its only major league team, and 100 years after the creation of the NNL, Rodney Page strives to keep alive the memory of his father, the Big Easy’s Black baseball legends, as well as the overall legacy, brilliance and influence of the Negro Leagues. Rodney said:

“It’s important for people, particularly people of color, to remember [the Negro Leagues]. It’s such a powerful story, the whole journey of the Negro Leagues. So many people have forgotten. We don’t honor our stories enough.”

The Black baseball itself might have died a bittersweet death following integration, including the scene here in New Orleans. But the memory and the spirit of those times, both challenging and thrilling, were kept by the Old Timer’s Baseball Club, a successful organization of former players, managers and administrators from the New Orleans Negro Leagues.

Members of the Old Timers Baseball Club

Founded in 1959 by local hardball legend Walter Wright, the Old Timer’s Club thrived for roughly 30 years in the Big Easy, gaining a membership of several dozen guys who got together to reminisce, remember and relate the tales of their glorious but hard-earned past.

The group even held an annual reunion banquet and alumni game each year, in which two teams of still-spry ex-players took the field at the Pontchartrain Park neighborhood venue now known as Wesley Barrow Stadium. The annual event often drew some big names in baseball history, including eventual National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Willie Foster, one of the best pitchers in the Negro Leagues for two decades. Foster often trekked to New Orleans from Mississippi, where he worked as the Dean of Men at Alcorn State University.

In his coverage of the 1981 edition of the Old Timer’s game, Louisiana Weekly sports editor R.I. Stockard included an interview with Milfred Laurent, a local star in the 1920s and ’30s who spent a few years with top national teams like the Memphis Red Sox and Cleveland Cubs.

“I was born 50 years too soon,” Laurent told Stockard, who reported that about 250 alumni of New Orleans Black baseball attended that year’s banquet.

Laurent was inducted into the New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame that same year. He died at the age of 93 in 1995.

In his 1981 article, Stockard opined:

“To those skillfully talented Blacks of the pre-Jackie Robinson Era we can all say in ethnic unison — we know, not believe, but know that had you, Milfred Laurent and hundreds like you, been given the opportunity that Vida Blue, Joe Morgan, Frank Robinson, Maury Wills, Lou Brock, Dave Winfield, Reggie Jackson and all the others had, the record books of the major leagues would be replete with your names. And if not replacing the names and exploits of the Joe Medwicks, Billy Hermans, Ty Cobbs, Babe Ruths and Joe DiMaggios, surely there next to them.

“It was the social-economic-legal aberrations of the 20s, 30s and 40s that manifests itself [sic] in this denial of a segment to its citizens of equitable and just participation. Baseball was only one such example. And to those who denied the Milfred Laurents their day in the athletic sun — You are the losers and lesser men for it.”

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