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Winfield Welch

The Best Manager in the now-defunct Negro Leagues hailed from Napoleonville

           The headline is unequivocal in its assertion. The Sept. 16, 1944, issue of the New York Amsterdam News, one of the country’s leading African-American newspapers of the time, makes no bones about it.

            “Baseball’s Top Pilot Is Winfield Scott Welch,” blares the headline.

            And why shouldn’t the black media have made that conclusion? Welch, who lived and breathed the national pastime, had just guided the Birmingham Black Barons — a squad with no superstars or future Hall of Famers — to their second Negro American League pennant using guile, strategy and a knack for getting the most out of his players.

            In the days before the integration of America’s sport, when the country’s African-American baseball talent was forced to form their own teams and leagues if they wanted to pursue the game they loved, Winfield Welch was on top of the world, a so-called player’s manager, one who endeared himself to all his hardball charges.

            “Many go so far as to say Welch is the greatest manager Negro baseball has ever produced,” the Amsterdam News article boldly claims, “and they may not be far wrong. One look at the brilliant ball club he has fashioned, the way it hustles and plays heads-up ball at all times backs up an assertion of that kind. ... [I]t’s a team that plays its head off for Welch. Every man on his squad idolizes him; they’d sooner lose an arm or leg than let him down.”

            Winfield Scott Welch, so named after a famed Army general, was birthed in tiny Napoleonville, the product of a bayou country village of less than 1,000 in the middle of Assumption Parish, a small-town boy who scrapped and clawed his way to big-time baseball manhood.

            It was indeed Welch’s sway that drew people to Birmingham’s Rickwood Park for Black Barons games and his managerial acumen that made those Barons the legendary aggregations they were.

            “The Black Barons of the early-to-mid 1940s, under the leadership of Welch,” says Friends of Rickwood Park president David Brewer, “produced many local heroes and top-rate ballplayers. The two Negro American League championships under Welch’s tenure certainly add to the BBB’s iconic stature.”

            But despite all his success as a top-flight hardball pilot, the legend of Napoleonville native Winfield Welch still flies under history’s radar. Says Dr. Layton Revel, founder of the Center for Negro League Research and perhaps the preeminent expert on black baseball in the South: “He’s probably the best Negro Leagues manager that no one’s ever heard of. Flat out, he was one of the best managers in the Negro Leagues.”

            Napoleonville — a sugar-production center that was named, as one might guess, after the immortal French leader and currently serves as the parish seat — has seen its share of racial conflict and even violence over the years.

            But the hamlet, with a population that has, over the decades, dwindled to about 660, the African-American community in Napoleonville — which currently comprises about 70 percent of the city’s population — developed a social network and culture, one that included a plethora of baseball to play. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the village sported numerous black amateur, sandlot and semipro hardball teams, including the Giants, Black Rappers, Black Cats, Stars and, perhaps most significantly, the All-Stars.

            So given the tiny town’s proclivity and fondness for good baseball, it’s probably not a surprise that Winfield Scott Welch took to the sport easily, especially in a community from which Welch sprang.

            Welch was born shortly before the turn of the 20th century — his September 1918 draft card lists him as 19 years old — to Andrew and Louisa Welsh. By the end of the 1910s, Winfield had made the move from the bayou to the big city of New Orleans, where he worked as a Pullman porter and suited up and donned spikes for a series of local teams — the Caulfield Ads, New Orleans Crescent Stars the semipro Algiers Giants and the New Orleans Black Pelicans, to name a few.

            It was Welch’s tactical canniness, his acumen at developing talent and, surprisingly, his knack for finding good fortune, which earned him the nickname “Lucky” in the local black press.

            Welch’s big chance arrived in 1930, when he was tabbed player-manager of the Black Pels after previously serving as captain of the club. The Napoleonville native immediately exerted his trademark mix of a firm hand and a soft managerial touch to right a Black Pels ship that was floundering in the Texas-Louisiana Negro League. He proved unafraid to make bold personnel moves, dumping non-productive players and shifting around his lineup.

            He also didn’t shy away from controversy. During the middle of the ’30 campaign, the Pels experienced, shall we say, a colorful incident that further reflected Welch’s managerial boldness and fearlessness. In July, the Pelicans ventured to Bogalusa to clash with “Slim” Moore’s Kelly Tigers to compete for what the Louisiana Weekly billed as the “colored baseball championship of the state.”

            The Pelicans swept the trio of contests, but the series was marked by the alleged intervention of a white Bogalusan cop who hassled Welch and his team. After a reported head-butt by Welch and racial epithets and threats of violence by the officer, Welch departed Bogalusa with bitterness toward the burg.

            “We will be experiencing zero weather in July and August before I take a baseball team or any other aggregation to play against one representing Bogalusa in that town again,” the Aug. 2 Louisiana Weekly quoted Welch as saying.

            “Bogalusa’s no place for our people, and I’ve played my last game there. I don’t see how as brilliant a ball player as [Bogalusa’s] ‘Slim’ Moore and those other city boys can put up with that bunch.”

            Welch’s managerial career soon took off like a moon shot into the upper deck. In 1931, he gathered up what was left of the Black Pelicans and transformed them into his own barnstorming aggregation named Welsh’s Travelers.

            The Louisiana Weekly contended that “Welsh’s Travelers [were] continuing their brilliant playing,” thanks partially to the influx of “five college men from various Southern institutions. They play fast baseball and when couple with the older heads … form a formidable nine.”

            In 1932, the skipper ventured from NOLA and took over the reins of the Shreveport Black Sports, then hopped around from city to city, ever on the lookout for an opportunity to climb the managerial ladder. He jumped to the Alexandria Lincoln Giants for a spell, and the shift appears to have been a significant one in terms of the respect Welch was quickly collecting in the regional baseball community. That cache prompted the city to build a new ballpark to welcome Welch.

            “Having a swanky park they saw the need to a big time ball team and went out and secured one,” the Atlanta Daily World penned. “Winfield ‘Lucky’ Welsh, recognized as one of the brainiest men in baseball in these parts, was selected to manage the nine and under his wing the team is given credit for winning 25 of the 30 games played against the most powerful clubs in this sector.”

            Welch spent his off-seasons as a bellman in Shreveport, but in 1933 he returned to his old Big Easy stomping grounds. Stated the July 1, 1933, Louisiana Weekly:

            “Coming right along with the changes in the managerial lines are the Algiers Giants who have announced that Winfield ‘Lucky’ Welch, just about the most popular player to ever emerge from this neck ‘o’ the woods, is the new pilot of that ball club.”

            It was during this term with Algiers that Welch’s name began to circulate on a national scale, thanks partially to a stunning four-game sweep of the Detroit Stars of the Negro National League. Napoleonville’s own Winfield Scott Welch was now on the national map.

            That evolution was never more evident than in December 1939, when Welch was invited to the big show — a meeting of the Negro American League in Chicago, where the kid from Napoleonville displayed his ambitiousness by unveiling a new enterprise that was met with approval by the NAL’s team owners: baseball schools in New Orleans, Shreveport and Alexandria designed to groom young hardball talent from the deep South and prepare players for the move up to the big time of the NAL.

            From there, Welch’s rise to the heights of the Negro League world when he was tapped to lead the Black Barons and swiftly built them into the best team south of the Mason-Dixon line, a feat he accomplished partially by maintaining a pipeline of talent between the Alabama city and New Orleans, bringing in a slew of players from his home state to stock the Barons roster.

            In 1942 Welch was chosen to helm the West team in that year’s version of the East-West All-Star Game, blackball’s premier showcase of its elite talent. And 1943 brought Welch and his Barons the ultimate prize — the championship of the Negro American League.

            The following season offered a near-carbon copy of the ’43 campaign, including a season-opening series in New Orleans against the New York Cubans. Louisiana embraced its home-state hero and celebrated Welch’s ability to lead baseball teams that worked hard, jelled together and provided the type of on-field flair that was so crucial to success in the segregation-era black baseball world. Stated the April 15, 1944, Louisiana Weekly:

            “Pilot Welch has a squad that that promises to at least equal last year’s in class, hustle and showmanship. The 1943 Black Barons were great favorites everywhere, mainly because they always kept bearing down.”

            In July 1944, Big Easy fans feted Welch at NOLA’s Pelican Stadium with an honorary ceremony before a tilt with the legendary Kansas City Monarchs. Welch also became a hero in his new adopted hometown in Alabama; at the end of his first season with the Barons, 4,500 fans turned out for “Winfield Welch Day” at Rickwood Park.

            The Birmingham community’s adoration for the bayou-bred lad continued unabated, especially during the Barons’ title years of 1943 and ’44. Stated a July 1943 wire service story about the Southern steel city:

            “The good folk here think Pilot Welch is just about the greatest manager of modern times in Race baseball,” added the article, “and a lot of baseball men are beginning to feel the same way. ...

            “No manager in Race baseball has developed as much star material as he has. The current Black Barons’ personnel is virtually the creation on his own efforts. ...”

            Looking back today through the prism of history, modern Negro League scholars and baseball enthusiasts just as giddily describe what Winfield Welch was able to accomplish in the horsehide world. Says scholar Revel: “He brought championship baseball back to Birmingham. He kind of set the stage for a time of prosperity for the Birmingham Black Barons.”

            Welch continued to spread his influence in the blackball world. Even the sudden, unexpected — and, still to this day, mysterious — parting of ways from the Birmingham franchise in early 1946 couldn’t cut into the demand for Welch’s services.

            Welch, the Philadelphia Tribune stated, accumulated such respect by furnishing Birmingham with “a brand of ball that stamped the club one of the greatest of all time in Negro circles. ... Welch is responsible, too, for the development of of many of the greatest stars in baseball.”

            The rest of 1946 saw Welch managing the Cincinnati Crescents barnstorming team, one of sports promoter Abe Saperstein’s creations. In the fall of ’46, Saperstein tapped Welch to pilot an all-star black team that subsequently undertook a successful tour of Hawaii.

            In 1948, Welch took control of the New York Cubans, then skipped to the Chicago American Giants a year later. After a year’s absence from the Windy City, Welch proceeded to actual buy the American Giants outright in early 1951, making him the owner of one of black baseball’s oldest and most storied franchises.

            In doing so, Welch established a connection to the man many Negro League enthusiasts believe was the greatest manager and most important figure in the history of black baseball, Andrew “Rube” Foster, who founded the American Giants decades earlier. However, the similarities between the two, states scholar Revel, goes beyond name only.

            “The impressive thing about [Welch] was that he knew baseball,” Revel says, “and he knew brilliant baseball, and he knew how to recognize a ballplayer. He knew how to scout and sign players. When he was putting together his team, he knew what he was looking for, much like Rube Foster.”

            Also in 1951, Welch got a taste of the “promised land” — integrated, organized Major League baseball, when the St. Louis Browns signed him as a scout. As the years passed by, Welch continued to find jobs in baseball, most poignantly  in 1961, when the Major League Philadelphia Phillies brought him on board their ship as a scout for the region he knew like no one else in baseball — the South.

            In fact, as he aged into his 60s, Welch stayed intimately connected to his home state. He often returned to New Orleans for annual Negro League old timers’ reunion games and events, and he retired to the Alexandria area, the scene of some of Welch’s earliest managerial exploits, where he died in Pineville in March 1980.

            And, throughout Welch’s career, the national African-American media continually pointed out that he was a Louisiana boy, born and bred in the bayous of the Pelican State. A July 1961 Atlanta Daily World article makes a point of noting that Welch was born in Napoleonville and broke into baseball in New Orleans with the Caulfield club.

            The paper also quotes Welch as he describes his method for baseball success.

            “... When I sign a ballplayer,” the old hand told the newspaper, “I want to have every confidence that he can go all the way. You can ruin a kid’s life by signing him if his qualifications are doubtful. I do not sign just to show officials I am working. I may go all season without coming up with the right man, but meanwhile I am looking at every prospect possible with a critical eye.”

            It was a philosophy that served Winfield Scott Welch quite, quite well over nearly a half-century baseball career, a mindset forged in the little Acadiana burg of Napoleonville.

 

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