NEW ORLEANS — In June 1965, the Old Timers’ Baseball Club, an organization of former Negro League players from the New Orleans area, held its eighth annual alumni game at Pontchartrain Park Stadium.
The ceremony included a tribute to Wesley “Skipper” Barrow, who put more than four decades into the game as a player and manager and eventually became a towering figure in New Orleans hardball circles.
It was a rich, well deserved capstone to a man who had managed at every level of African-American baseball, from the Crescent City’s amateur sandlots to the Negro National and American leagues.
Seven months later, Barrow was dead, the victim of a heart attack on Christmas Eve while entering his car after visiting friends. With him went 45 years’ worth of baseball knowledge, experience and wisdom, someone who, upon his death, was described by the Louisiana Weekly newspaper as a “64-year-old diamond mentor.”
But now, nearly a half-century after his death, the local legend is still remembered by the community that birthed him. The field at Pontchartrain Park was renamed Wesley Barrow Stadium, which now serves as the home of Major League Baseball’s newest Urban Youth Academy.
It’s a perfect homage to a man who served as a coach and mentor to dozens, if not hundreds, of young players and managers, most of them African Americans who, thanks to segregation, never had a chance to play in so-called “organized baseball.”
As the New Orleans community celebrates Black History Month, those who knew Barrow and learned at his feet keep his memory alive.
“He was one of the best managers,” said Herb Simpson, a surviving member of the Old Timers’ Club who played for Barrow on the Algiers Giants semi-pro team. “He knew everything about baseball.”
Barrow made such a good impression on top-level Negro League teams that traveled through New Orleans that he was well-known not just in the Big Easy, but around the country. When he was tapped to helm the New Orleans Black Pelicans in 1945, the venerable Pittsburgh Courier stated Barrow “knows the nooks and niches which have produced the most talent which blossomed into stardom in both the Negro American and National Leagues in recent years” and was “already combing Louisiana, Texas, Alabama and Mississippi for baseball ‘ivory.’”
But as an African American in the South in the first half of the 20th century, he came from humble beginnings. Wesley Barrow Jr. was born in 1900 in West Baton Rouge Parish to sharecropping parents Wesley Sr. and Nancie.
Wesley Jr. eventually moved to the New Orleans area, eventually living, among other places, on Governor Hall Street in Gretna. He married his wife, Mary, a widow, most likely in 1924, and the couple settled on Vallette Street in New Orleans. Educationally, Barrow advanced as far as sixth grade.
But book learning wasn’t what the young Barrow savored. By the end of his second decade, he was playing catcher for several teams in the New Orleans area. A 1965 article in the Louisiana Weekly states he began playing semi-pro baseball in 1920 and “won his diamond spurs on the sand lots of Gretna and New Orleans with (the) Kolman Daisy Stars and later starred with the Algiers Giants,” an outfit he would one day manage.
His ensuing playing career carried Barrow from the New Orleans All Stars to the Galveston Sand Crabs and eventually to the Negro American League Cleveland Buckeyes in 1943, playing catcher and coaching for the squad. He also played on several barnstorming teams, including the Harlem Globetrotters at the ripe old age of 45.
Barrow eventually moved back to New Orleans and soon retired as a player to focus on his managerial career, beginning with the Black Pelicans in 1945.
But he didn’t stay long. In 1947, Barrow reached the pinnacle of the blackball world when he was named manager of the Negro National League Baltimore Elite Giants. Barrow’s selection as Baltimore manager came as a big shock to the Negro League establishment. A January 1947 syndicated article by reporter Dick Powell stated that “Barrow, though practically unknown in Eastern baseball circles, has played with and served as manager of several teams in the deep South.”
Unfortunately for both Barrow and the Elites, the bloom came off fairly quickly. Upset with their underachieving squad, impatient team owners axed Barrow in August.
But that didn’t dim Barrow’s sterling reputation, and he didn’t quit the business. At various points in his career, he managed teams from several far-flung locales — including the Nashville Cubs, Raleigh Tigers, Brooklyn Cuban Stars, and even the Portland Roses and Winnipeg Giants.
Throughout his baseball career, Barrow worked assorted straight jobs — from general laborer to a hauler for a furniture store — to supplement his often meager baseball income, a hard fact of life for black players and coaches.
Barrow finally retired from the game in 1960 and settled into the role of Crescent City hardball patriarch before his passing in 1965. Just more than two years later, the city bequeathed his name on the stadium in Pontchartrain Park, with a press release dubbing him “a pioneer in New Orleans baseball.”
When Major League Baseball opened its youth academy at Wesley Barrow Stadium last fall, well-known actor and Pontchartrain Park native Wendell Pierce was interviewed by a documentary crew and asked to give his thoughts on the event. Pierce used the opportunity to recognize the man for whom the stadium was named.
“Wesley Barrow Stadium was the hub of so much, particularly baseball,” Pierce told the documentarians. “Wesley Barrow himself was a major part of getting blacks into the Major Leagues. It’s a fitting honor that Major League Baseball comes ... to this wonderful stadium in honor of a wonderful man in a great neighborhood.”