N EW ORLEANS — Herb Simpson has seen first-hand the effect baseball can have on kids in urban areas.
He also saw how the late Wesley Barrow, a local baseball player and manager, helped shape the lives of dozens, if not hundreds, of black players in New Orleans.
That’s why Simpson attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday to dedicate the new Wesley Barrow Stadium, which will serve as home base for Major League Baseball’s latest Urban Youth Academy.
MLB’s youth academy project uses camps, clinics and other outreach efforts to attract athletes to a sport whose popularity has waned in the inner city, both in New Orleans and across the country.
As a result, Simpson said, it’s only appropriate that such an effort will happen locally in a new, state-of-the-art facility named after Barrow, a towering figure in the history of black baseball in the Crescent City. He said MLB’s Urban Youth Academy will certainly spread the hardball gospel to local kids looking for athletic pursuits.
“It should help a lot, yeah,” Simpson said. “A lot of young kids (were at Friday’s ceremony), throwing and catching a ball.”
The arrival of the Urban Youth Academy to Barrow Stadium carries weighty significance for both Major League Baseball and the New Orleans black community. The new 650-seat stadium replaces the former Barrow Stadium, a 55-year-old facility that was once the gem of the local African-American baseball community but was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
For MLB, the project represents the first such academy in the U.S. not based in a city with a major league team. One academy is in Los Angeles and another in Houston. The other academy is based in Gurabo, Puerto Rico. (Major League Baseball plans to open two more UYA’s in the near future, in Philadelphia and Hialeah, Fla.)
MLB partnered with the city of New Orleans and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The successful development of the New Orleans academy and the $6.5 million construction of Barrow Stadium also signals that the UYA effort will continue following MLB’s awkward firing of former executive vice president for baseball development Jimmie Lee Solomon, whose duties included nurturing the Urban Youth Academy project.
The internal MLB shake-up threw the future of the academy effort in doubt — especially the New Orleans project, the opening of which was delayed for several months.
But MLB replaced Solomon with Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, and the New Orleans project continued to move forward, with significant guidance from MLB vice president of Youth and Facility Development Darrell Miller. Friday’s ribbon-cutting drew officials from the city, Major League Baseball and FEMA, as well as a slew of local kids and several old-timers who fondly remember playing at the old park.
“Major League Baseball is proud to stand alongside the city of New Orleans as we open the New Orleans MLB Urban Youth Academy, which will represent the national pastime’s lasting contribution to the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort,” MLB Commissioner Bud Selig said in a release. “Our newest academy, located in one of our nation’s most vibrant cities, will impact many young lives by providing significant opportunities on and off the diamond.”
The local UYA project and the construction of a new Barrow Stadium also represents a major positive for the surrounding community. The new facility, like its predecessor, is located in the Pontchartrain Park neighborhood, which was developed after World War II.
Pontchartrain Park became the first New Orleans community developed by and for middle-class black families. In addition to the stadium, the development includes a golf course and has been home to numerous prominent politicians, musicians and other leaders.
But Katrina’s floodwaters destroyed much of the once-proud neighborhood, including Barrow Stadium, and since then, Pontchartrain Park has gradually rebuilt.
Hence the involvement of FEMA, which was represented at Friday’s ceremony by historic preservation specialist Alice-Anne Krishnan, who said the renaissance of Pontchartrain Park, so proudly embodied by the new stadium, has heartened the community.
“Back in the 1950s, Pontchartrain Park was a Camelot” for local black citizens, Krishnan said. “It was their neighborhood. It was very idyllic.”
And crucial aspects of that atmosphere, Krishnan said, were baseball and Barrow Stadium, making Friday’s opening of the new facility so important.
“Part of it was baseball,” she said of the neighborhood’s history. “People just held on tight to that, because it was a game for their kids. There was a lot of prestige associated with the game. That’s why (the UYA project and new stadium) are so important to the community.”
Krishnan said Friday’s ceremony even managed to span generations, as local kids interacted with several former Negro League players in attendance.
“You have young people connecting with old, sharing memories,” Krishnan said.
That included Simpson, who played many a game at the old Barrow Stadium and whose career highlight was rapping out two hits against the great Satchel Paige when the Hall of Fame pitcher’s All-Star team played Simpson’s Algiers Giants.
“It’s a beautiful place now,” Simpson said of the new structure. “It’s a good ballpark.”
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