December 13, 2004

posted Dec 13, 2004

Copyright 2004 
Reprinted with publishers permission.

He was good and should have gone to the major league, a teammate said of “Prince Joe Henry.” But after a stint in the Negro Baseball League over a half century ago, the 74-year-old ex-ballplayer hopes to get a smattering of the $1 million that Major League Baseball is offering ballplayers who can prove they actually played and who are in need of financial assistance. Unfortunately, the league rejected Henry’s application.

by Wiley Henry

Long after Rube Foster founded Black baseball in 1920, nobody learned how to play the game better than the cadre of Black athletes who cut their teeth in the Negro Baseball Leagues.

In a segregated society where Blacks were relegated to menial jobs and unsavory conditions, there was a sense of camaraderie on the diamond where these athletes proved their worth with innate athleticism and talent by enduring the hardships that befell many of the ballplayers during the turn of the century and throughout the history of Black baseball.

'Prince' Joe Henry, a native of Lovejoy, Ill., ponders his fate after being rejected ... "
Photo: Willie Walker

Reckless violence and wanton discrimination against Blacks, even during the 1800s, was the order of the day, and justice was fleeting or nonexistent for athletes of a darker hue.

However wretched life was then, Joe Henry, who played off and on between 1950 and 1959, made the best of it with athletic prowess and showmanship.

For the man who was dubbed “Prince” Joe Henry, those were glory days, where cross-country excursions with other Negro leaguers provided ample opportunity to socialize with high-caliber ballplayers, noted musicians, entertainers and other famous persons of the day.

“Those were the best days of my life,” Henry recalls. But, then, after the Negro League filed dissolution papers in 1960 — according to Larry Lester, a historian who was contracted by the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., to research the history of Black baseball — many Negro leaguers grew old, weary and, of course, penniless. Their best days were behind them.

Henry hasn’t complained about his role in the Negro League. However, he has continued to fight for his place in history and a mere pittance of as much as $10,000 annually over four years that Major League Baseball (MLB) started doling out in 1997 as quasi-pension payments to ex-Negro leaguers who qualify.

This was good news to Henry, who first learned about the pension after reading a May 18, 2004, story in the Belleville News-Democrat (Belleville, Ill.).

Henry says he’s met the criteria for payments of approximately $1 million that is being administered by the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT), a charitable arm of Major League Baseball.

According to James Martin, executive director of BAT in New York, N.Y., more than 30 ex-ballplayers have received help from the charitable group since May. “No one is rejected if they qualify,” he notes.

Henry begs to differ. He says he sent Martin a letter stating that he was unaware of the pension, but nonetheless qualified. Martin sent an application; Henry filled it out and sent it back. In a letter dated July 20, 2004, Henry’s application was rejected.

The reason? According to a story in the RiverFront Times, an alternative weekly newspaper in St. Louis, Martin said this about Henry: “For BAT to provide assistance, a financial need is required on behalf of the applicant. In reviewing your application, your income exceeds your expenses.”

Martin says the pension is paid to ex-Negro leaguers who played between the years 1947-1958. The money, he says, is financial assistance that can be used for just about anything, including medical and mortgage payments.

Although there is no minimum of maximum amount a ballplayer can receive, his income cannot exceed his expenses and the applicant must have at least parts of four years in the league and prove it with newspaper clippings, mentions in books, or anything in print.

“It’s up to the applicant to prove he was a ballplayer in the Negro League,” says Martin, noting that BAT, a nonprofit group, meets once a month to mull over applications. The money, he says, is considered a grant and is generally awarded within 45 days.

“The four years is badly misinterpreted,” Henry protests. “This pension is for players who played parts of four years. If you played one to three years you’re eligible for the money.”

Henry sent Martin a five-page letter to appeal his eligibility and to express his dismay. Again, Martin turned him down in a reply dated Sept. 13, indicating that Henry’s playing career did not meet the program’s criteria.

Martin also points out that applicants must have played for teams who meet the qualification as organized ball clubs and not those who were considered to be barnstormers — a term denoting teams who performed exhibition games.

All Star teams that were consistent with Major League All Stars are qualified for the pension, says Martin, adding, “There were a dozen or more of these teams. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a way to control it (the issuance of money).”

BAT has been in operation since 1986 for the benefit of ballplayers. Although BAT’s mission hasn’t been any consolation to Henry, Martin concludes by saying that “anybody whose income exceeds their expenses, we wouldn’t be able to help them.”

Henry is adamant about receiving the monthly pension. According to the Riverfront Times story, ex-Negro leaguers such as country singer Charlie Pride, who pitched and played outfield for the Memphis Red Sox, is receiving $833.33 a month for the next four years. Ten ballplayers altogether have confirmed they’re receiving the same sum per month from BAT.

Tri-State Defender’s sportswriter William “Bill” Little, who played from 1955-57 as a second baseman and utility player for the Memphis Red Sox and as a catcher and utility player for the Kansas City Monarchs, says he was urged to apply.

However, “I decided that I didn’t want to go through the hassle because the need part would just knock me out,” says Little, who also served the Red Sox as a bat boy when he was an elementary student.

Somehow Henry hasn’t been able to convince BAT of his dire circumstances — which could make him eligible for the money along with his stint in the league.

For three decades, the ex-ballplayer has solely depended on a fixed income of

$16,839 a year -- a meager pittance culled from his Social Security check and a smattering pension he earned as a shop steward.

Henry lives in a world within a 14-by-65 foot Windsor mobile home in Lovejoy, Ill., his hometown, where the town’s population of 600 has lagged behind economically. Amid a few tattered furnishings, he finds quiet time to read, write and reflect on the arduous fight ahead.

Despite his circumstances, Henry says, “Everybody should know the greatness that surrounded the Negro League.” Now a 74-year-old man, he is battling diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and high blood pressure and other ailments, and depends on the aid of a walker, cane and wheel chair for mobility.

Though old age has lessened his stride, the sharp-minded ex-ballplayer has fond memories of what was, and what could have been, his fate if he had not been injured while playing second base for the Memphis Red Sox.

That was decades ago when Henry’s knee and arm injuries kept him sidelined until he made a last ditch effort in 1955 to play less than 100 percent at third base with the Indianapolis Clowns.

“Bunny Downs, the traveling secretary for the Indianapolis Clowns saw me play with the Memphis Red Sox and asked me to play with the Clowns,” Henry remembers.

“I told Bunny I was hurt and my career was over, and he said to give it a try. That’s when I had the idea to clown around,” says Prince Joe, developing antics on the field akin to “Goose” Tatum, who played with the Indianapolis Clowns before he joined the Harlem Globe Trotters, better known in circles as the wizards of basketball.

Just like Tatum did, Henry entertained the fans amid the sound of side-cracking laughter. While at bat, he’d windup before the pitcher in a top hat, tails and painted red shoes, ready to smack the baseball into history. This was Prince Joe at his best, making do of a bad situation.

Although Henry’s days in baseball were numbered, he remembers from whence he started.  “I didn’t know anything about the Negro League (as a young man),” says Henry, who played for the Memphis Red Sox (1950-52), Indianapolis Clowns (1955-56), Detroit Clowns (1957-58), Detroit Stars (1958-59) and again for the Detroit Clowns (1959).

Henry entered the League as a young, sprightly 19-year-old with stars in his eyes. Before he joined the ranks of seasoned ballplayers, he studied the game. “I used to go to the Sportsman Park in St. Louis at a young age. It was the home of the St. Louis Cardinals and the St. Louis Browns,” he recalls.

“We went in as knot holders (free). We were led to the stand in left field, an isolated area for Blacks. There was a place in the right field pavilion for influential Blacks. If a guy hit a home run, it would never go into the pavilion.”

During the early ‘40s, when he was about 11 or 12 years old, Henry says he had no other choice but to admire the White ballplayers, such as Terry Moore and Marty Marion, who brought a measure of greatness to the game.

He knew then that he wanted to play the game, having played 12-inch fast pitch softball with hissing speed. “We traveled up and down the line playing White teams. We beat the hell out of them and they beat us too,” says Henry amusingly.

But it was Josh “Brute” Johnson, a star Negro league catcher in the 1930s and ‘40s who witnessed Henry’s talent on the diamond, who told him he was wasting his time, that he should pursue a higher calling.

During that time, Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in 1947 in whom Henry had admired from a distance. “That’s when I decided to try the Negro League,” he says.

Eugene Crittenden, a “monster” basketball player and longtime friend of Henry’s, also urged him to try out for the Negro League. After he joined the Memphis Red Sox, he opted for a career in the major league by way of the Negro League.

Although Memphis was a pit stop for Henry, he fell in love with the city, he says, because the owner, Dr. W.S. Martin, treated the team like family. Martin and his brothers also built Martin Stadium on Crump Blvd. for the home team.

But, then, during the struggle for civil rights, a dark cloud of hate hovered over the country, which caused violence to erupt, tension to mount, all spewing over onto the baseball field in a glob of Black and White mess.

“The most saddest time in my life is when I saw my manager, “Goose” Curry, get beaten by a White policeman in Birmingham after he protested a call to the umpire,” says Henry, his voice punctuated with sadness.

“He (Curry) came down to argue a call with the Black umpire (in a game between the Sox and the Birmingham Black Barons), who beckoned for the policeman. And the policeman took him to home plate and beat him. Blood was streaming down.”

The violence didn’t deter Henry from playing the game, although entry level Negro players were paid a smidgen of what major league players earned: approximately $300-400 a month. The salary, of course, depended on the ballplayers star quality, he says.

After Robinson’s history-making accomplishment, the gentle old man notes, Black baseball took a serious hit, a smack in the face with the best Negro leaguers causing an exodus to integrate the major league.

“When I got to Memphis in the 1950s, the Negro League was just about finished,” Henry says. “There were about 10 teams left, and they were powerhouses who soon fell apart after Robinson.

“If it had not been for Ted Rasberry, owner of the Detroit Stars who renamed the team “Goose Tatum’s Detroit Clowns,” the few teams left would have buckled sooner. He carried the Negro League on his back.”

Henry is carrying a burden of his own. The game he played as a young man was fruitful, gratifying, and full of pleasant memories. But the life he’s living today has not yielded the kind of payoff he feels he deserves as an ex-Negro leaguer.

Ollie Brantley, a friend and former teammate of Henry’s, was quoted as saying, “Joe Henry was a heck of a ballplayer. I thought for sure he was gonna get a shot to go play [in the majors].”

He didn’t; but he came very close. Of the hundreds of Negro League ballplayers from over 40 teams who graced the diamond during its heyday, between 120-130 are still alive, according to Dennis Biddle, a former Chicago American Giants pitcher and president of the nonprofit Yesterday’s Negro League Baseball Players Foundation.

Before Major League Baseball commenced with the pension benefits and its criteria for receiving it, Biddle argued that MLB should have consulted his Foundation, which claims to represent the majority of ex-Negro Leaguers.

Henry says Bud Selig, commissioner of MLB, who announced the new pension fund — which differs from the one set up in 1997 to benefit players before 1948 — expressed his pleasure that MLB would assist 27 players after Robinson’s meteoric rise.

The fact is Henry isn’t one of those players getting the pension. Though teetering around or below the poverty level, he is barely making ends meet. He has not been able to hit a home run in his quest for payment since the glory days of Negro League Baseball.