A ‘Prince’ Of A Guy

By Drew Schmenner
Updated: June 5, 2008

ST. LOUIS — Stories spout from former Negro League player “Prince” Joe Henry. He once faced legendary pitcher Satchel Paige.

Sometimes he ran the bases in a tuxedo with tails, a top hat and red shoes.

He barnstormed to places like Yankee Stadium with Reece “Goose” Tatum, the Harlem Globetrotters’ original showman. But no major league team ever claimed him. Until Thursday.

The St. Louis Cardinals drafted Henry before the Major League Baseball Entry Draft began in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Each of the 30 teams will ceremonially select a predetermined former Negro Leaguer to honor a fading chapter of the sport’s history.

For many years, Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, now a vice president with the San Diego Padres, has wanted to honor Negro Leaguers while they are still alive. The death of Buck O’Neil, the Kansas City Monarchs’ legend, in 2006 motivated his pursuit. Black players like O’Neil were relegated to the

Negro Leagues until Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. However, many continued to play in the Negro Leagues because some clubs had racial quotas and were slow to integrate.

“It’s real important to have a connection with this group of men and women who have been associated with the game and never really got their due,” Winfield said.

The draft included many unsung players, including three Latinos and Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, a female pitcher for the Indianapolis Clowns. Only living former Negro Leaguers who never played for an affiliated major league club were made eligible for the draft. Every draftee was invited to attend the event in Florida.

Henry, 78, could not make the trip from his home in the Metro East community of Brooklyn. “Without this arthritis, I would jump out of this bed,” he said, showing his hands.

Garish strip clubs line the main artery of the small town north of East St. Louis. Henry lives with his wife, Lu, in a white mobile home two doors down from the house where he was born. Suffering from arthritis, diabetes and high blood pressure, Henry does not stray often from his home.

He says he is “surrounded by history in this old, raggedy place.” His mind is still sharp, recalling dates and encounters from his career in the 1950s.

Henry, who wrote the “Ask a Negro Leaguer” column for the Riverfront Times, was exposed to baseball as well as social injustice at Sportsman’s Park in the 1940s. Ushers would escort him and his friends to a section in the left-field stands labeled “colored.”

The white boys sat next to the field.

Henry joined the Memphis Red Sox in 1950 as a second baseman. One day, he said, he faced Paige, who was in his mid-40s. “Goose” Curry, the Red Sox manager, challenged his friend Paige, boasting Henry would hit him hard. Henry finished the night 0 for 5 with four strikeouts. Every time Paige fanned him, the legend would holler over to the Red Sox dugout, “Hey, Goose.”

Henry left for the unaffiliated Mississippi-Ohio Valley League in 1952 but eventually quit after suffering a severe knee injury. He became royalty once he joined the Indianapolis Clowns.

Henry earned his nickname “Prince” for his showmanship with the Clowns, baseball’s equivalent of the Globetrotters. He was probably “black baseball’s most prolific entertainer,” said Larry Lester, a writer, historian and co-founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. “He deserves more recognition for his contribution to the game.”

Like a stand-up comedian, Henry claims he developed numerous routines. Wearing his formal, trademark outfit, he would turn his back to the pitcher and try to time his swing. On other occasions he would sneak a glove under that ensemble, pull it out quickly, snatch the pitch, toss it in the air and smack it into the outfield.

With segregation still strangling the country, Henry understood the importance of the performances. “It was so rewarding just to hear people laugh, because it was a time where people needed to laugh,” he said.

After two seasons with the Indianapolis Clowns, Henry joined “Goose” Tatum’s Detroit Clowns. He hung up his top hat and tails for good after barnstorming across the country for two years. The Negro Leagues folded one year later after a steady decline once Robinson played with the Dodgers.

Henry made sure he wasn’t forgotten. In 2004, Major League Baseball handed out limited pensions to Negro Leaguers who played after 1947. Henry’s initial request and appeal were denied.

After two years, his grandson Sean Muhammad pursued the case again with MLB. To secure the pension, he submitted Social Security records proving the Clowns employed Henry in 1955 and 1956.

Henry’s stories will carry on long after today’s ceremonial draft. Muhammad will soon release Henry’s self-published memoirs, “Princoirs: The Official Memoirs of Prince Joe Henry.”

Such a work was inevitable for baseball’s ultimate showman.

But it may not be sufficient. “It would take three volumes to describe his antics,” stated the Indianapolis Clowns’ program.