Prince Joe's Lament

Where was Joe Henry when Major League Baseball coughed up money for ex-Negro Leaguers? In the dark.

Along with Henry, fellow former Clown Clifford Layton, who played from 1951 through 1954, is not receiving any pension benefits. Nor is Don Johnson, who played from 1947 to 1952 with the Philadelphia Stars, Baltimore Elite Giants and Detroit Stars.

The three men have more in common than their outcast status. All live on fixed incomes at or below the poverty line. And none has ever kicked any money to Bob Mitchell's Communication Network of Negro League Players, the entity through which Mitchell solicits donations from ex-colleagues to defray costs associated with his ongoing efforts on their behalf.

Meanwhile, all but one of the players interviewed for this story who say they're receiving the new pension payments speak of Mitchell in glowing terms. The lone neutral party, Ollie Brantley, is also the only one of the group who hasn't contributed money to Mitchell.

A league of his own: "Prince Joe" Henry with the 
Detroit Clowns circa 1958
photo courtesy of Joe Henry
A league of his own: "Prince Joe" Henry with the Detroit Clowns circa 1958
Four years and counting: Henry put in MLB's required 
four Negro League seasons -- but he hasn't seen the 
Jennifer Silverberg
Four years and counting: Henry put in MLB's required four Negro League seasons -- but he hasn't seen the money.

"Ollie gave me his ass to kiss," Mitchell says of Brantley. "The [other] ones who are getting the money give it to me. They know that if I hadn't done what I'd done, nothing would have happened."

Country music stardom was actually Charley Pride's Plan B.

"I didn't intend to be in the Hall of Fame for singing," allows the 66-year-old Pride, who pitched and played outfield for the Memphis Red Sox, among other Negro League squads, in the mid-1950s. "I wanted to be the next Babe Ruth. My thing was baseball. I'm just glad the Lord blessed me with a voice to sing."

Pride is among the 32 ex-ballplayers receiving $833.33 per month for the next four years under Major League Baseball's new Negro League quasi-pension plan. What with royalties and concert appearances, Pride says, the payments are superfluous, so he uses the money to help his brother Mack, a fellow ex-Negro Leaguer who fell short of the minimum service requirement for the $40,000 windfall.

"I really didn't need it, but since they decided to do it -- I call it guilt money," says Pride, who has donated money to Mitchell over the years. "I look at it from the situation of Japanese internment: I think everybody who ever played, whether they played one game or two weeks, ought to get something."

The criteria for the ancillary plan appear to have been hammered out in late 2003 at Bob Mitchell's home in Tampa, during a meeting with Major League Baseball executive vice president Jonathan Mariner. Though Mitchell took a position much like Pride's, Mariner argued that the eligibility should resemble the 1997 plan, which required that players took part in four Negro League seasons. In addition, the league decided to make 1957 the last eligible year of service.

"The prevailing thought was that all major league teams were pretty much integrated at that time," Mariner says now.

Except they weren't: The Philadelphia Phillies didn't field their first black player until 1957. Ozzie Virgil became the first black Detroit Tiger in 1958. The Boston Red Sox were the last team to bring a black player aboard, in 1959. Even after that, Negro League play continued until the early 1960s.

"I don't know what the criteria were for choosing 1958 as the cutoff," says Larry Lester, who is currently under contract with the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, to research and establish the definitive history of black baseball. "The league filed dissolution papers in 1960, so that's my cutoff date."

Mitchell sought out Lester to help establish which players would be eligible for the new pension payments -- an inexact science at best, given the spotty archives of Negro League box scores from the 1950s.

MLB's Avitabile says Mitchell submitted a list to the commissioner's office.

"Mitchell, at one point, put together a list of players who played at any time, and years of service," Avitabile says. "We picked the names off the list Bob had sent with four-plus years. That's where we started from."

According to Mitchell, that's where Prince Joe Henry got culled from the ranks.

"Larry [Lester] provided me the list that I went through to eliminate the barnstormers," Mitchell explains. "[The Indianapolis Clowns] were barnstormers. Their last official year was 1954."

Through much of the mid-1950s, the Clowns traveled with the New York Black Yankees and played exhibition games for amused throngs nationwide. But Larry Lester says the team's last official year was 1955. That was Joe Henry's first season with the Clowns -- and his fourth in the Negro Leagues.

"They were in the league in '55," Lester asserts. Noting that the Clowns weren't sanctioned in 1956 and 1957, the historian adds, "I would also consider '58 to be legitimate, because they were the Detroit Clowns."

"It is important for people to understand that the Clowns were really the only clown team that was ever part of the organized Negro Leagues," seconds Bob Kendrick, marketing director for the Kansas City-based Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which Lester co-founded. "They did a lot of barnstorming, but what Negro League team didn't?"

Jim Zapp, who played with Willie Mays in Birmingham in the late 1940s, is among a handful of Negro League players who were overlooked back in 1997. After being granted the full pension package retroactively about a year ago, Zapp cut Bob Mitchell a check for $1,200.

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