Prince Joe's Lament

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

"I gave him $1,200, but he seems to want more," Zapp says today from his home in Nashville. "He seems to be kind of angry with me."

"Zapp's money was just like any other person's money," Mitchell retorts. "The appreciation don't rise up the way it should. I sent out 54 letters two weeks ago."

Those typo-pocked mailings, which Mitchell dispatches on official-looking stationery in periodic fusillades, serve a dual purpose: to provide former colleagues with updates on what he's been doing on their behalf, and to ask for money.

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 
money.
Jennifer Silverberg
Four years and counting: Henry put in MLB's required four Negro League seasons -- but he hasn't seen the money.

An excerpt from an April 2, 2004 appeal: "At this juncture, I urge you to move on the above in the 'most timely manner; All checks you write 'must' be sent to me for and to assure distribution and your cooperation [...] Remember, 'you' wouldn't have received a red cent accept for the untiring efforts I've put forth with much sacrifice as many of you just waited patiently for this soon to come day.

"Remember, when you get this money, the Lord giveth, the Lord can take it awy. I'am the vessel that He are using to Bless you...think on that, for some have secretly criticized my efforts with doubts...you cannot know what I do every morning at four o'clock...while you are still sleeping??? Legend, let the conscience that God gave you...while you are now living be your guide...for the conscience is the voice of your spirit. Acknowledge at your will."

"You can tell his elevator don't go all the way to the top floor," Joe Henry says of Mitchell.

While acknowledging Mitchell's crucial role in bringing the recent $1 million pension program to fruition, Major League Baseball's Mariner won't discuss the ex-Negro Leaguer or his Communication Network, which is not registered in the state of Florida as a charity or for-profit enterprise.

Former Chicago American Giants pitcher Dennis Biddle is less reticent. Biddle is president of Yesterday's Negro League Baseball Players Foundation, a nonprofit that claims to represent the majority of living Negro League ballplayers, whose numbers are dwindling by the day.

"There were 314 [ex-Negro Leaguers alive] in 1995," Biddle reports. "Now between 120 and 130 men are still living. Ain't that many guys left."

Biddle believes the commissioner's office should have consulted his group in developing the new pension program.

"Major League Baseball has ignored me and the foundation that represents the players to go with some guy who's doing something for his benefit," says Biddle, whose group shares Charley Pride's view that all living Negro League players should be entitled to remuneration, length of tenure notwithstanding. "Bob is a member of our [group]. Bob should have turned it over to the foundation, but Bob was looking for self-preservation."

As far back as December 1995, Mitchell's unilateral lobbying caught the attention of legendary Negro League veteran Buck O'Neill, who as chairman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum's board of directors (a post he still holds) addressed a letter to all former players.

"Several players have been calling the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum concerning Bob Mitchell's request for money on behalf of an organization called the Communications Network," O'Neill wrote. "The creation of splinter groups, like the Communications Network, only serves to confuse people."

Count Prince Joe Henry and Larry Lester among those who remain confused.

"Joe should be there," Lester says. "He played from '50 to '52 with the Red Sox and '55 with the Clowns. That would give him the four years right there. And then you've got '58. Joe Henry was obviously a good ballplayer, and I don't think there's any question that he played, and he played a lot. In fact, he played more games than almost anybody in the league."

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