Ask a Negro Leaguer Column

Week of March 23, 2006

 Hey Joe: I'd really be interested in hearing what you think about the local comedian Brie Johnson. Please do your readers a favor and view this girl's act before you write something! I'm sick to death of reading what these people have to say about the poor girl and none of them have seen her perform!

Nici Jones, St. Louis

I am not familiar with Brie. I love comedians, but I am also quite critical of those whose acts are powder-dry. Being a comedian was how I came up with the name Prince Joe Henry. Actually, it began with Clown Prince Joe Henry when I was with the Indianapolis Clowns in 1955. I had sustained a severe left-knee injury while in so-called organized baseball in 1953. The Clowns were a powerful team in the Negro League until they left it in 1955. The league was badly damaged because of so many teams falling by the wayside. The Clowns, Hank Aaron's alma mater, then became independent.

During my entire career as a showman, one game stands out in my mind particularly. It occurred at Victory Field in Indianapolis. Shortly after the game, I was approached by an usher who told me that a group of people in the stands wanted to meet me. They were mostly black family members who brought their aged grandfather to the game in celebration of his 80th birthday. After introductions the grandfather asked about my pratfalls in a weak, trembling voice. "Son, don't that hurt? Falling that hard?" After my "No, sir," reply, he continued: "It hurt me all over every time you fell! Those falls was as hard as times back in 1929." He went on to say, "I remember one day, when me and my wife didn't have nuthin' to eat but some syrup and flour. I said to her, 'Baby, go in the kitchen and mix the flour to make some biscuits.' So she went in the kitchen and came back just a-crying. I asked her, 'Baby, what's wrong?' She said, 'There ain't no milk, and the water is cut off.' I grabbed her in my arms, squeezed her and said, 'Don't cry, baby. Go back in the kitchen and pee in the flour, so you can make the biscuits.' So she went back in the kitchen and bent over to pee and pooted — and blew all the flour away!"

Every so often I think about this fellow and can't help but laugh. At least he was dead truthful. My mother, before she passed, always grilled me about telling the truth. She always would say, "You can't get to be nothin' by lying!" I wish I could say to her now, "You can get to be president!"

Prince Joe Henry, one of professional baseball's original "clowns," was an all-star infielder for Negro League baseball teams in Memphis, Indianapolis and Detroit throughout the 1950s. But up until the late 1940s, Prince Joe didn't know anything about the Negro Leagues. His knowledge of organized baseball was limited to the Cardinals and Browns games he attended during his preteen years at Sportsman's Park, accompanied by lifelong buddy Eugene "Gene" Crittendon, who could pass for white.

Perhaps Henry's most vivid memory of those games: Upon entry, white ushers would politely escort the boys to a small section of the left-field stands reserved for "Colored." After climbing past several tiers of bleachers, they'd arrive at their stop, rows and rows behind their white counterparts.

Even at a young age, the boys were conscious of the double standard -- and determined to vent their disdain. The opportunity would arise with the urge to urinate. Rather than head for the latrine, the boys would edge their way to the front of the section and let fly. As the liquid foamed its way down the concrete steps toward the white kids, Henry and his pal would ease back and relax, politely rooting for the visiting team to beat the hell out of the Browns or the Cards.

After all, Henry and Crittendon hailed from Brooklyn, Illinois, a small, predominantly black township just east of the Mississippi River. So hospitable were the residents of Brooklyn that they were known to take in a rank stranger, treat him to breakfast, lunch, supper and a night out on the town -- and afterward, if he messed up, treat him to a good ass-whippin'.

Direct questions on any and all topics to heyjoe@riverfronttimes.com. If we don't like yours, we'll hit Joe with our own.

 
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