Prince Joe Henry, 1930-2009

Prince Joe Henry, a native of Brooklyn, Illinois, and one of the Negro Leagues' last great entertainers, died yesterday. He was 78. Before it was cut short by injury in the late 1950s, Henry's career as an infielder included stints with the Memphis Red Sox, the Indianapolis Clowns, the Detroit Stars, the Detroit Clowns and Goose Tatum's Stars.

His tenure in the Negro Leagues entitles Prince Joe to a spot in the hallowed annals of professional baseball. But it doesn't begin to do justice to the man.

I had never heard of Joe Henry back in the fall of 2004, when he called to tip me to a fraud being perpetrated by Major League Baseball in the guise of giving Negro Leaguers the pension they so rightly deserve.

It was a fitting introduction. About five minutes into the phone conversation, I'd concluded that if true, the plight Joe was describing would make for an interesting story, and I'd scribbled enough notes to pass along to a staff writer the gist of the thing.

An hour later, Joe was still talking. About his time in the Negro Leagues; about the players he'd known, about the history of Brooklyn, his hometown; about growing up in segregated St. Louis; about politics and religion and race.... I'd long since put down my pen. When I passed along Joe's info to Mike Seely, I told him the story was probably a good one -- and that he should be prepared for the long version. As in the l-o-n-g version.

Which is what Seely got. Four years later, the piece Seely wrote about Joe remains one of my favorite RFT stories. Not only does Seely drill down into MLB's misguided (and in Joe's case arbitrary) treatment of the Negro League pension issue, he also paints a portrait of the delightful man he'd patiently come to know. (Here's a link to Seely's thoughts on Joe's passing.)

It would take three years for Joe Henry to win his battle with MLB for a pension settlement. (Chad Garrison provided RFT readers with the details here. You can read Chad's item on Joe's passing here.) In the meantime, though, Joe kept in touch with the paper -- and with its readers. In July 2005 we began publishing a column by Prince Joe. Masquerading as an advice column, the weekly installments served as an excuse for Joe to ramble and to reminisce.

But just as Joe's baseball career doesn't begin to define him as a human being, "ramble and reminisce" is inadequate to the task of characterizing his writings. More often than not, the question that opened "Ask a Negro Leaguer" (which Joe dictated aloud to his grandson, Sean Muhammad, who would forward it to the paper via e-mail) each week was simply a platform Joe would clamber onto to share his views -- on American history, on racisim, on Christianity. Joe was an avid reader of the Bible, and an outspoken critic of organized religion, which he derided as a sham. He admired the Founding Fathers, and treasured the U.S. Constitution nearly as much as he revered the Bible. 

Declining health -- for years he'd been afflicted with diabetes and painful arthritis -- forced a hiatus for Joe's column a little over a year ago. (Last year Sean collected Joe's columns and published them in book form.)

We kept in touch only sporadically -- I'm kicking myself now.

Joe left me a voicemail message in early November, which led (of course) to a long phone conversation. His health wasn't good, Joe told me, but his wife Lu was looking after him and his cat was keeping him company.

I told him he sounded great. And he did. Barack Obama's victory had buoyed him considerably -- though to be honest I find it impossible to imagine Joe being anything less than "buoyed".

And that's how I'm going to remember him.

-Tom Finkel

photo by Jennifer Silverberg

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