Joe Henry played only two seasons in the Minor Leagues in the early 1950s, making a greater mark during two stints in the Negro Leagues. But his presence was felt by teammates, fans and all who knew him.Henry was scouted and signed to play second base for the Memphis Red
Joe Henry played only two seasons in the Minor Leagues in the early 1950s, making a greater mark during two stints in the Negro Leagues. But his presence was felt by teammates, fans and all who knew him.
Henry was scouted and signed to play second base for the Memphis Red Sox in 1950 by Goose Curry, a former Negro Leagues star and later Memphis manager. He soon was playing alongside the few surviving Negro Leaguers, including Satchel Paige, just in time to be one of the last few "showmen" of the league.
"He was a young player and he came along during the last days of the Negro Leagues," said Raymond Doswell, education director at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo.
Henry became a Negro League All-Star and, after three years, signed to play in the Minors with the Canton Citizens of the Mississippi Ohio Valley League, which became the Midwest League. He hit .303 with nine home runs and 43 RBIs in 89 games in 1952, then batted .275 with 30 RBIs in 92 games with Mount Vernon the following year.
His success in the Minor Leagues was short-lived, however, as knee and arm injuries prevented Henry from pursuing a possible big league career. In 1955, he returned to the Negro Leagues' Indianapolis Clowns, the storied club with which Hank Aaron began his career in 1952.
"Henry was not unlike many other players from that era," said Doswell. "Satchel Paige ended up coming back to the Negro Leagues after his time in the Majors. They wanted to keep playing, and even though the Negro Leagues was on its way out, it gave them a chance to continue enjoying the game."
Henry developed a particular showmanship playing third base that made him a fan favorite. He would field the ball and sprint toward first base before throwing, as though he were trying to beat the runner to the base. Often, he would play while wearing a tuxedo and tails.
His flamboyant style and brash antics earned him the nickname "Prince Joe."
"He had a love for performing and he loved the reaction from the fans, as most performers do. The fans validated the performance and the players would feed on that," said Doswell.
Henry claimed to have originated the idea of standing at home plate and admiring a long home run long before Reggie Jackson did.
"I was doing in 1955 what Reggie Jackson would come up with years later -- hittin' a home run and watchin' it go out," Henry said in 2005.
"I'd slap the catcher's hands, slap the umpire's hands and then run around the bases."
Said Doswell, "In some respects, the Clowns players and that part of league history are misunderstood because people felt that the entertaining was all the Negro Leagues were about. The Negro Leagues were about sustaining the love of baseball in the African-American community. Interest in baseball in black communities continued thanks to Henry and others like him. You had to cheer for people like Joe Henry.
"Considering the cultural climate of those times, to choose that as a profession was an interesting choice. He had a love of the game and his country and wanted to raise a consciousness and awareness."
From 2005-'07, Henry was a contributor to the Riverfront Times, writing a weekly column entitled, "Ask a Negro Leaguer." It gave him a platform from which to share his thoughts on various topics such as American history, racism and Christianity.
"He was a well-read man," Doswell said. "He had a love of writing and was very verbose. He followed the news and was very passionate about his time in the Negro Leagues."
Henry sat out most of the 1957 season before becoming an All-Star with the Detroit Stars in 1958. He finished his playing career the following year with the Detroit Clowns.
In his post-baseball career, Henry worked for American Motors and became one of the first African-Americans in the history of the United Auto Workers union to serve as a chief steward.
The Brooklyn, Ill., native died on Jan. 2 at the age of 78.
Steve Conley is a contributor to MiLB.com.