News » Ask a Negro Leaguer

Dear Memphis: Joe would like his idea back.

Week of January 11, 2007


Hey Joe: Are the St. Louis papers saying anything about this spring's exhibition game in Memphis between the Cardinals and the Indians? The financial proceeds are to go to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and other civil-rights organizations.

Juzanne R. Howard, Memphis, Tennessee

Before Jackie Robinson's name became a household word in the world of white baseball, the Negro League lay in obscurity, outlawed because of its blackness. Team owners, players and bus drivers alike, undaunted by the daily ritual of racism, trudged on, securing a solid foundation for this great organization, guided and molded by men such as Rube Foster and C.I. Taylor. Later it would be the foundation that awaited Robinson, star athlete at Pasadena Junior College, UCLA and a former military officer, who had to take a step backward because the white baseball leagues had no place for him despite his prowess. Had there been no Negro League, his presence on the national scene could have very well been postponed.

Recently, I read a story in the Memphis daily, the Commercial Appeal, pertaining to the upcoming "Civil Rights" game, scheduled for March 31 at AutoZone Park and televised on ESPN. The story said the day will include a presentation of Major League Baseball's new Beacon Awards, player visits to the Civil Rights Museum and a screening of a short documentary by Spike Lee. Beneficiaries are the museum, the Jackie Robinson Foundation, several local charities, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Negro League Baseball Museum.

The story's subtitle reads "Inaugural Civil Rights Game to honor past, re-link black fans, athletes to national pastime again." Most disturbing to me about this story was that the credit for the idea was given to Dave Chase, general manager of the Memphis Redbirds. After reading the story, I became so angered that I tried to contact David Williams, who wrote the story, to correct this statement about Dave Chase. I also contacted personnel at the Civil Rights Museum. Neither returned calls nor responded to e-mail.

Since I have so much to say and so little space, I would like the nation to know that the idea about such games was that of Joe Henry and not Dave Chase. The first step in this direction was brought about by a Riverfront Times story (after being rejected by the Belleville-News Democrat and St. Louis Post-Dispatch) following Bud Selig's lie regarding pensions to former Negro League players who he said were in need and who had to have played parts of at least four years. Rather than stand behind his word, Selig retracted his statement and cut the life of the Negro League short by announcing that after the Dodgers signed Robinson, segregation in white baseball ended.

However because of the RFT, my story is documented throughout the nation. Among other things, it speaks of the letter I wrote about three years ago to Selig and Jim Martin, the executive director of the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT), in reference to staging a few games to benefit every former Negro Leaguer who was denied pension, though definitely eligible. I took this stand by denying myself about $40,000. Hopefully, the NAACP and Civil Rights Museum won't sell out their history in exchange for a few pennies.

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 If we don't like yours, we'll hit Joe with our own.

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