After waging a three-year battle with Major League Baseball, Riverfront Times columnist Joe Henry has won inclusion in a pension program for former Negro League ballplayers. News of the decision greeted Henry last month, just days after he celebrated his 79th birthday. The $40,000 pension will pay Henry $833 per month over the next four years. But if you think Henry is grateful, think again.
"They did everything they could to find me ineligible," says Henry, who suffers from arthritis and diabetes and spends most days lying on a tattered couch in his Brooklyn, Illinois, trailer-home. "Now that MLB has finally given me a pension, they need to make right and give everyone who played Negro League ball a pension."
In 1997 Major League Baseball began paying retirement benefits to 69 ex-Negro Leaguers who played prior to Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in 1947. Seven years later, MLB's Baseball Assistance Team (BAT) opened up a separate pension for players of financial need who continued in the Negro League through 1957.
In July 2004 the MLB rejected Henry's BAT application on grounds that the $1,400 he earns each month from Social Security and a small pension from his days as a shop steward outstripped his expenses. A second application was rejected when BAT discovered Henry's playing career didn't match the program's criteria. (See Mike Seely's story, "Prince Joe's Lament," published November 17, 2004.)
Henry, who starred as an infielder with the Memphis Red Sox and Indianapolis Clowns during the 1950s, says he'd given up hope of ever receiving his MLB pension. Then came a letter last month from Anthony Avitabile, the league's director of industry risk management and financial reporting. Avitabile says Social Security records unearthed by Henry's grandson, Sean Muhammad, prove Henry played the requisite four years needed to qualify for a separate MLB pension — also established in 2004 — known as the voluntary Negro League pension plan.
"The one year we could not verify was that Joe played for the Indianapolis Clowns in 1955," says Avitabile. "But now we have the employer's payroll from that year, and Joe's name is on the list."
Henry maintains his fight was never about money. Moreover, he vows to continue to "wage war" on Major League Baseball until other former Negro Leaguers are also granted pensions. "I'd give away half my money if it would go to other deserving Negro Leaguers," says Henry, who believes the four-year playing requirement and 1957 cutoff date for MLB's Negro League pensions deny dozens of players their rightful benefits. "The Negro League existed up to at least 1960. For Major League Baseball to say it ended in 1957, that's as wrong as two left shoes."