Bill Henry

This article was written by Charles F. Faber

A star in basketball and track, he never played high school baseball. He played one year in college and had a losing record in four years in the minor leagues before being promoted to the majors. Yet Bill Henry had a 16-year career in the big leagues, played in a National League All-Star Game, and pitched in two World Series games. For many years an impostor had posed as the pitcher. When the hoax was discovered Henry was surprised, but not upset, and immediately called the man’s widow to offer condolences.

William Rodman Henry was born October 15, 1927, in Alice, Jim Wells County, in South Texas about 45 miles west of Corpus Christi. He was the third of the four children of Lucy Alice Stanley and Eugene Franklin Henry.

His father was a railroad engineer, who soon after Bill’s birth changed occupations and became a carpenter, first in San Antonio, then in Houston.

Bill attended high school in Pasadena, Texas, a suburb of Houston, where he starred in basketball and track. The school did not field a baseball team at the time. Bill probably developed his baseball skills on the sandlots of the Houston area. It was in basketball that he excelled and won all-state honors. He was a forward on the Pasadena High School team that won the state championship his senior year (1946). Bill and his basketball coach, Ned Thompson, both went to the University of Houston in 1947, where Thompson started the university’s baseball program. Bill was his star player just as he had been in high school, only this time the sport was baseball, not basketball.

Bill Henry played only one season for the Houston Cougars. In 1948 he turned professional. As a pro he did not set the world on fire. Pitching for the Clarksdale (Mississippi) Planters in the Class C Cotton States League, he went 6-9 in 1948 and 14-14 in 1949. In 1950 he started the season with the Greenville (Texas) Majors in the Class B Big State League, where his 11-7 record with a 3.29 ERA allowed him to jump all the way to the Class AA Texas League, where he won his only decision with the Shreveport Sports. In 1951 he was 12-15, for the Sports, but showed enough promise that the Boston Red Sox acquired him from Shreveport before the 1952 season began. To this point he had won 44 games while losing 45 in his four minor-league seasons.

When he made his major league debut on April 17, 1952, Henry was a 24-year-old left-handed pitcher who stood 6-foot-2 and weighed 180 pounds.

His first appearance was a start against the Washington Senators at Griffith Stadium. He retired the first batter he faced, Eddie Yost, on a fly to left field, and induced the next two batters to ground out. He pitched eight innings, giving up five hits, walking two, striking out two, and winning the game, 9-2. He split the 1952 season between Boston and San Diego of the Pacific Coast League, winning five games for the Red Sox and seven for the Padres.

In 1953 his season was again divided between the majors and the minors, with similar results to the previous season. He won five gamer for the Sox and seven for the Louisville Colonels in the Class AAA American Association. The pattern of alternating between the majors and the minors continued in 1954. Although he remained the property of the Red Sox, he appeared in eight games for the Charleston Senators, an American Association affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. He won two games for Charleston and three for Boston, for a total of five wins, the fewest in his professional career to date. Part of the reason for the fall-off in victories was the fact that Boston was starting to use him more as a relief pitcher, but he was still the starter in more than half of his appearances.

In 1954 and 1955 Henry was used sparingly by the Red Sox, starting a total of 20 games and relieving in 21, with a 5-11 record. In 1956 he was back in the minors, pitching for the San Francisco Seals, Boston’s affiliate in the Pacific Coast League. He was used as a spot starter and long reliever, winning five and losing six.

In January 1957 the Red Sox traded Henry to the Chicago Cubs for first baseman Frank Kellert and cash. The Cubs sent Henry to Memphis in the Class AA Southern Association, where he was used almost exclusively as a starter. He had a good year for the Chickasaws, winning 14, losing six, and earning a promotion to Portland in the Class AAA Pacific Coast League. In 1958 he was used primarily as a reliever. He started two games for the Beavers, the last starts he would make for a decade. During the season the Cubs brought him back up to the major leagues. In 1959 he had one of his most productive seasons, winning nine games and saving 12

On December 6, 1959 the Cubs traded Henry along with outfielders Lou Jackson and Lee Walls to the Cincinnati Reds for infielder-outfielder Frank Thomas. The trade turned out to be quite beneficial for Henry. He spent six fruitful years in the Queen City, during which he saved 64 games for the Reds and had his first chance to play in an All-Star Game and pitch in a World Series.

Henry was 32 years old when he appeared in his first All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium on July 13, 1960. He replaced Larry Jackson in the bottom of the eighth, gave up a single to the first batter he faced -- future Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle, recorded an out, allowed a ground rule double by Sherman Lollar, and retired the next two batters. Although he had given up a single and a double, he allowed no runs, helping preserve the shutout in the National League’s 6-0 win.

His World Series appearances came the next year. In 1961 Henry helped the Reds win their first pennant in 21 years by saving 16 games. The Reds had lost two out of the first three games of the Series to the New York Yankees and were trailing, 7-0, in the ninth inning of Game Four at Crosley Field on October 8 when Henry entered the game. He pitched a perfect inning, striking out Tony Kubek and Roger Maris and retiring Hector Lopez on a fly to center field. The Reds could not score in the bottom of the frame, so they lost, 7-0, and were down three games to one. Game Five was at Crosley Field on October 9. The Yankees had a 6-0 lead when Henry took the mound in the top of the third inning. He allowed only one walk in that inning. In the bottom of the third Frank Robinson hit a three-run homer for the Reds, reducing the lead to 6-3. But things came apart for Henry in the fourth. He managed to get only one out. He walked one and allowed four hits, including a three-run blast by Lopez. He departed, trailing 11-3. The Reds couldn’t rally and the Bronx Bombers won the game 13-5 and the Series four games to one.

At an age when many pitchers have retired, Henry was still going strong. Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews was among batters who had a hard time hitting his pitches. Mathews told an interviewer, “Cincinnati had an old reliever named Bill Henry. He was tough. I kept him in the league for an extra four or five years. He had a very unorthodox delivery with a high kick. He threw his pitches at two or three different angles, and he had good control.”1

On May 4, 1969, the Reds traded Henry to the San Francisco Giants for relief pitcher Jim Duffalo, who never won nor saved a game for Cincinnati.

Henry played parts of four seasons in the City by the Bay, winning five and saving seven for the Giants. On June 27, 1968, his contract was purchased by the Pittsburgh Pirates, who released him less than two months later. On May 29, 1969, Henry signed as a free agent with the Houston Astros, who released him on June 28. He had no wins, losses, or saves with either Pittsburgh or Houston.

Bill Henry’s last major-league game came at the age of 41 on June 16, 1969. Houston played a doubleheader against the Braves at Atlanta Stadium that day. In the first game of the twin bill, Henry pitched 2 1/3 innings of scoreless baseball in Houston’s 6-2 loss. His final game came in the second game of the doubleheader. He replaced Larry Dierker on the mound for the Astros in the bottom of the seventh inning, with Atlanta leading, 8-4. He held the Braves scoreless in the seventh and eighth inning. For the day he had pitched 4 1/3 innings, giving up only one hit and no runs. Not a bad way to close out a career. Despite this performance, the Astros released him shortly thereafter, on June 28.

As a ballplayer he earned a reputation for his quiet demeanor, so quiet that his teammates nicknamed him Gabby to emphasize his lack of gab. He was not into nightlife or the flamboyant lifestyle that some ballplayers enjoy. His former daughter-in-law Angela Henry said. “I don’t think he ever drank more than one beer in a day. When the other guys would go out after a game when they were out of town, he didn’t. He would usually go back to his room and call his family.2 His family consisted of his wife Betty Lou Sabo-Henry; four sons, Charlie, Billy, Jack, and Mark; and eventually several grandchildren.3 Betty Lou was born in Ohio, but moved to the Houston area as a child. She was the daughter of Mary and Michael Sabo, a machinist. Michael was a Hungarian immigrant, whose name was originally spelled Szabo.4

After his retirement Henry stayed in the Houston area with his family. He worked as a longshoreman in the Houston shipyards for several years. After retiring from that work, he lived in Houston suburbs, such as Granite Shoals and Deer Park 5

On August 30, 2007, a paid obituary reporting the death of a Bill Henry appeared in the Ledger, a Lakeland, Florida, newspaper. The next day the sports section of the paper had an item under the headline “Major League Relief Pitcher Bill Henry, of Lakeland, dies at 83.”6 The Associated Press picked up the account and distributed it nationwide. Boston SABR member David Lambert noted some discrepancies between information in the obituary and the facts as he knew them. He telephoned Henry’s home in Texas and found the pitcher was still living.7

When the news about the hoax got out, Elizabeth Henry, widow of the deceased Floridian, was besieged with telephone calls from reporters. “I just took his word that that’s who he was,” she said. ‘It’s an awful shock. It’s hard.”8 The imposter was the same height and weight as the pitcher and bore a remarkable resemblance to him. A relative of the Florida man, Jeanine Hill-Cole, said the Bill Henry pictured on baseball cards looked just like the imposter. “It’s creepy striking—the nose, the face, the squinty eyes. I mean I’m still here looking at the picture we put in his obituary, and you’d swear it was the same man.”9

The date and place of Henry’s birth as shown on his baseball card differed from the facts about the Lakeland man. He explained the discrepancies to friends and family by saying he had given incorrect information to scouts when he was a prospect to make it appear that he was younger than he really was. His close friend, Bob McHenry, never doubted him. The two gave a biannual lecture entitled “Baseball, Humor, and Society” at Florida Southern College in Lakeland.10

The pitcher bore no ill will toward the impostor. “I just hoped maybe it helped him in his career,” he said.11 He called the man’s widow and assured her that everything was going to be all right. In reference to the other man assuming his identity, Angela Henry said, “He wasn’t really upset about it. He kind of laughed about it.”12

In 2012 Bill Henry was inducted into the Pasadena High School Hall of Fame for his exploits in basketball and track.13

On April 11, 2014, William Rodman Henry died of heart problems in Round Rock, Texas, at the age of 86. Among his survivors were his wife, four sons, and four grandchildren. Betty Lou lived only a few more weeks, passing away on June 2, 2014. Bill Henry was buried in South Park Cemetery in Pearland, Texas. “He really was a great man,” Angela Henry said. “He never really bragged about playing professional baseball. He was just very humble in that way. He didn’t have the huge ego you might expect.”14

 

Sources

The principal source of data about Henry’s baseball career is baseball-reference.com. Other sources are identified in the Notes.

 

Notes

1 Rich Westcott, Splendor on the Diamond (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000), 73.

2 Dailytrib.com., November 30, 2015.

3 Ibid.

4 Ancestry.com.

5 Dailytrib.com.

6 The Ledger, September 5, 2007.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 New York Times, September 6, 2007.

10 Ibid.

11 Mentalfloss.com/article17961/6.

12 Dailytib.com.

13 Pasadena.pasadenaisd.org.

14 Dailytrib.com