Reflections of a bygone era of baseball
MILWAUKEE - It was a great era of baseball, if not a great era for baseball.
The Negro Leagues were established in 1920 for ballplayers of color who were not allowed to play in the racially segregated Major Leagues because of the so-called “Gentlemen’s Agreement” among the owners, and steadfastly enforced by Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis.
Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, but the floodgates didn’t quite open up for African Americans for several years. The Negro Leagues continued on until 1960.
There aren’t many players that are still around from the Negro Leagues, and with recordkeeping from that era spotty at best, finding all of them is a near-impossible task.
Eighty-one-year old Cary Henderson has lived in Milwaukee since the 1950s. Before that, he was an infielder for the Memphis Red Sox from 1949 to 1951.
"We traveled every weekend," Henderson, a native of Greenville, Miss. says. "We would hit the road, go to Jackson, Mississippi, all around. But we couldn't sleep in any hotels in Mississippi. We had to stay in boarding houses," because the Jim Crow laws of the South were still very much in place.
But that didn’t stop Henderson from playing the game that he loved. Neither did his age when he started.
"The manager of the Red Sox was Goose Curry," Henderson says. "He talked to my father, but he didn't want me to go because I wasn't but 17. So, the second time they (came) to Greenville, I didn't stop at the bus. When the bus left, I got on the bus!"
Henderson recalls that one of his teammates was future country music legend Charley Pride.
"We would be traveling at night and Charley Pride would be back there trying to sing," Henderson recalls with a smile. "(Teammate) Casey Jones would (be) saying 'shut up! We're trying to sleep!' But he said, 'I'm going to be a country singer like Jackie Robinson was in baseball.' And he did, too."
So much so, in fact, that in the 1970s Charley Pride became the RCA Records best-selling artist behind Elvis Presley and charted 39 No. 1 hits on the Billboard Country charts, and winning two Grammy Awards.
But Pride and Henderson are nevertheless members of an elite fraternity. One that saw them barred from the Golden Age of Baseball. So when the film “42” was released earlier this year, Henderson was certainly in the audience. But he saw a different movie than the rest of us.
"Eh, it was all right," according to Henderson. "But Jackie Robinson wasn't a good fella like Roy Campanella was. He was the best of all of them. Campanella would get a bunch of young players like me and sit down and talk to them.
"Jackie Robinson didn't want to do that," Henderson adds, going on record as one of the only African-American ballplayers from that era to criticize the man who broke baseball's color barrier. "You know, some people think that they're better than other people because they're in the Major Leagues and you're coming from a sandlot team. That's my opinion, now."
And that opinion wildly differs from the historical narrative. But he was there.
Today, Cary Henderson still stays active and lives a modest life on Milwaukee’s Northwest side with his wife, Rose. To supplement his Social Security, he still works cleaning offices downtown, but is happy to talk to fans of all ages about his time with the Memphis Red Sox.
Beginning in 2006, the Brewers have gotten behind the effort to recognize Milwaukee’s contribution to the Negro Leagues, wearing the uniform of the 1923 Milwaukee Bears, who disbanded after just that one season.