Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Ben Henderson's Trouble with the Curve - the "Jazz" Curve

Ben Henderson’s Trouble with the Curve – 
was it his Jazz Hands?

San Francisco Call, October 8, 1911, p. 37
In 2003, one-time minor league baseball star and major-league aspirant, Ben Henderson, became a minor celebrity in the world of etymology when New York University librarian George Thompson found what is believed to be the first known appearance of the word, “jazz,” in print in a 1912 article in the Los Angeles Times about Henderson’s new pitch:[i]


“I got a new curve this year,” sofetly [sic] murmured Henderson yesterday, “and I’m goin’ to pitch one or two of them tomorrow. I call it the Jazz ball because it wobbles and you simply can’t do anything with it.”

As prize fighters who invent new punches are always the first to get their’s Ben will probably be lucky if some guy don’t hit that new Jazzer ball a mile today.  It is to be hoped that some unintelligent compositor does not spell that the Jag ball. That’s what it must be at that if it wobbles.

On the following day, the Times reported on the success of the pitch:

Henderson cut the outside corner with a fast curve also for one strike.  Benny calls this his “jass” ball.

Dave Wilton, (citing Los Angeles Times, April 2 and April 3, 1912).

[For more background on the origins of the word “jazz,” see my post: Is Jasbo Jazz? – or Just Hokum and Gravy?.]

These are the only known references to Ben Henderson’s “jazz” ball.  The word “jazz” does not appear in print again until 1913, when sportswriters “Scoop” Gleeson, of the San Francisco Bulletin, and “Spike” Slattery, of the San Francisco Call, used the word in sports reports as a synonym for “pep.” 

Coincidentally (or not?), much of what we known about Ben Henderson’s career in Portland is found in the sports section of the San Francisco Call, edited by “Spike” Slattery, who is thought to have taught the word “jazz” to “Scoop” Gleeson, who is the first writer known to have regularly used the word, “jazz,” beginning in 1913.

As for poor Ben Henderson, there is a reason that we never heard about his “jazz” curve again – it apparently didn’t do much for his career.  Within one month, he would go on a bender, disappear, and be threatened with being hounded out of baseball.

Henderson, a pitcher for the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast league, lost the opening game of the season to the Angels, despite the debut of his new pitch.  The result of the game was never in doubt; his “jazz” ball was not quite as jazzy as he had hoped:

Angels Put Over Win on Beavers. 
Seraphs Cinch Game Early and Leverenz Has Things All His Own Way.   
Special Dispatch to The Call. Los Angeles, April 2.  

Twelve thousand joy-mad people left Washington street park this afternoon after having seen history repeat itself in the defeat of Portland by Los Angeles in the opening game of the season. . . .

There were early imitations of a Seraph victory.  When Daley, the first of the defenders up in the opening inning, soused a Henderson slant to left for a single, the audience had a well-defined hunch that the home folks might succeed in bringing home the bacon.  Before the curtain was rung down on the first frame, Bennie’s benders had been rapped for four hits and the first run of the season. . . .  

In the fifth stanza, Henderson’s delivery again became an open book to the Angels, and they slapped his slants four different ways from the grandstand.  Mighty blows by Reams, Daley, Page and Dillon released three runs to the plate and spelled defeat for the visitors.

The San Francisco Call, April 3, 1912, page 11.

Henderson pitched in at least two more losing efforts during the next two weeks.  He dropped a heart-stopper to Oakland, 3-2, in eleven innings (The Tacoma Times, April 13, 1912, page 2), and lost the Beavers' home-opener to the San Francisco Seals, 2-1, in the inaugural game in their new stadium (The Tacoma Times, April 17, 1912, page 2).

It all unraveled about three weeks after unveiling the “jazz” pitch.  On April 25, 1912, Henderson entered a game against the Oakland Oaks in the fifth inning with bases loaded.  The starting pitcher, Temple, had pitched well through four innings, and went into the fifth with a 4-1 lead.  When Oakland loaded the bases with two scratch hits and a walk, Portland’s manager, McCredie, sent in Henderson to protect the lead:

On the first two balls pitched by Ben Henderson, sent in to rescue Temple, Oakland scored five runs and won the game in the fifth inning today.  The final score was Oakland 6, Portland 5.

The San Francisco Call, April 26, 1912.

Henderson took the loss badly:

Henderson Again Missing and the Water Wagon Is Lost, Too

Portland, May 1. – Benny Henderson, star pitcher in 1911 for the Portland Beavers, and this year a member of the staff, has disappeared.

For almost a week Ben hasn’t been around the Beaver camp.  Today Manager McCredie got a bit nervous, and, fearing that Ben was really ill, called up his home and found that he had not been there for several days.

Nothing has been seen of the water wagon, and the heavy rains of the last few days have obliterated the tracks of that vehicle.

McCredie doesn’t know whether Henderson is riding there or not, but he does say that if Benny has fallen off he will be suspended or released in short order.

The San Francisco Call, May 2, 1912, page 11.

[The mention of the “water wagon,” is a reference to Henderson’s drinking problem (to be “on the water wagon” and to fall off the “water wagon” are equivalent to the modern, to be “on the wagon” and “fall off the wagon”).  For more background, see my post: The History and Etymology of Getting on and Falling off "the Wagon".]

Henderson apparently had a history of alcohol problems.  When he signed his contract for 1912 season, Henderson scoffed at the “liquor clause”:

Henderson Will Sign

Portland, Ore., Feb. 27. – Manager McCredie received a letter from Ben Henderson yesterday in which the big twirler said he would sign his contract and asked that his transportation be forwarded to Tracy, Cal., where he has spent the winter hunting.  Henderson said the liquor clause was a funny one, but opined that it would be all right.

The San Francisco Call, February 28, 1912, page 11.

Henderson returned more than a month later; this time posing on - and promising to stay on - the "Water Wagon":

Morning Oregonian (Portland), March 18, 1912, page 10.

In June, he got his shot shot at redemption:

McCredie has announced that Ben Henderson will twirl Sunday for the Beavers, this being his first appearance since April 25, when Coy of the Oaks put one over the fence with two men on.

The San Francisco Call, June 8, 1912, page 15.

But Henderson’s troubles were not behind him.  He did not pitch that Sunday (the Los Angeles Angels defeated the Beavers’ southpaw, Steiger, 8-2).  Henderson was gone again:

Ben Henderson has not appeared at the ball park this week and reports of his illness have led to rumors of his early release by the Portland management.

The San Francisco Call, June 16, 1912, page 57.

Sacramento, July 6. – Ben Henderson, eccentric pitcher of the Portland Coast league team, will not be seen in a uniform in organized baseball again, if manager McCredie can prevent it, unless he gets on the water wagon high and dry and plays with the Portland club. . . .  McCredie says Henderson threw him down at a time when he needed pitchers the worst way.  Henderson has been in Sacramento getting into condition, but when McCredie’s men came to town he hied himself away.

San Francisco Call, July 7, 1912, page 53.

Henderson apparently returned and mended fences, as he was expected to be on the team for 1913:

Portland, Ore., Jan. 23 – As the result of having no holdouts on his 1913 Portland Coast league team, Manager Walter McCredie is all smiles today.  Even Ben Henderson, who is to receive another “last” chance with the Portland team this year, expresses himself as being satisfied with his contract.

The Tacoma Times, January 23, 1913, page 2.

However, I can find no record of his having played in 1913, or ever again.

Ben Henderson’s career started in Council Bluffs, Iowa, where he pitched for the amateur Merchants Browns.  He left Council Bluffs in 1901, when he signed his first semi-pro contract to play in Essex, Iowa.[ii]  By 1907, after a season as Portland’s “premier pitcher,” Henderson was ready for the major leagues.  He must have been a pretty good pitcher, as the Boston Nationals (later, Braves) offered Portland “crack shortstop” “Bill” Sweeney and two outfielders for Henderson.[iii]  

But he was apparently already haunted by the inner-demons that would eventually end his career.  His inability to handle success brought him his first taste of notoriety – or infamy:


Inasmuch as there has been a general expectation that Henderson, the Portland (Ore.) pitcher, would come to Boston, the following from a Seattle exchange is interesting:

Ben Henderson, Tom Hackett, and Bill Moriarity have been blacklisted forever by the Pacific Coast League and will never be able to play in organized baseball again. . . .  The three men are playing with Stockton in the outlaw California State League.  Henderson was Portland’s premier pitcher last year. . . . .

The case of Henderson caused the greatest furore. . . . Henderson has jumped three contracts.

Last February Henderson accepted terms and signed a contract with McCredie.  Then he refused to report, and at the time Donahue joined the team he accepted and signed another contract for an advance.  Still he refused to report.  Last week terms were submitted to him to play with Boston.  After a week’s haggling he finally accepted them and then refused to go.

The Washington (DC) Times, July 29, 1907, last edition, page 8.

Henderson’s perceived upside must have been huge.  While still on the blacklist, he was traded to yet another big league team for which he would never play.  In 1909, the Cleveland Americans (later, Indians) were awarded the right to acquire Henderson, and traded two players to Portland for his services.[iv]  But Henderson, who was then playing so-called “outlaw” ball in a non-affiliated league in California, never reported to the team.

When he was enjoying success and was flush with cash, however, Henderson knew how to live.  He is known to have had his automobile shipped to the various cities where they played, in order to enjoy a ride in the country during road trips:

Portland Pitcher an Auto Enthusiast
Ben Henderson, the star pitcher of the Portland team of the Pacific Coast legue, recently purchased a 1911 Oldsmobile, and he is certainly getting a lot of pleasure out of this luxurious car.  When the Portland team is playing in San Francisco Henderson rarely misses a morning ride, and he generally ships his car to Sacramento and Los Angeles when he is playing there.

The San Francisco Call, May 28, 1911, page 43.

Booze, cars and fast living; Henderson seems a perfect fit for the “Jazz Age,” which was then just around the corner.  Little did he know at the time, but his “jazz” pitch would someday famously be the first known appearance of the word in print. 

His legacy lives on for now. 

Fame is fleeting, Ben Henderson, enjoy your success while you can – until they find an older reference.

[i] Origins of ‘jazz’ thrown a curve ball, Los Angeles Times, August 24, 2003.
[ii] Omaha Daily Bee, August 7, 1901, page 8.
[iii] The Washington (DC) Times, July 29, 1907, last edition, page 8.
[iv] The San Francisco Call, March 31, 1909, page 11.

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