jazz 1912: Ben Henderson

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Wed Sep 10 23:03:16 UTC 2003

Below is a biography of Ben Henderson, the baseball player who was quoted in the LATimes in 1912 as using the expression "Jazz Curve".  Since it was compiled through the Proquest Historical Newspapers database, it comes with the usual warnings regarding the many inadequacies of that service.  Still, for the purposes of the history of the word "jazz", a more complete sketch no doubt isn't needed.


Born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, October 31, 1886; first pitched for Omaha in 1903; pitched for Indianapolis during 1904 & 1905 (LATimes, November 4, 1906).

Star pitcher for Portland Beavers, 1906 Pacific Coast League champions (LATimes, October 3, 1906).

California League, an “outlaw” league, founded in 1907; Henderson and other Pacific Coast League players ignored the reserve clause in their contracts; he signed with Stockton (LATimes, January 21 & March 7, 1907).  The National Association of “organized baseball” blacklisted Henderson and the others (LATimes, May 17, 1907).

He was offered a contract by Toledo of the American Association (LATimes, June 3, 1907), but he “failed to show his usual class, and was released” (LATimes, January 11, 1914).

Played for Stockton in 1908, pitching forty games and winning thirty five; his contract was bought from Portland by the Cleveland “Naps” (LATimes & Washington Post, February 28, 1909).  Boston of the National League claimed a prior deal with Portland, but the claim was rejected by the National Commission (Washington Post, March 2 & March 31, 1909; LATimes, March 31, 1909).  He let this chance “slip through his fingers” (LATimes, January 11, 1914).  At some point during his years with Stockton, he “fell off the water wagon . . . with such eclat that he had to go to a hospital to recuperate” (LATimes, July 7, 1911).

Played for Oakland in the California League in 1910 (LATimes, April 8 & April 23, 1910).

Apparently he was reinstated by the National Commission during the winter of 1911; he was on the roster of the Portland Beavers in the spring of that year (LATimes, March 24, 27, 28 & 30, 1911).

There is a portrait of Henderson in the middle of his pitching motion, with the caption “Pitcher who has been taken from Portland by the National Commission” (LATimes, April 9, 1911).  [I do not know what this refers to.]  He pitched and won his first game of the season, hit a home run and a double (LATimes, April 24, 1911).

He disappeared, having apparently been benched for some “lapse”; is referred to as the “Ten Thousand Dollar Beauty” (LATimes, July 7, 1911).  [I can’t explain this; the California League had “$1600 salary limit” (LATimes, January 12, 1910) and he had no bargaining leverage with Portland, other than by refusing to play at all.]  He returned and won a game (LATimes, July 13, 1911).

“Oh, Pretty Fair.  WHAT I THINK OF COAST LEAGUE BASEBALL PLAYERS, by a Big League Scout.  ***  Take Bennie Henderson, for instance.  He is a “groove” pitcher and will never do in the big leagues unless he changes his style.  He lays them right over and even though he holds the minor leaguers to few hits he will never fool the big fellows, for that is the one thing they are waiting for – a ball over the center of the plate, where they can at least drive it out with full power, even if it does not go safe.”
(LATimes, September 15, 1911).

The Beavers had a good season and were in the championship playoffs.  “INSIDE “DOPE” ABOUT THE PORTLAND STAR PITCHERS.  By Roger Cornell, (Trainer of the Portland team for two seasons, now with the L. A. Athletic Club.)  One of the best pitchers M’Credie will bring down for the Vernon Portland series is Bennie Henderson.
Henderson is a very reliable pitcher; but he likes the fans to keep quiet when he is in the box.  He has a great curve, and a good change of pace; is not a Marathon pitcher, but is very good if everything breaks right for him; must have good support.  Don’t blow your horns when he is in the box, as it rattles him.  (LATimes, October 4, 1911)

“He is a fine heaver when he is right but is a hard boy to control.”  (LATimes, October 22, 1911)

“Water Wagon Kid.  Booze Contract for Henderson.  M'Credie to Give Erratic Twirler Chance.  ***  [headline]  Walter M'Credie has decided to give Ben Henderson, his capable but erratic big right-handed pitcher, another chance to be good next season. . . .  ***  Ben will be put on what is known as a "booze contract," which means that he will receive but a nominal sum through the season as long as he behaves himself, and there will be a clause attached promising him a good, substantial bonus if he stays on the water wagon.”  (LATimes, December 19, 1911)

BEN'S JAZZ CURVE.  "I got a new curve this year," softly 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.  {LATimes, April 2, 1912)

He angered his manager by “running the water wagon into the ditch and falling off” and was suspended.  “I’ll just keep him on the suspended list and make him sweat a little.  He has made me sweat enough.  I think he is one of the greatest pitchers in the country and I could sell him back East tomorrow for $1500, but I do not need the money.  I guess this will be enough for Henderson.”  (LATimes, June 23, 1912)

“A general massacre is about to occur in the Portland baseball team – according to a special dispatch to The Times.  “McCredie is to let out pitchers Elmer Koestner, Speck Harkness, Harry Sutor and Bennie Henderson.  ***  McCredie has decided to trade the whole bunch.  “My team hit well this season but my pitchers were punk,” he said.”  (LATimes, October 31, 1912)

I don’t know where he was in 1913; he was on the roster of the San Francisco Seals at the beginning of spring training, 1914 (LATimes, February 26, 1914.  “What, Again?  BENNIE FALLS FROM WAGON.  HENDERSON HAS BEEN MISSING FOUR DAYS.”  [headline]  He disappeared from the training camp at Boyes Spring (LA Times, March 2, 1914) but returned (LA Times, March 8, 1914).  Nonetheless, he was on the opening day roster (LA Times, March 17, 1914), but disappeared again (LA Times, March 29, 1914).  [I don’t know whether he was kept on the Seals roster after his second lapse – it rather seems not, since his name doesn’t appear in any accounts of baseball games during the season.]

He was released unconditionally by Salt Lake City of the Pacific Coast League (LATimes, May 5, 1915).


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African
Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998.

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