Everyone here knew Bill Henry as an old major league pitcher – at church, around the golf course and certainly at home.
The 83-year-old didn’t like to boast, but he had stories. The boys at The 19th Hole lounge at the golf course where the six-foot-two lefty retired had to pry for nostalgia, but Henry knew his stuff – his appearance in the 1961 World Series with the Cincinnati Reds, the 1960 all-star selection, the 16 seasons in the majors.
But it turns out the Lakeland man was not the Bill Henry who played major league ball, and the tales he spun are unravelling a week after his death following a heart attack.
The former reliever by the same name is alive and well in Texas – stunned someone had claimed his accomplishments for decades. The 79-year-old learned of the impostor after The Associated Press distributed a short obituary. The death – and the bogus history – originally was reported in The Ledger, the local newspaper.
“I really can’t understand why a man would do something like that. To impress his family or his neighbors?” said the real pitcher.
The Lakeland man’s family isn’t sure when the deception began.
His widow, Elizabeth Jean Henry, said the couple met more than two decades ago in Michigan. His third wife, she said she never met her husband’s two children, who are both dead.
She said her future husband didn’t mention right away that he was a former big leaguer, but she had no reason to doubt him when it came up.
Elizabeth Henry said he didn’t have any memorabilia aside from a few baseball cards – no rings, no trophies, no photos. But she and his stepchildren still believe he played at least some level of minor league ball.
“He told me once he could hear his father when he was pitching a game,” Elizabeth Henry said. “He didn’t tell me what game, but he said he could hear his father in the stands calling his name. I don’t think he lied about all that.”
The couple moved here 19 years ago after he retired as a salesman, and he was a staple at the Sand Piper Golf and Country Club where the two lived. He met one of his closest friends there – a former semipro pitcher who also never doubted him.
Bob McHenry said he played for a team fielded by RCA several decades ago. The two even gave a biannual lecture called “Baseball, Humor and Society” at Florida Southern College, where McHenry was an adjunct professor.
“To me there were two relievers at that time – Joe Page for the Yankees and Bill Henry for the Cincinnati Reds,” McHenry said. “It was about the early ’50s that relieving became a big thing in the majors, and so I could accept Bill as that person.”
“He knew the names,” McHenry said. “He and I had a lot of opportunities to talk about people in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s. He knew his stuff.”
And the real Bill Henry featured on the baseball cards looked just like the one in Lakeland.
“It’s creepy striking – the nose, the face, the squinty eyes,” said Jeanine Hill-Cole, the wife of Henry’s stepson David Cole. “I mean, I’m still here looking at the picture we put in for his obituary, and you’d swear that it was the same man.”
There were differences, however. The pitcher’s middle name is Rodman, while the Florida man’s middle name was Clarence. The two also had different dates and cities of birth. The Lakeland man had explained to family and friends that the different birth dates were a deliberate deception when he was a prospect to make scouts think he was younger – something that does happen occasionally, even today.
“It’s kind of like Antique Road Show. You get this story that’s been handed down and told to you,” Hill-Cole said. “We’re still kind of all in shock.”
Some of Henry’s old golf buddies, like 64-year-old Bruce Brandt, still didn’t want to accept the news – Henry always talked with old pros who pile into town each spring when the Detroit Tigers train here.
“The guy I knew was a ballplayer,” Brandt said. “He had to be, because everybody knew him.”
He would not read The Ledger sitting a few feet away documenting his friend’s apparent lie. The newspaper said it should have done a better job confirming whether the local’s tales were true.
“There had been some discussion over the years about doing a story about him,” Ledger executive editor Skip Perez said. “One of our staff writers I think was a member of the same church. You know, in a way I wish we had done the darn story 10 years ago or whatever, because hopefully we would have checked or made a call or something.”
Elizabeth Henry said her husband’s health had declined since an Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis about three years ago. He lost his driver’s license and used a golf cart to wheel around his retirement community.
The six-handicap couldn’t even play 18 holes anymore.
“When he passed it was a relief to know he wasn’t suffering anymore,” she said. “He didn’t have to go to a nursing home. So with that I just felt at peace, and I’d like to get on with my life.”
The Lakeland family said they want Bill Henry in Texas credited with the 46-50 lifetime record, all-star selection and World Series appearance he earned. The former major leaguer, still working for a mooring company in Houston, said he didn’t mind.
“It doesn’t bother me at all,” he said.
The dead man’s friends and family in Florida insist it doesn’t matter if he played pro ball, because he was a good man anyway.
“That just was not a big or significant part of the person we all knew and loved and still hold in high regard,” Henry’s pastor Bryan Mickle said.