A belated farewell to Bill Henry, a south-Texas southpaw with 16 years in the majors and 22 in pro ball, who passed away April 11 at age 86. Henry filled every role in his time, including one that he helped pioneer. Some notes on his playing career:
Breaking in with the ’52 Red Sox, Henry started and won his first four games, a feat shared by just 11 other live-ball pitchers. He also went 6-for-15 with 4 RBI and a triple in those games, and is one of two pitchers to knock in a run in three of his first four games. (The other: Jason Grilli?) As a swingman for Boston from 1952-55, Henry logged a 109 ERA+, but went back and forth to the minors, for reasons unknown. After a two-year exile to the bushes, he returned at age 30 as a bullpen workhorse with the Cubs, leading all relievers in WAR for 1958-59 combined. His 115 strikeouts in 1959 were the most by a pure reliever before Dick Radatz came along three years later.
Moving on to the Reds in a trade for the slugger Frank Thomas, Henry was an All-Star in 1960, pitching a scoreless inning, and then formed a left-right closing tandem with Jim Brosnan for the ’61 NL champs. His 2.19 ERA was best in the NL that year with at least 50 innings. His 0.87 ERA in ’64 was the only relief season under 1.00 with 50+ innings until 1986 (Rob Murphy, 0.72), and still ranks 4th for those criteria; his 0.83 WHIP that year set a live-ball record, since broken. In ’65, he became the first left-hander with 400 career games in relief.
In his last phase, Henry was the first long-term lefty specialist. He was death to lefty batters from 1964-68 (age 36-40), holding them to a .116 average (27 for 233) and .365 OPS — both light-years beyond any other with 100 innings in that span, and very like the career mark of Aroldis Chapman, the current standard of LHB domination (.111 BA, .363 OPS).
When he retired in 1969, Henry had the most games facing exactly one, two, and three batters. His marks of 131 games facing two batters or less, and 77 facing just one man, were both surpassed by Darold Knowles, in 1978 and ’79; Mike Myers now holds both “records” with 478 and 314, respectively.
Bill Henry had the best career of the five players born in Alice, Texas, a town of some 20,000 west of Corpus Christi. He was the first pitcher to come out of the University of Houston, and had the most games of that group until Jesse Crain passed him last year. That he made the bigs at all was a bit of an upset, as his minor-league mark was just 44-45 before his debut, and 12-15, 4.44 in his one year above class B before joining Boston. But he earned his keep. Through 1969, Henry’s career WAR ranked 6th among all pitchers with less than 50 starts (and 2nd among lefties), with a better per-inning WAR rate than such relief stars as Roy Face, Johnny Murphy, Clem Labine and Jim Konstanty.
His long list of Hall of Fame teammates included Ted Williams, Lou Boudreau and George Kell with the Red Sox (1952-55); Ernie Banks and Billy Williams with the Cubs (1958-59); Frank Robinson and Tony Perez with the Reds (1960-65); Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Gaylord Perry, Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda and Warren Spahn (yes) with the Giants (1965-68); Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Bill Mazeroski and Jim Bunning with the Pirates (1968); and Joe Morgan with the Astros (1969).