FORMER MAJORLEAGUE pitcher Bill Henry died a couple of weeks ago. He found out about itwhile sitting in his favorite chair.
What happenedwas, the phone rang in his Deer Park, Texas, home and his wife, Betty Lou,picked it up. A baseball historian named David Lambert was calling to offer hiscondolences on the passing of her husband in Lakeland, Fla., of a heart attack,at 83.
This was news toBetty Lou.
"Bill didn'tpass away in Florida," she said. "He's sittin' right next tome."
Turns out theBill Henry who died had been passing himself off as the one still alive forsome 20 years. The counterfeit Bill Henry's wife believed he'd been a bigleaguer. His family believed it. Their friends did too.
Hard not to,really. Both men were 6' 2", lefthanded, square-jawed and squinty-eyed."I look at their pictures and think, Dad looks more like the real BillHenry [did in his playing days] than the real Bill Henry does," says thedead man's stepdaughter-in-law, Jeanine Hill-Cole.
Besides,counterfeit Bill's stories sounded so real, all about his 16-year career as anAll-Star reliever with six major league teams in the 1950s and '60s. Twice ayear he would even address a Baseball, Humor and Society class at FloridaSouthern College and tickle the students with stories about barnstorming withSatchel Paige. "Heck, I'd make more money with Satchel than I ever did inthe regular season!" he'd chuckle. "Most I ever made in the big leagueswas $17,000."
The man hadcojones the size of pumpkins. When the Detroit Tigers were in Lakeland forspring training, he'd go to the games and mingle with the old-timers. He'd evenget the big backslap from former Tigers managers Sparky Anderson and RalphHouk. "Tells you how dumb baseball people are," says Anderson.
Sure, every nowand then somebody would ask counterfeit Bill why the birth date on his baseballcard, Oct. 15, 1927, was different from the one he told people, Feb. 1, 1922.He'd laugh and say he did it to make scouts think he was younger. The truthwas, "Bill was just a good town-team pitcher," says Charles Carter,counterfeit Bill's childhood friend from back in Moberly, Mo.
Anyway, after hedied, the Lakeland Ledger did a nice obit, and the AP picked it up and it ranall over the country. That's when the real Bill's phone started howling.
Betty Lou'ssister called from Houston, distraught. "I'm still kickin'," the liveBill insisted. "Honest!" His daughter-in-law called from Seattle. Herdad had read her the obit, and she was shocked. She thought Bill had been doingfine.
If they wereshocked, you should've seen counterfeit Bill's wife of 19 years, Jean. Shewondered what else he'd lied about. She soon found out when she went into thebasement and found Army records that showed Bill fibbed about the year he wasborn—1924 instead of 1922—and even about his name. He'd always said he had nomiddle name. Turns out he was actually Clarence William Henry Jr. "Now I'mnot sure who I was married to," she says.
How did he foolall the people all the time? Maybe because there weren't that many people leftto call him on it. Jean was counterfeit Bill's third wife; they married inMichigan, where he was a salesman. Both his kids and both ex-wives were dead,and he'd been an only child. There was a cousin Jean met, named Bill Nicholson,but he was never around.
"It's amazinga guy could pull a hoax for that long, isn't it?" says the real Bill, now a79-year-old Houston ship dispatcher. "I'd congratulate him. If that's whatthe guy needed to do to help his career, it don't bother me....I just hope theydon't stop my Social Security."
Ever meetSatchel? "Nope." Do better than $17,000 a year? "Yep."
The real puzzleris why? Why would a handsome man with a lot of friends, a great wife and a sixhandicap create such an elaborate and exhausting lie? Not for love. Jean didn'tknow a bunt from a banana. Did he say it once as a lark and then get caught init? Did he yearn for a ballplayer's life instead of a salesman's? Did he thrillto the con?
"What does itmatter?" asks one of his best friends, Bob McHenry. "Bill was a goodman. He hurt nobody. He never tried to make money off it....Look, we live inGod's waiting room here. Bill probably made a lot of old guys happy. All of asudden they knew a major leaguer!"
Last week camethe topper. Jean went to the funeral parlor, and the folks there couldn't findhis ashes. Now she wonders if she's got the right ones.
You gotta hand itto him. The guy never quits.
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He had pretended to be a former major leaguer for some20 years, even hanging with Sparky Anderson when the Tigers were in Florida forspring training.
PETER READ MILLER