Gail Henley was originally signed by the New York Giants in 1948. He spent 4 years in their system before getting traded to Cincinnati for hurler Frank Hiller. The following day, Henley was again traded, this time to the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1953, Henley played well in Tuscon (Class AA), hitting .290 in 579 at-bats. The following season, in 1954, Henley made the Pirates out of Spring Training. He hit .300 (9-30) over 14 games before getting sent back down to New Orleans of the Southern League. In 1955, the Pirates outfield was again crowded. It featured Frank Thomas, Jerry Lynch, Johnny and Ed O’Brien, Roman Mejias, Felipe Montemayor, Johnny Powers, Tom Saffell, Earl Smith…and most notably a rookie named Roberto Clemente. Gail would never make it back to the majors. Henley continued to play in the minors through 1961 amassing 159 homeruns and hitting .274 over 14 seasons (1948-1961).
Following his playing career, Gail went on to become a successful minor league manager. He managed 12 seasons and won 4 League Championships: 1962 Thomasville Tigers (Georgia-Florida League), 1977, 1979, and 1980 Lethbridge Dodgers (Pioneer League). Henley was also a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers through the 1980’s. All in all, Gail Henley was in professional baseball for nearly four decades.
We recently wrote to Mr. Henley and asked him several questions including what it was like to play alongside the likes of Willie Mays and Ray Dandridge; both future Hall of Famers.
Mr. Henley wrote:
“There was no doubt about Willie Mays – he had all the talent in the world- he was the most complete player that I ever knew or played with!
Ray Dandridge was an outstanding player. Older when he played away from the Negro Leagues.
Dixie Walker was a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was from the South and held strong views against players of color. He was out of baseball soon after Robinson broke the color line –
As a player, we seldom had issues with the black players. We were there for the same purpose, win games and get to the M.L. [Major Leagues]”
Henley played alongside Dandridge with the Minneapolis Millers 1949 and 1951. In ’51, they both teamed up with a young Willie Mays in Minneapolis. This was four years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier and there was still plenty of resentment throughout professional baseball (see Dixie Walker). Mr. Henley (and his teammates) just wanted to play ball and didn’t care what color your skin was.
We also asked about his managerial career and which of his players became the most successful in the game:
“Probably the best player for success was Jim Rooker (LHP). He was my CF in Duluth – we converted him to pitching. Jim Leyland also – so-so player, but became a very good manager!”
Thanks for your time Mr. Henley…and the picture!
Full text of our correspondence. Click to enlarge.