RIP to former pitcher Henry “Pistol” Mason, whose journey took him from the Negro Leagues to the major leagues to the pulpit. Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, announced that Mason died on May 29 at the age of 88. Mason started his career with the Kansas City Monarchs before spending parts of two seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies (1958, 1960).
Henry Mason was born in Marshall, Mo., on June 19, 1931. He was said to be a fine football and basketball player in high school, but baseball ended up being his sport of choice. The first time he showed up in a Kansas City Monarchs game recap came in August of 1951, where he was a shortstop and not a pitcher. He got a base hit in his first appearance with the team and then went 2-for-4 on August 12 against the Birmingham Black Barons and pitcher Roosevelt Lilly.
By 1952, Mason had moved to the pitcher’s mound, and it was a thoroughly successful transition. On April 30, he and the Monarchs faced the Indianapolis Clowns in Muskogee, Okla., and he shut them down with a 7-0 7-hitter. The best thing the Clowns had in their favor was the work of shortstop “Frank” Aaron, who had 13 chances without an error. Four days later, the two teams matched up again in Kansas City for a doubleheader, and Mason held them to three hits over 7 innings for an 8-1 win. The Clowns shortstop, now properly identified in the newspapers as Henry Aaron, had one of the hits with a double to left, but he was tagged out when he strayed too far from the bag while rounding second base.
“The young Missourian, who is being counted on to bolster the Monarch mound corps materially this year, had perfect control as he fanned five and walked none,” reported The Kansas City Times.
Mason served in the Navy for two years before returning to the Monarchs in 1954. He had quite the warm welcome too, because on June 27 in Cincinnati, he no-hit the Clowns 6-0. He struck out 9 and faced just 28 batters. The only time he found himself in any danger was when he walked the bases loaded in the fourth inning. His teammates turned two on a double play, forcing the runner at home, and he fanned the last hitter to get out of the inning unscathed.
Mason was selected to play in the 1954 East-West Game, the Negro Leagues’ All-Star Game. West team was managed by Monarchs skipper Buck O’Neil, while the East was managed by Oscar Charleston. The West won the game 8-4, and Mason was credited with the win despite allowing the go-ahead run in the fifth inning. His Monarchs teammate, Pancho Herrera, bailed him out with 4 RBIs, including a 2-run homer.
By 1954, with the integration of Major League Baseball, many of the Negro Leagues stars had moved to the majors. By then, the surviving teams were barnstorming more and more, as evidenced by the Monarchs-Clowns games in Oklahoma and Ohio. None of Mason’s statistics from his time with the Monarchs are available in any site I could find. One report from 1955 stated that Mason had an 11-5 record for the Monarchs in his final year with the team. By all indications, he was one of the Monarchs’ top hurlers at the time. In the 1954 offseason, Mason and teammate Herrera were signed by the Philadelphia Phillies, which was one of the few teams that had yet to integrate.
Mason spent most of 1955 with the Schenectady Blue Jays; he and Herrera were the team’s first black players. If there was a competition to integrate the Phillies between the two, it was a friendly one, as they were friends and roommates. The team was planning on keeping them in the minors until 1957 at the earliest, but they both did their best to move up that date. Mason went 14-9 in 43 games, 22 of which were starts. He had an 2.93 ERA and was second in the league in strikeouts behind Jim Coates with 166. By July 1, The News Journal (Wilmington, Del.), was prepared to call him one of the best Blue Jay pitchers ever.
“His curve is as good as there is in the Eastern League; his fast ball moves, his control is satisfactory. All he needs is a changeup, and he’s working hard for that.” The paper reported that by July 1, Mason had thrown two shutouts, two three-hitters, a four-hitter and a one-hitter (which is lost 1-0).
The 25-year-old won 15 more games with the Jays in 1956, with a 2.28 ERA. He made a favorable impression on anyone who faced him. Binghamton manager Freddie Fitzsimmons said that if he could recommend any Eastern League hurler to a major-league club, he’d recommend Mason. “He could do someone a lot of good in the bullpen,” he said.
Mason was interviewed in 2012 and talked about playing in the Eastern League. He said that he had no problems in Schenectady, but he had to deal with racism on road trips.
“There were some issues,” he said. “But I weathered the storm. I tell you what, if (opponents) were saying things about you, the best way to silence them was to get them out. The first three batters I faced in the Eastern League, I struck them out. That was Elmira. That kind of silenced them and got them off my back.”
The Phillies continued their original plan and moved Mason along slowly, sending him to AAA Miami in 1957. He joined Herrera there, as well as another Negro Leagues star, Satchel Paige. Mason was used as a reliever and went 4-5 with a 4.04 ERA, with 45 strikeouts in 69 innings. In the meantime, a shortstop named John Kennedy broke the Phillies’ color barrier on April 22, 1967. His major-league career lasted 5 games and 2 hitless at-bats.
Mason and Paige bonded over fishing, of all things. The two pitchers reportedly went out one afternoon to try a local fishing hole. Paige caught two fish about the size of his hand. Mason pulled in almost two dozen healthy sized fish.
“I went fishing with Satch yesterday. We made a deal — I am teaching him how to fish and he is teachin’ me how to hit,” Mason told reporters. Mason hit a game-tying home run on April 4 against Montreal, so Paige must have been a good teacher.
Mason dropped his ERA by nearly a full run in 1958, ending with a 3.06 mark and a 4-2 record. The Phillies brought him to the major leagues in September, making him the team’s first ever black pitcher. He made his debut with a 5-inning relief performance against the Giants on September 12. After starter Ray Semproch and reliever Jim Hearn gave up 8 runs in the first inning, Mason was sent out to pitch. He walked Willie Mays and Leon Wagner and gave up a single to Orlando Cepeda, loading the bases before he’d recorded an out. He allowed sacrifice flies to Willie Kirkland and Andre Rogers before getting Bob Schmidt looking on a strikeout. He then threw three scoreless innings before running out of gas in the sixth. All total, Mason gave up 5 runs on 5 hits to end the day with 7 runs (6 earned) allowed in 5 innings, with 2 walks and 3 strikeouts. He also went 0-for-2 against Giants starter Johnny Antonelli.
Mason spent all of 1959 with the AAA Buffalo Bisons, where he won 12 games in 6 starts and 35 relief outings. He had 82 strikeouts in 125 innings and a 3.24 ERA. He impressed in spring training and made the Phillies’ Opening Day roster in 1960. In his first performance on April 16, he tossed 2 shutout innings against the Milwaukee Braves. However, he allowed 3 runs in 3 innings against the Pirates on April 21 and surrendered a home run to Pirates reliever Fred Green. He then gave up 3 more runs in a 10-4 loss to the Reds on April 24. He was returned to Buffalo shortly after, ending his MLB career.
Mason pitched in a total of 4 games and allowed 12 earned runs in 10-2/3 innings for a 10.13 ERA. He struck out 6 and walked 7. He continued to pitch in the minor leagues through 1962, with varying success. Elbow problems brought his career to an early end. When he retired at the age of 31, he had a 60-46 record over 8 minor-league seasons.
During his playing days, Mason worked on his farm back in Marshall. He spent 10 years working for Goodyear after his retirement. Later in life, he became a minister and served as the Associate Pastor at St. James United Methodist Church in Kansas City. He was a strong supporter of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and toured the country to tell his story.
Check out this link from the Richmond Times-Dispatch which features a video of Mason talking about having Willie Mays be the first hitter he ever faced in the majors.