On the eve of Opening Day for the 1912 Pacific Coast League season, Portland Beavers pitcher Ben Henderson had an important announcement to make. "I got a new curve this year and I'm goin' to pitch one or two of them tomorrow. I call it the Jazz ball because it wobbles and you simply can't do anything with it." Unfortunately, Ben had more wobble than his pitch.
The Los Angeles Angels only laughed when the once promising Portland right-hander boasted about his new pitch. Had anyone predicted Henderson capable of introducing a new word into the English language, it probably would have been a synonym for hangover.
Ben Henderson had become John Barleycorn. He had recently signed a nominal “booze contract” that would pay a substantial bonus if he could only remain sober. His frustrated manager, Walter McCredie, simply couldn't do anything with him. After winning 21 games for the 1911 champion Beavers, the besotted Henderson would lose every time he showcased his “jazz ball” from the pitcher’s box in 1912. By June, the Portland skipper had enough. He suspended Henderson for “running the water wagon into the ditch and falling off.”
The next year – 1913 – Henderson wallowed with the Toledo Mud Hens near the bottom of the American Association standings. He notched but one victory to go along with five defeats. The Mud Hens were glad to unload the washed-up hurler. He was shipped to Boyes Springs, (Sonoma County) California for spring training with the San Francisco Seals in 1914. Benny should have been with the team the previous year when the Seals reportedly trained on “ragtime and jazz.” At the time, jazz had nothing to do with music.
To mislead management, jazz was the name the players gave to the mineral water they drank from Boyes Springs in 1913. They claimed the water gave them “pep.“ If indeed the water pepped the boys up, it was probably because they added a little extra octane to it. Ben Henderson would have been a well-known, possibly legendary boozer throughout the Coast League in 1913. My theory is that out of respect for his bibulous reputation, they named this miracle water in honor of Henderson’s wobbly jazz ball.
This is where the story becomes a curve ball. Musician Art Hickman loved baseball. In 1913, he took his dance band to Boyes Springs to play ragtime for the Seals’ listening pleasure after a long day in training camp. Based on the flowery praise and prose of the sportswriters concerning the nocturnal adventures of the team, Hickman’s group was booked into the posh St. Francis Hotel on Union Square in San Francisco. This is where the word “jazz” made its transition from lively water to lively music.
Hickman was crowned the “King of Jazz,“ a title he would later denounce because of its connection to the African-American sound. Perhaps real credit for putting the word into the mainstream of our culture actually belongs to his banjo player, Bert Kelly, who formed his own “Bert Kelly’s Jazz Band.” He took the band to Chicago in 1914 or 1915 and the word "jazz" struck a true note.
Poor Ben Henderson was given his unconditional release by the Salt Lake City Bees in 1915. Today, the NBA Utah Jazz play basketball in Salt Lake City, but that’s another story with an another interesting twist. Henderson, a native of Council Bluffs, Iowa, would fade into oblivion until his death in Oakland, California in 1951 at age 67. He left behind his widow, Alice, and no children.
One wonders if over a glass of bathtub gin, the old curve ball artist ever told anyone that he had invented jazz.
This article appeared in DownBeat magazine, August 2007