Henderson helped Legion ball thrive

HANCOCK – Arnie Henderson wasn’t the grandfather of American Legion baseball in the Copper Country.

But the Mass City native certainly gave it a big boost at a time when it was struggling.

Between 1969 and 1994, Henderson guided Hancock Legion teams to great success.

In fact, the Hancock City Council renamed the road by the Hancock Driving Park after him a few years ago.

“I arrived in the Copper Country at a time when Legion ball was kind of struggling,” Henderson said recently. “I guess there had been a team earlier, but the interest had kind of waned. A few of us got together and helped renew the interest.”

At one time, there was an eight-team Legion league. Hancock had two teams, Red and Gold, for a time. Calumet, Lake Linden, Houghton, L’Anse, Baraga, Ontonagon and Rockland also fielded clubs at one time or another.

When Henderson arrived to teach in the Hancock school system in the fall of 1968, he was approached by some HCHS youngsters about getting a baseball team going.

“We had guys like Bill Tarbox, Rich Salani and Rick Miller — all very good athletes,” Henderson recalled.

“They had an interest in playing and they knew I was interested in the sport.”

Hancock did very well in the local league, winning numerous titles. The Post 186 team also hosted two state tournaments, in 1973 and 1984, and traveled to Miles City, Mont. a couple of times to compete against national competition.

Duane “Burr” Nettell, who played for Henderson, said his former coach always stressed the fundamentals.

“With Arnie, you learned to do the little things,” Nettell commented. “I know he taught me an awful lot about playing the game.”

Growing up on a farm in the Wainola area (near Mass), Arnie said he, and his brother Ray, had to learn the game of baseball the hard way.

“No one taught us a thing about the game … we were just farm kids,” he noted. “But we learned by playing a lot, and picked up the nuances along the way.”

The two brothers were also fine basketball players. Arnie was a member of the 1955 Mass High team that won the Class D state championship and later played at Suomi College.

“Playing in Jenison Fieldhouse before 12,000 people was something I’ll remember forever,” he said of the team that was led by all-stater Roland Antila. “You don’t often get a chance to do something like that.”

Ray, who Arnie freely admits was “the better athlete,” gained All-U.P. laurels in 1959 and also played hoops at Suomi.

Both were regulars for the hometown baseball team. Ray gained a bit of notoriety when he hit three homers in one game against Trout Creek ace Jim Manning, who later pitched briefly for the Minnesota Twins.

After gaining his college degree from Northern Michigan University, Arnie taught – and coached – for four years in Fredonia, Wis. He also had shorter teaching stints in Menominee and Ishpeming before coming to Hancock.

While in Menominee, he had the chance to learn more baseball from Richard “Red” LaCousiere, a U.P. Sports Hall of Fame coach.

“I had the opportunity to learn a lot about the game from him (LaCousiere),” he said. “Red knew a lot about baseball and how to teach others.”

Henderson, who coached varsity basketball for the Bulldogs for a time, also mentored the boys and girls cross country teams at Hancock. But more on that later.

His American Legion teams were always prepared, according to Glenn Mitchell, who was a standout pitcher in the early 1980s.

“With Arnie, you could always count on getting a refresher course on the fundamentals,” Mitchell recalled. “He believed the little things would win games.”

Of course, Hancock had some outstanding athletes during Henderson’s time.

“We did have a run of very fine players,” Arnie noted. “Guys like Larry Asiala, Doug Larson, Tom and Tim Kearly, Glenn and Chuck Mitchell, Mark Schmitz, Dave Dix, Scott Mikesch and Tom Rocchi to name just a few,” he said.

“Tom Rocchi and Glenn Mitchell were outstanding pitchers. Rocchi had great talent, I believe he could have pitched professionally. And Mitchell had a fast-ball that really moved.”

Post 186 qualified for the 1982 state tourney by defeating Escanaba and its ace pitcher Kevin Tapani. Mikesch homered off Tapani, who would later have a long career for the Twins.

Henderson’s cross country teams also did well behind such standouts as Tom Wright, Jeff Mount, Jim Albee, Matt Rodeheffer and Petr Belej.

“The youngsters I coached in cross country were very hard workers,” he said. “Cross country is the kind of sport where accolades are hard to come by, but that didn’t keep those kids from always working hard.”

Henderson also officiated high school and college basketball for many years.

He and his wife Grace raised four children and have six grandchildren. Granddaughter Sam Henderson was a softball standout at Houghton High and is currently a member of the University of Detroit Mercy women’s softball team.

“Sam got off to a real good start this season, but fell off a little bit later in the season,” Arnie said. “But that’s Division I softball, so you know the competition is going to be tough. She’s a fine defensive catcher and a team leader for them.”

His son, Brian, guided Hancock to a Division II girls state ski championship a few years ago.

Arnie and his wife now spend the summers at their cabin in Twin Lakes and the winters in Mesa, Az. He works on the field crew for the Chicago Cubs in spring training and gets to watch his share of big league baseball.

“For someone who loves the game as much as I do, it’s an ideal situation,” he said.

He admitted he hasn’t had the chance to watch the current Hancock American Legion squad, which is coached by Nels Paul, a former Hancock player.

“I understand they are doing pretty well again … and that’s good to see. It’s just too bad there aren’t more (Legion) teams in our area. But times are different nowadays.”