Skip to main content
Subscriber Exclusive

From Rochester Jeffersons to Geneva, Henry McDonald was truly one of a kind

Published Updated

In the football team pictures taken more than a century ago, it's easy to spot Henry McDonald. He's the only black player pictured.

And, indeed, Henry McDonald was one of a kind. In Rochester from 1911 to 1917, he was the first, and only, black player on the Jeffersons professional football team that went on to play in the NFL. Later, in Buffalo, he integrated the All-Americans.

As a sports pioneer, McDonald was named to the National Black Sports Hall of Fame in 1973, along with Wilt Chamberlin, Henry Aaron, Jesse Owens, Arthur Ashe and other athletes.

It’s telling that in its list of the athletes who were inducted, McDonald’s first name was given as “Herb” instead of "Henry" by the New York Times. While his achievements were significant, they (and he) were not well known.

Nonetheless, McDonald’s time in professional football, and later professional baseball, says much about his ability and his character, as does his life after his playing days.

His story is an immigrant’s story, one of settling in a new land, of making his way, and of leaving a legacy, not just in Rochester but also in Geneva, where he was revered by generations of young people.

McDonald was born in Haiti in 1890. He came to this country when he was 5, having been adopted by his father’s boss, an American.

“My natural parents realized it was a great opportunity for me to go to America,” McDonald told the Democrat and Chronicle in 1972. “I didn’t see my mother again for over 55 years.”

McDonald was raised in Canandaigua, where he became a football star at halfback for Canandaigua Academy. Not big at 140 pounds, he was fast, and his speed gave him a clear advantage.

A photo of the football team in the 1910 East High School yearbook. Henry McDonald is in the third row, second from right.
A photo of the football team in the 1910 East High School yearbook. Henry McDonald is in the third row, second from right.
Provided

After Canandaigua, McDonald played for East High School in Rochester. A picture in the East High yearbook for 1910 shows McDonald in the third row, the only black player on the team.

McDonald continued to play football in Rochester, first for the Oxfords Pros. Then, in 1911, he was spotted and signed by Leo Lyons, the Jeffersons’ manager (and later owner). 

The pay at that time was low — $15 total, McDonald sometimes said, for two games in one day, sometimes supplemented by passing the hat after the game.

It is often reported that, in playing for the Jeffersons, McDonald was the first black professional football player. However, records indicate that it's more likely he was the third, after Charles Follis, an African-American who joined the Shelby (Ohio) Blues in 1904 and Doc Baker, who signed on with Akron in 1906.

McDonald played for the Jeffersons at least through the 1917 season, during which the team traveled to Canton, Ohio, to take on the Bulldogs led by the famed Jim Thorpe.

The 1915 Rochester Jeffersons included Henry McDonald, second row, third from left. McDonald was one of the first black players in professional football.
The 1915 Rochester Jeffersons included Henry McDonald, second row, third from left. McDonald was one of the first black players in professional football.
Provided by John Steffenhagen

The Jeffersons lost 49-0, and McDonald later told the Democrat and Chronicle that the game featured the only racial incident he encountered in football. A Bulldogs player, Greasy Neale, shoved McDonald and said, “Black is black and white is white, and where I come from they don’t mix.” Thorpe jumped between Neale and McDonald, saying, “We’re here to play football,” and the game went on.

“Thorpe was the greatest football player ever,” McDonald also recalled. “He scared you with his stare and he rattled your back teeth with his tackles. He was like a runaway horse. I was fast, but he was faster.”

McDonald seems to have left the Jeffersons by 1918 — one story says he was available to play, but it’s not clear that he did.

By 1920, when the Jeffersons joined the American Professional Football Association (the precursor to the National Football League), McDonald was playing for the Buffalo All-Americans, that city’s entry in the new league.

Rochester Jeffersons confronting racism
Rochester Jeffersons team member Henry McDonald experienced racism from his own team and others. John Steffenhagen's great grandfather Leo Lyons helped him confront that racism.
Virginia Butler and James Johnson, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

This made McDonald one of the first black players in the NFL’s earliest days. And, sadly, he was one of just a handful of black athletes who played in the league before 1934. After that, there were no black players until 1946.

It doesn’t appear that McDonald played long (or often) in Buffalo. He soon switched to another sport, baseball, playing several years in the Negro leagues with the Cuban Giants and then the Pittsburgh Colored Stars.

By this time, he was married and living in Geneva, where he and his wife, Laura, had two daughters and two sons. In Geneva, McDonald worked for the American Can Co. for years, and he also spent time as the head football coach for DeSales High School and as an athletic trainer at Hobart College.

Henry McDonald, left, a former player for the Rochester Jeffersons, with Leo Lyons, the man who got the Rochester Jeffersons into the NFL.
Henry McDonald, left, a former player for the Rochester Jeffersons, with Leo Lyons, the man who got the Rochester Jeffersons into the NFL.
Provided by John Steffenhagen

He may have been best known in the community for his work as a baseball umpire with style to spare.

Chris Lavin, the executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Geneva, and a former journalist in Rochester and other places, grew up in Geneva and played Little League baseball when McDonald was umpiring.

“He had a running gag the entire youth population of the city knew,” Lavin wrote in an email. “If the count was 1 and 1, the next pitch would come, and Henry would declare loudly ‘2!’ Everyone would yell, ‘Two what, Henry?’ ‘Too close to call,’ he'd call back before making the actual call.”

Gags aside, McDonald ran a tight ship. “He was a stickler for behavior and respect,” Lavin wrote. “No bat-throwing or emoting. And swinging a bat in a dugout or in any place but the on-deck circle could result in outs being declared.”

McDonald died in 1976, at age 85. In his honor, Geneva’s Little League is now at the Henry C. McDonald Memorial Park, at the end of Henry C. McDonald Drive — a fitting tribute to a sports pioneer who was one of a kind.

Published Updated