The back of Mike Henneman’s baseball cards long ago told me that we share a hometown — St. Charles, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis — and that’s why we were chatting on the phone a couple of weeks ago, for a fun little story about players who share my birthday or my hometown.
Turns out, Henneman told me, he only lived in St. Charles for a matter of days, maybe weeks. He was born at St. Joseph’s Hospital, then adopted through Catholic Charities of St. Louis by Bill and Shirley Henneman. They lived about 45 minutes south in Festus, and that’s where he was raised with his sister, Janet, who was also adopted by the Hennemans.
As I digested that news and mentally pitched all of my St. Charles-centric questions, the former MLB closer — the tall right-hander who spent a decade in the majors as a relief specialist, nine of those seasons with the Detroit Tigers — threw me an 80-grade slider.
“How good do you want this story?” he asked with a laugh. “You want all I got?”
No writer in the world is going to turn down that invitation.
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“Give me everything you have,” I said.
“I can do that,” he said with a laugh, then paused. “You sure about that?”
Turns out, he has quite an amazing story.
In June 2017, with Henneman’s now-wife Meredith encouraging him to find out more about his past, he took an Ancestry DNA test. This was new territory for him. His baseball career dealt in facts, in statistics and numbers.
He was drafted three times, signing as a fourth-round pick of the Tigers in 1984 out of Oklahoma State — he helped the Cowboys to two College World Series trips and was named to the Cowboy Baseball Hall of Fame in 1993. He saved 193 games in his big league career, including seven seasons of 20-plus saves, and he’s second on Detroit’s all-time saves list. Fred McGriff went 0 for 17 in his career against Henneman, Bo Jackson was 0 for 10 and Joe Carter was 3 for 27. He finished sixth in the American League Rookie of the Year award in 1987 and made the AL All-Star team in 1989. He was damn good at his demanding job.
But putting himself out there and opening himself up to the possibility of finding out more about the unknowns — good or bad — in his past was a whole different ballgame. The DNA results arrived in about six weeks.
“Come to find out,” Henneman said. “I’ve got five brothers and two sisters.”
“I’m with my little brother right now,” Henneman said, “and he is f—ing awesome.”
From the background — I’m on speaker phone there — a voice shouts out, “The best-looking one in the family!”
They both crack up laughing. A lifetime of brotherly chemistry, from brothers who didn’t know the other one existed for their first 50-plus years.
“I would say it’s one of the greatest things to happen in my life, other than my marriage to my wife of over 30 years and our three boys,” said John Hart, the voice in the background. “But Mike came into our lives and he’s changed our lives dramatically. He came in at a very good time. I mean, we wish we had this opportunity a long time ago, but he’s come in and he’s been a glue. Really great.”
This story of found family and the bonds they’ve created is rather incredible.
“He’s very drawn to the family he has now,” Meredith Henneman said, “because he never had them growing up.”
John is the youngest of seven Hart siblings: Pat (born 1952), Maureen (1955), Mike (1957), Steve (1959), Dan (1960), Kathy (1963) and John (1965). Those seven grew up together in an Irish-Catholic family, the children of Ed and Marilyn Hart. Pat and John — the oldest and the youngest — were born in Cincinnati, the rest were born in St. Louis.
Mike Henneman was born in 1961, just across the Missouri River from St. Louis.
Those dates tell a story, and it’s at this point that I told Mike and John to tell me to mind my own business if I asked questions they didn’t want to answer, but both were committed — enthusiastic, even — to being open about the truth and telling their family’s real story.
Ed Hart had an affair, the family believes with a woman he worked with, and the future Tigers bullpen star was the result of that affair. Ed and Marilyn stayed together — she knew about the child given up for adoption at the time — and the couple had two more children, Kathy and John. Ed died in 2004, Marilyn in 2005.
“Some people ask me, ‘Do you want that stuff out there?’” John said. “And, absolutely I do, because we want more people to experience this. What a chance to live! Some people say it’s an embarrassment because, ‘Well, your father …’ He made a mistake. But we are blessed that we are finally able to meet. There are a lot of people who have probably never met their brother or sister. It’s just sad. We are fortunate, and we’re not going to let this thing go. We’re going to build on it.”
For Henneman, the pieces of his puzzle are coming together.
“It’s worked out great,” he said. “I’ve been blessed, that’s what I’ve been.”
One weekend every month, Henneman flies to Cincinnati and either visits relatives there or hangs out with family at John’s lake house, which sits in a quiet cove on Williamstown Lake, about 45 minutes south of Cincinnati.
“This is perfect for us,” Henneman said. “This is the way we roll.”
Little did I know this revelation wasn’t the only surprise Henneman had in store for that phone call.
‘I was looking at my dad’
In September 2017, at 56 years old, Mike Henneman boarded an airplane in Kansas City — where he and Meredith live (technically in Overland Park, a suburb on the Kansas side) with their three dogs and five cats — and flew to Cincinnati, about five weeks after first making contact with the family he didn’t know existed for the first five decades of his life.
Maureen, Pat and Kathy drove to the airport to wait for Henneman’s arrival, and they were joined by Dan, whose plane from Florida had landed about 20 minutes before Henneman’s.
“He came walking out of the tunnel, and it was just déjà vu,” Maureen said. “I was looking at my dad. I was looking at my dad. It was uncanny, truly.”
Maureen had looked up pictures of Henneman, of course, but seeing him in person was still astonishing. “As we were walking down to baggage claim,” Henneman said, “she was walking by my side and I just felt this person staring at me, gawking. I was like, ‘Maureen, are you all right?’ She goes, ‘Oh, Lord. You’re dad.’”
John and Mike, future best friends, met soon after.
“At the house, the first time seeing him walk though the front door was one of those stunning moments in life, like, ‘This is real. This is my brother. There’s no question,’” John said. “My wife was right there, and she was like, ‘Oh my God. That’s your dad.’”
Ed Hart and Mike Henneman
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John is a die-hard Reds baseball fan, but because teams from the American League didn’t play teams from the National League in Henneman’s playing days, except in the World Series, he hadn’t heard of Mike Henneman, Detroit Tigers closer. John knew the NL. If Henneman had been drafted by, let’s say, the Cubs or Cardinals, instead of the Tigers, and John had seen his brother’s face multiple times a season as he pitched against the Reds, who knows how life might have played out?
And this 2017 reunion wouldn’t have happened if not for a trip to Ireland that Maureen and her husband, Tim, were planning a few years in advance. They knew of distant relatives at a couple of locations in the country, so they sent in their Ancestry DNA test in January 2017. In April of that year, they received the basic results — what percentage Irish they were, etc. — and entered into the database so they could send messages to connections before their trip, originally scheduled for April 2020 (but delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic). And they didn’t think much else of it, until a few months later.
Maureen and Tim hosted a staycation at their house, with their five children and eight grandchildren. For six wonderful days, with family to visit, grandchildren filling the house with laughter and big meals to prepare and eat together, email and other non-essential technological elements were ignored. When Tim finally did check the email account one evening after everyone had left, there was a shock waiting.
“All of a sudden,” Maureen said, “he says, ‘Hey, you’ve got something here from Ancestry!’”
It was a message from Mike. Two messages, actually, sent a couple of days apart.
Maureen replied as soon as she could collect herself, then anxiously waited for his reply to her reply. It was Aug. 1, she remembers, because that’s her oldest daughter’s birthday, and they were supposed to do something that day. But she was glued to the computer, waiting for this person who just might be her long-lost brother to respond.
Henneman’s response led to a phone conversation, then another, and five weeks later, he flew to Cincinnati. He stayed with Maureen and Tim for six unforgettable days, talking and visiting and getting to know his siblings.
“I would look over at him, and he’d turn his head and the profile was … it was my dad,” Maureen said. “The way he crossed his legs, the way he positioned his arms. He has every feature my dad had. His eyes are the steely blue eyes, just like my dad.”
Another trait Henneman and Ed Hart share is a cleft chin; John’s son Drew has it, too.
Henneman quickly become an integral part of the lives of his siblings in Cincinnati. One of a thousand examples: Dan Hart, who relatively recently moved back home from Florida, has a standing pickle-ball game on Mondays with his lifelong friends, a group 16 strong, and he’s taken Henneman to meet those buddies.
“When they saw Mike,” Dan said, “they were like, ‘That’s your dad.’ The mannerisms, everything. The genetics are unbelievable. You are who you are.”
The Harts were long involved in the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Cincinnati, as part of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Ed Hart was, in fact, grand marshal of the parade in 1977. The family participation had dropped over the years, though, until the double motivation of Maureen’s DNA test, which showed the family was 72 percent Irish, and finding out about Henneman.
Now, the event is back to being a yearly family highlight, with a Hart Clan float and everything — and the newfound brother in the middle of the celebration.
“That was a huge element in re-establishing Ed Hart’s tradition,” John said, “through Michael.”
The Hart Clan parade float.
There are the monthly get-togethers at Williamstown Lake, along with the regular phone calls and check-ins between the long-lost siblings. They’re making up for lost time, one memory at a time. And that heart-healing process started with that first trip to Cincinnati.
“For Mike, it was just a sense of belonging somewhere,” Meredith said. “Going from having one adopted sister to having people you share blood with, it’s a lot, along with all he learned about his father.”
And, yes, there are two Mikes in the Hart family now. To his new siblings, Henneman typically goes by Michael or “Henny.”
Henneman wasn’t actually born a Michael. The name on his birth certificate is James Edward Sullivan Jr. and he went by Jimmy for the first six months of his life, according to the adoption papers given to him by Shirley Henneman at some point before she died in 2018.
And then the Hennemans gave their son a different solid Catholic name: Michael Alan Joseph Henneman.
‘What does adopted mean?’
The email from Ancestry was surprising to Maureen and her siblings, but it wasn’t an out-of-the-blue shock.
“Mom and dad were going through tough times and mom made a comment that there might be another child out there,” John said, “It was during my wedding that all this turmoil was going back and forth. We weren’t sure how we were going to announce them, who was going to come down the aisle and if they were going to come down together, et cetera.”
John and Andrea Hart were married Oct. 1, 1988.
On the same day the 23-year-old son of Ed Hart was getting married, the 26-year-old son of Ed Hart pitched two scoreless innings against the Yankees — he allowed one hit (to Rickey Henderson) and struck out the final batter he faced (Ken Phelps) — in the penultimate game of his strong sophomore season in the majors; Henneman finished the year with a 1.87 ERA, 22 saves and a 9-6 record, including a 0.00 ERA with five saves in eight September games as the Tigers chased the AL East title (but eventually finished one game behind the Red Sox).
Nobody at the wedding — or the ballpark — knew the connection between those two events, of course. The Hart siblings didn’t even know it would have been possible; they had been told that the child was a girl.
“I was told by my mother that we were not to try and look for the child or make contact because the adopted parents wanted anonymity until they were ready to share,” Maureen said.
Henneman actually found out about the adoption long before 1988. One day not long after he’d learned to read, young Mike was practicing his newfound skill at home, reading through the Britannica encyclopedias and whatever else he could get his hands on while in the basement with his dad, who was watching TV. One of the books had a word he didn’t know.
“I asked my dad, ‘What does adopted mean?’” Henneman said. “And he yells upstairs, ‘Shirley, get down here! It’s time to tell Mike.’”
Maureen and John said there weren’t a lot of other details given in 1988, or after.
“Mom had told me she offered to raise the child, and that was declined,” Maureen said. “Our parents never shared (much about it). Mom kept it to herself. She was a very strong woman, a woman who protected her family and wanted nothing to go wrong with the family.”
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Ed Hart never really talked about it, at the wedding or in the years after.
“I’m sure that was, in his eyes, something that he put in the back of his head, but I’m sure it always weighed on him,” John said. “It’s funny, because he’d always say comments like, ‘I can’t do for one if I can’t do for all.’ In other words, ‘If I’m going to give you a dollar, I’ve got to give the other boys and girls a dollar.’ So you wonder if, in the back of his mind, was he thinking, ‘I’ve got another child out there, too, so if I can’t do for everyone, I can’t do it just for you.’”
On some level, the thrill of connecting with Henneman hasn’t been just about getting to know a long-lost brother, though that’s been an amazing journey. Nearly three decades of knowing there was another kid out there, but not knowing anything about that person, ended with that email from Ancestry.
“For us to find out that we have another sibling is just incredible, and I think the entire family was thrilled that there’s closure,” John said. “Because, again, we’d heard about it but now there’s closure. For him, and for us, there’s an incredible bonding.”
From left: Mike Hart, Kathy Kramer, Dan Hart, Steve Hart, Pat Hart, Maureen Day, Mike Henneman, John Hart.
But even with the joy of discovery, there is a subtle underlying sense of sadness for the years lost. Henneman has so easily meshed with his siblings in his 50s that it’s natural to wonder what things might have been like if they’d found each other sooner.
“Mike’s said it. He feels robbed,” Maureen said. “He has two sisters and five brothers and we grew up as a family and have all this interconnectedness, and you just hope that in our golden years, this older age, we can all connect nicely and make up for some lost time.”
And not just for the siblings, but for their kids, too. Two of Maureen and Tim’s sons played college baseball, and their son Tim was a 34th-round draft pick who pitched in the White Sox organization for two years.
“How cool would that have been to have had the experience of someone like Mike guiding you?” she said.
Henneman’s three kids, from his first marriage, are 30, 26 and 22. They’re getting to know their new family, too. Brent, his oldest, has been up to Cincinnati to visit twice. John’s flying out to spend time with Mike’s kids next month.
Nobody’s dwelling on the what might have been, though.
“You have to move forward,” Maureen said. “You have to start from now. You can’t live in the past and think about the past. But it’s kind of sad, for him and for us.”
Henneman’s personal story of family discovery isn’t finished.
Let’s jump back to our original phone call. After he told me about his unexpected, amazing, wonderful connection with his Hart siblings, Henneman dropped this tidbit on my lap: “I just found out that I might have two sisters in Florida.”
Me, eloquently: “Wait, what?”
An Ancestry DNA hit in 2018 revealed two first cousins, once removed, in the St. Louis metro area. Meredith started digging again.
“She’s so very intelligent,” Henneman told me, adoringly, several times during our multiple conversations.
The match was on the maternal side — the names didn’t show up on Maureen’s Ancestry account — and subsequent research led to the discovery of the woman they believe is his biological mother, along with two possible sisters, both older than him.
A DNA test has been taken, and the results should arrive any day now. So that’s the next chapter, potentially. For now, they wait for news of what might be.
And, more importantly, they relish what they already — finally — have.
“Michael is an absolutely incredible guy, a big feature in our family now,” John said. “Everybody reaches out, talks with him, and he comes down and sees us once a month at the lake house. And there’s more. So much more. We’re lucky to have him.”
That feeling is 100 percent mutual.