Rickey Henderson Biography
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Widely regarded as the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history, Rickey Henderson was the most exciting and dynamic player of his time. Blessed with the running speed of a sprinter and a body made of iron, Henderson had the ability to create a run all by himself with either his legs or his powerful bat. No one else in the game had the Hall of Fame outfielder’s ability to bring a crowd to its feet in such a variety of ways. Henderson thrilled fans everywhere with his daring baserunning, frequently turning either a base on balls or a single into a run by stealing second base, advancing to third on an infield out, and scoring on a sacrifice fly. His muscular frame also enabled him to drive the opposing pitcher’s offering more than 400 feet from home plate, well into the outfield stands. And Henderson’s head-first slides and patented “snatch-catch” became his trademarks, exhibiting both the passion and the style with which he played the game.
Major league baseball’s all-time leader in both stolen bases (1,406) and runs scored (2,295), Henderson led his league in stolen bases a record 12 times, surpassing 100 thefts on three separate occasions. He also topped his circuit in runs scored five times. Those are the figures that prompted Mitchell Page, Henderson’s one-time Oakland A’s teammate, to say, “But it wasn’t until I saw Rickey that I understood what baseball was about. Rickey Henderson is a run, man. That’s it. When you see Rickey Henderson, I don’t care when, the score’s already 1-0. If he’s with you, that’s great. If he’s not, you won’t like it.”
Named after singer Ricky Nelson, Rickey Nelson Henley was born to John L. and Bobbie Henley on Christmas Day, 1958, in the back seat of an Oldsmobile on the way to a Chicago hospital. His father left home two years later, and the Henley family eventually moved to Oakland, California when Rickey was seven. His father died in an automobile accident five years after the family moved to the West Coast, and his mother married Paul Henderson shortly thereafter, with the Henley family adopting the Henderson surname.
While growing up in Oakland, Henderson spent his formative years on the baseball diamond learning to bat righthanded, even though he threw lefthanded. Henderson later recalled, “All my friends were righthanded and swung from the right side, so I thought that’s the way it was supposed to be done.” After graduating in 1976 from Oakland Technical High School, where he excelled in baseball, football, basketball, and track, Henderson received numerous college scholarship offers to play football. However, heeding the advice of his mother, who warned him that football players tend to have relatively short careers, Henderson decided to pursue a career in baseball instead.
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Selected by the Oakland Athletics in the fourth round of the 1976 amateur free agent draft, Henderson spent the next three years working his way up the Oakland farm system, before finally joining the A’s in late June of 1979. The 20-year-old outfielder split his time between left field and center field over the season’s final three months, batting .274, stealing 33 bases, and hitting his first major-league home run. Henderson took over as Oakland’s starting leftfielder the following year, batting .303, compiling a .420 on-base percentage, scoring 111 runs, and stealing a league-leading 100 bases. By amassing 100 steals, Henderson joined Lou Brock (118) and Maury Wills (104) as the only players of the modern era to reach the century-mark in a single season.
Henderson performed brilliantly again during the strike-shortened 1981 campaign, leading the A’s into the playoffs for the first time in six years by batting .319 and topping the American League with 56 stolen bases, 89 runs, and 135 hits, in only 108 games. In addition to finishing second to Milwaukee’s Rollie Fingers in the league MVP voting, Henderson captured the only Gold Glove of his career for his outstanding play in the outfield.
The symbol of manager Billy Martin’s aggressive style of play that the Oakland media often referred to as “BillyBall,” Henderson drove opposing teams to the point of distraction with his bold and aggressive baserunning. The game’s top base stealer possessed more than just blinding speed and the courage of a riverboat gambler. Henderson also had a brilliant baseball mind, even though he rarely received credit for taking an extremely cerebral approach to his craft. The sport’s all-time stolen base king later discussed the factors that weighed into his initial decision to employ both the low-to-the-ground running style and head-first slide for which he eventually became noted: “I wanted to know how to dive into the base because I was getting strawberries on my knees and strawberries on my ass… I was thinking about head-first versus feet-first, and wondering which would save my body. With head-first I worried about pounding my shoulders and my hands, and with feet-first I would worry about my knees and my legs. I felt that running was more important to me, with my legs, so I started going head-first. I got my low-to-the-ground technique from airplanes. I was asleep on a plane, and the plane bounced, and when we landed we bounced, and it woke me up. Then the next flight I had the same pilot and the plane went down so smooth. So I asked the pilot why, and he said when you land a plane smooth, you get the plane elevated to the lowest position you can, and then you smooth it in. Same with sliding…If you dive when you’re running straight up then you have a long distance to get to the ground. But the closer you get to the ground the less time it will take…I was hitting the dirt so smooth, so fast, when I hit the dirt, there wasn’t no hesitation. It was like a skid mark, like you throw a rock on the water and skid off it. So when I hit the ground, if you didn’t have the tag down, I was by you. No matter if the ball beat me, I was by you. That was what made the close plays go my way, I think.”
His running and sliding techniques perfected, Henderson continued his string of seven consecutive seasons in which he led the American League in stolen bases, establishing a new major league record by swiping 130 bags in 1982. Henderson’s 130 thefts surpassed the totals compiled by nine of the 14 teams in the junior circuit that year. He also scored 119 runs and, despite batting just .267, walked a league-leading 116 times, thereby posting an impressive .398 on-base percentage.
Henderson’s ability to reach base via the walk could be attributed not only to his keen batting eye and tremendous patience, but, also, to the exaggerated crouch he adopted as his batting stance. He described his approach at the plate to Sports Illustrated in 1982, saying, “I found that, if I squatted down real low at the plate, I could see the ball better. I also knew it threw the pitcher off. I found that I could put my weight on my back foot and still turn my hips on the swing. I’m down so low I don’t have much of a strike zone. Sometimes, walking so much even gets me mad. Last year, Ed Ott of the Angels got so frustrated because the umpire was calling balls that would’ve been strikes on anybody else that he stood up and shouted at me, ‘Stand up and hit like a man.’ I guess I do that to people.”
Henderson spent two more years in Oakland, posting batting averages of .292 and .293, while combining for 174 stolen bases and 218 runs scored. As his muscular frame continued to develop, he also became more of a power hitter. Henderson established a new career high with 16 homers in 1984, a figure he later surpassed on six separate occasions after growing into the powerful 5’10”, 195-pound frame that eventually earned him the nickname Man of Steal.
Henderson had one of his finest all-around seasons after being traded to the New York Yankees for five players prior to the start of the 1985 campaign. Shifted to center field by the Yankees, Henderson batted .314, compiled a .419 on-base percentage, established new career highs with 24 home runs and 72 runs batted in, and led the American League with 80 stolen bases and 146 runs scored. Henderson’s 80 steals and 24 homers made him the first member of the 80/20 club in major league history (Cincinnati’s Eric Davis later joined him), and his 146 runs scored were the most tallied by any player since Ted Williams scored 150 times for Boston in 1950. Henderson’s magnificent season earned him a third-place finish in the league MVP voting, behind teammate Don Mattingly and Kansas City’s George Brett.
Although Henderson’s batting average fell to .263 in 1986, he led the American League in runs scored (130) and stolen bases (87) for the second straight year, while also posting a career-best 28 home runs and 74 RBIs. A series of hamstring injuries limited Henderson to just 95 games the following year, bringing to an end his reign as stolen base champ. Nevertheless, he performed well whenever he took the field, batting .291, hitting 17 homers, scoring 78 runs, and stealing 41 bases. Henderson returned to the New York lineup full time in 1988, batting .305, scoring 118 runs, and leading the league in stolen bases for the eighth time in nine years, with 93 thefts.
Henderson’s broad smile and exciting style of play made him a favorite of the fans his first few years in New York. He not only produced on the field, but he also entertained them with his flashy and innovative mannerisms that eventually earned him the nickname Style Dog. Henderson became known for his “snatch-catch,” which enabled him to turn a routine fly ball out into a form of entertainment. The outfielder typically swatted at the ball from over his head, before bringing his glove to his side in one swift motion after making the catch.
However, Henderson’s popularity with the fans in New York began to wane when he failed to live up to expectations in 1989. Immersed in the worst prolonged slump of his career, the outfielder batted just .247 during the season’s first half, while stealing only 25 bases and scoring just 41 runs. Further angering the fans were the lack of interest and hustle Henderson frequently displayed on the field, even though the Yankees moved him back to his preferred position of left field earlier in the year. Henderson’s lackadaisical and dispassionate play earned him a ticket out of New York, something he seemed to want since the team appeared headed in the wrong direction. Dealt back to Oakland, the defending A.L. West champs, Henderson reasserted himself as one of baseball’s best players. He batted .294 over the season’s final three months, hit nine home runs, drove in 35 runs, scored 72 others, and stole 52 bases, to lead the A’s to their second straight division title. Henderson then performed magnificently during the postseason, batting .400, with two homers, five RBIs, and eight runs scored against Toronto in the ALCS, before posting a .474 batting average during Oakland’s four-game sweep of San Francisco in the World Series.
Henderson continued his brilliant play throughout the 1990 campaign, leading the A’s to their third consecutive A.L. pennant by batting .325, hitting 28 home runs, compiling a .577 slugging percentage, and topping the junior circuit with 119 runs scored, 65 stolen bases, and a .439 on-base percentage, en route to capturing league MVP honors. Although Cincinnati subsequently swept Oakland in the World Series, Henderson stole three bases and batted .333 during the Fall Classic.
The A’s failed to advance to the postseason again in 1991. Nevertheless, the year was an historic one for Henderson, who stole the 939th base of his career on May 1, to become baseball’s all-time stolen base king. After breaking Lou Brock’s record, though, Henderson revealed his narcissistic nature and boastful manner by announcing to everyone in attendance during the subsequent on-field celebration, “Lou Brock was a great base stealer, but today, I am the greatest of all-time.” Henderson’s proclamation was viewed by many as being excessive and somewhat insensitive, especially since Brock joined him on the field during the ceremony. Henderson later expressed regret for making the statement, saying, “As soon as I said it, it ruined everything. Everybody thought it was the worst thing you could ever say. Those words haunt me to this day, and will continue to haunt me. They overshadow what I’ve accomplished in this game.”
Henderson’s announcement really should not have come as much of a surprise to anyone. Noted for his self-absorption and tendency to refer to himself in the third-person, Henderson was one of baseball’s most unusual and enigmatic figures. He frequently spoke to himself, both on and off the field. Over the course of his career, Henderson developed a reputation for standing completely naked in front of a full-length mirror in the locker room for several minutes before each game, repeating to himself several times, “Rickey’s the best.” On one particular occasion, Henderson struck out in a game in Seattle. A former teammate revealed that he then heard Henderson say to himself as he passed him by, “Don’t worry, Rickey, you’re still the best.” San Diego GM Kevin Towers disclosed that Henderson once left the following telephone message for him while looking for a job: “This is Rickey calling on behalf of Rickey. Rickey wants to play baseball.”
Henderson, though, downplayed his tendency to refer to himself in the third person, saying, “Listen, people are always saying, ‘Rickey says Rickey.’ But it’s been blown way out of proportion. People might catch me, when they know I’m ticked off, saying, ‘Rickey, what the heck are you doing, Rickey?’ They say, ‘Darn, Rickey, what are you saying Rickey for? Why don’t you just say I?’ But I never did. I always said ‘Rickey,’ and it became something for people to joke about.”
Although people may have frequently found humor in Henderson’s somewhat bizarre behavior, they had a difficult time finding fault with his performance on the field. He had two more solid years in Oakland, before his desire to play for a pennant-contending team prompted him to express interest in going somewhere else when the A’s fell from the league’s elite in 1993. After batting .327 and scoring 77 runs in 90 games with the A’s, Henderson was dealt to the defending champion Toronto Blue Jays, with whom he spent the remainder of the season. Although he batted just .214 in his 44 games with the Blue Jays, Henderson helped them capture their second straight world championship by scoring six runs against Philadelphia in the World Series.
Somewhat surprisingly, Henderson decided to return to Oakland when he became a free agent at season’s end, spending another two years with the team that first signed him to a major league contract. He lived a somewhat nomadic existence over the course of his final eight seasons, spending time with the San Diego Padres, Anaheim Angels, Oakland A’s (again), New York Mets, Seattle Mariners, Boston Red Sox, and Los Angeles Dodgers, before finally leaving the game at the conclusion of the 2003 campaign. Although Henderson never again reached the same heights he did earlier in his career, he managed to score 110 runs for the Padres in 1996, score 101 times and steal a league-leading 66 bases for the A’s in 1998, and bat .315 for the Mets in 1999. Yet, even though Henderson had a solid year for the Mets, his time in New York ended in acrimony. The New York media criticized both Henderson and teammate Bobby Bonilla for playing cards in the locker room during the latter stages of the team’s season-ending playoff loss to the Atlanta Braves, after both players were removed from the contest.
In spite of the controversy that followed Henderson throughout his career, there is no denying his greatness as a ballplayer. In addition to being baseball’s all-time leader in stolen bases and runs scored, Henderson compiled more unintentional walks (2,129) and leadoff home runs (81) than anyone else in the history of the game. The single-season record holder for most stolen bases, with 130, Henderson surpassed 50 stolen bases 13 times. He also scored more than 100 runs 13 times, batted over .300 on seven separate occasions, topped 20 homers four times, and compiled an on-base percentage in excess of .400 on 15 separate occasions. Henderson appeared in 10 All-Star games and finished in the top 10 in the league MVP voting six times.
Tony La Russa, Henderson’s manager in Oakland after the outfielder returned to the team in 1989, said, “He (Henderson) rises to the occasion – the big moment – better than anybody I’ve ever seen.”
Former A’s coach Rene Lachemann stated, “If you’re one run down, there’s nobody you’d ever rather have up at the plate than Rickey.”
Sportswriter Tom Verducci wrote, “Baseball is designed to be an egalitarian sort of game in which one player among the 18 is not supposed to dominate… Yet in the past quarter century Henderson and Barry Bonds have come closest to dominating a baseball game the way Michael Jordan could a basketball game.”
In July 2007, New York Sun sportswriter Tim Marchman wrote about Henderson’s accomplishments:
“He stole all those bases and scored all those runs and played all those years not because of his body, but because of his brain. Rickey could tell from the faintest, most undetectable twitch of a pitcher’s muscles whether he was going home or throwing over to first. He understood that conditioning isn’t about strength, but about flexibility. And more than anyone else in the history of the game, he understood that baseball is entirely a game of discipline – the discipline to work endless 1-1 counts your way, the discipline to
understand that your job is to get on base, and the discipline to understand that the season is more important than the game, and a career more important than the season. Maybe he’d get a bit more credit for all this if he were some boring drip like Cal Ripken Jr., blathering on endlessly about humility and apple pie and tradition and whatever else, but we’re all better off with things the way they are… Everyone had their fun when he broke Lou Brock’s stolen base record and proclaimed, ‘I am the greatest’, but he was, of course, just saying what was plainly true.”
Asked if he believes the passage of time will improve his reputation, Henderson said, “If you talk about baseball, you can’t eliminate me, because I’m all over baseball… It’s the truth. Telling the truth isn’t being cocky. What do you want me to say, that I didn’t put up the numbers? That my teams didn’t win a lot of games? People don’t want me to say anything about what I’ve done. Then why don’t you say it? Because if I don’t say it and you don’t say it, nobody says it.”
Rickey Henderson took a major step towards improving his reputation during his humor-laden July 2009 Hall of Fame induction speech. After being voted into Cooperstown by the members of the BBWAA in his first year of eligibility, Henderson displayed surprising humility when he stated, “I would like to say my favorite hero was Muhammad Ali. He said at one time, ‘I am the greatest.’ That is something I always wanted to be. And now that the association has voted me into the Baseball Hall of Fame, my journey as a player is complete. I am now in the class of the greatest players of all time and, at this moment, I am…very, very humbled.”