Appreciation of Rickey Henderson – Stories, Thoughts, and Links

Rickey Henderson is going to get a call from the Hall of Fame today telling him to pack his bags for Cooperstown. I spent a couple hours yesterday looking though old articles about Rickey because he’s always been one of the more enjoyable and enigmatic players in the game of baseball. (And hey, he played for the Red Sox in 2002, so he could be called one of my favorite Sox, right?)

Take a second to click through and enjoy Rickey being Rickey:

Joe Posnanski made a great argument that Rickey should be the first unanimous selection to the Hall of Famer, including the mindboggling statistic:

“He walked more times just leading off an in inning than Lou Brock, Roberto Clemente, Luis Aparicio, Ernie Banks, Kirby Puckett, Ryne Sandberg and more than 50 other Hall of Famers walked in their entire careers (more than Jim Rice, too).”

Of course, a writer 70 year old sportswriter left him off and now wishes he hadn’t. The BWAA might want to have some editorial control over writers who use their ballots to make a point (or in the case of Corky, just goof).

Rickey was nonpareil as a leadoff hitter, and according to this short collection of stories about Rickey, he agreed. “There ain’t no other leadoff hitter but me.”

In 1982 Rickey’s manager, Billy Martin, wanted Rickey to get the season stolen base record at home in Oakland. This is a Rickey anecdote I hadn’t heard.

“Billy told that Chicken (Stanley) to get his butt thrown out, so he wouldn’t be on second in my way,’ Henderson said. ‘But I hit the ball too hard, and he had to stop at second. Billy wants me to run, but Chicken’s in the way. So Billy tells him to get picked off. Get caught. So they throw a pitch and Chicken is way off base, and they don’t even try to get him. We’re playing Detroit and (Tigers manager) Sparky (Anderson) didn’t want me to get it. So he wouldn’t let them tag Chicken. He’s way off the base, and no one’s even trying. And that old Durwood Merrill (the second-base umpire) is getting madder and madder. He knew what was going on. He didn’t like it. He made them make the play on Chicken. I think Sparky was mad. I go on the next pitch. And I make it, I’m in there. And that old Durwood, he called me out because he was still mad at Billy and Sparky.”

He finally got the record in the next game. Over the years, Rickey’s speech after getting the record has become something critics touch on proving he was selfish and arrogant. This, because the last lines of his speech are, “Lou Brock was the symbol of great base stealing. But today, I’m the greatest of all time.” Interestingly, the article from Time has no reaction to the speech and Lou Brock helped him write the speech before the game. Also, most of these article are full of teammates (like Don Mattingly and Dennis Eckersley) praising Rickey as a teammate. (Update: Via the comments, the speech was after he broke the career record, not the single season record, so that’s why it wasn’t mentioned in the article. My point remains, though, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with his speech and “Rickey is selfish” is a media driven storyline, not borne out by facts.)

Also, via the comments, for those who say Rickey is selfish, there’s one girl in Oakland who would disagree.

See, I told you Mattingly liked Rickey.

“When Rickey was traded back to the A’s in the late 80’s, I remember watching a game the Yankees were playing in Oakland. Before the game, Rickey was hitting off the tee, and Mattingly was sitting there setting up the balls for Rickey. Mattingly liked Rickey. This was the moment that I realized that all the negative writing about Henderson was wrong. Don Mattingly was the most respected player in baseball at that time. If Don liked Rickey well enough to sit there and tee up balls for him when he was playing for the opposition, Rickey must be okay.

Rickey suffers from being inarticulate and a lack of education, just as Roger Clemens does. When they speak to the media, they have a hard time expressing themselves clearly, so they come off as jerks. I’m glad this article shows Rickey talking in a comfortable setting. It gives us a new insight into the man.”

In reading several of these articles, I found that Rickey was able to turn on and off the Rickey speak that made him seem inarticulate. And especially earlier in his career, he didn’t appear to use it at all. Roger Clemens was just a dumbass, but for Rickey, it seems like it was more of an act. “ He needed no coaxing to cruise into Rickey-speak, a mixture of a streetwise preacher and an eccentric professor.”

Here’s Eck relating a story about Rickey having trouble with R-E-S-P-E-C-T. His fondness for Rickey is clear.

This Sports Illustrated article from 2003 is overflowing with Rickey anecdotes. I’m going to go out on a limb and call this article the definitive compendium of Rickey Henderson Anecdotes. (There’s a ’25 Greatest Rickey Henderson Stories’ meme out there that you can find with Google, but this article is the source for it, and it has more than 25 stories so you may as well read IT instead.) One of my favorites, Rickey griping about his contract, “If they’re going to pay me like [Mike] Gallego, I’m going to play like Gallego.”

There’s also the ‘tenure’ story, the Olreud story (which is untrue), and TWO uncashed check stories, among several others.

The first mention of Rickey I could find in SI was when he was awarded Player Of The Week in October 1980 for having 12 steals.

Rickey was on the cover of SI 4 times:
In 1982, when he broke the single season stolen base record. In the accompanying story, “Medich and his catcher, Ted Simmons, had the downcast aspect of persons about to become answers to a trivia question.” Also, we find out that Kirk Gibson was once considered one of the faster major leaguers, which blew my mind. I had no idea.

In 1986 when Peter Gammons previewed the All-Star game by comparing Rickey to the other preeminent leadoff hitter of his time, Tim Raines.
Obviously, I’m going to snip the Rich Gedman quotation. Rich Gedman was one of my first favorites.

“Boston catcher Rich Gedman looked at Rickey Henderson, who was getting dressed. “He’s built like Superman,” Gedman said of the Yankee centerfielder. “When you play against him, you try to say, ‘Don’t let him bother you,’ because there are times there is nothing you can do to stop him from doing whatever he wants to do. He’s from another planet. Unfortunately, you can’t help thinking about him. We’re only human.”

In 1989 when he took over the Post Season. (Remember the earthquake that disrupted the Series? Rickey was apparently on the toilet for that one.) Gammons writes

“In the seventh inning, after getting such a jump on his steal of second that Whitt couldn’t make a throw, Henderson pulled up a few steps short of second and walked to the bag. “That kind of hotdogging isn’t right,” said Whitt (box, page 34). The A’s went on to win 6-3, and the next day Henderson was quoted in the papers as saying, ‘I can steal on Whitt whenever I want.'”

And in 1990 for an article about Tony LaRussa written by George Will.

Bill James’ response to Rickey setting the single season stolen base record in 1982 was exactly what you would expect. Curmudgeonly grumbling about how the stolen base isn’t an extremely effective offensive weapon and then plenty of statistics to back it up. The early Bill James byline was an exciting find, though. And, in 2001, James made his feelings for Rickey’s game clear, “Somebody asked me did I think Rickey Henderson was a Hall of Famer. I told them, ‘If you could split him in two, you’d have two Hall of Famers.'” (It’s important to note that Bill James was correct in his assessment of Rickey’s use of the stolen base because in the same year that he set the record for steals (130), he set the record for caught stealing (42).

Though Rickey and Bill James may have been of a closer mind than they knew. In this 1989 NY Times article, Rickey wants a new contract from the Yankees and is refusing to waive his no-trade clause. ”My average is down, but with a leadoff hitter, you don’t consider average,” he said. ”On-base is what’s important and mine is right up there.” I don’t think ANYONE was talking about on-base percentage in 1989 EXCEPT Rickey and Bill James.

Check out Rickey’s Wiki. He played 2 or 3 years of Independent ball after leaving MLB. Rickey was there doing his thing, hoping to get another job in the majors. Incidentally, he had an OBP of over .450 in his Independent league career.

And finally, here’s the obligatory New Yorker profile on Rickey complete with a story about getting thrown off an airplane and the quotation defining his last couple years playing for crowds numbering in the hundreds and low thousands. “I just don’t know if Rickey can stop.”

And, of course, a hearty congrats to Jim Ed Rice, as well. I’m glad he finally got in.

Appreciation of Rickey Henderson – Stories, Thoughts, and Links

0 thoughts on “Appreciation of Rickey Henderson – Stories, Thoughts, and Links

  1. JLD says:

    Great roundup. Just AC being AC, posting great compendiums.

    My favorite late Rickey stories include the “Rickey can’t score from first” tale (related in that New Yorker profile) and this one:

    “The Padres held a 14-7 lead in a meaningless game against the Mets, and Rickey was sent up to pinch hit in the eighth inning. Henderson came to the plate, hit a two run home run, immediately disappeared into the clubhouse, changed, and left the stadium. The reason for his departure? “I had to get to this Chinese restaurant,” he said. “They closed at midnight. Best Chinese food I’ve ever had.” Rickey went to praise the fine sushi the restaurant served. It was a Japanese restaurant.”


  2. jay rock says:


    Does anybody remember an article from SI Year ago about Ricky’s relationship with a little Girl on the leftfield stand in Oakland and what happened after Ricky was traded? I have been looking this stories for years.


  3. The reason why the Time article didn’t mention the speech is because he did not utter it after that record. He uttered that speech after getting the all-time record, not the single season one.

    But your point is well-taken. I always thought Rickey got a raw deal on that because it really wasn’t as arrogant as all that, especially not in context of other things Rickey said during his career. It was just unfortunate for him that Nolan Ryan got his sixth no-hitter that same day.


  4. Dominic says:

    This is one of my favorite articles, I love Rickey. Does anyone know where I can find that picture from Si with Rickey hugging that crying nine year old girl?


  5. David Speed says:

    Sorry to address this 2 ½ years after the fact. Just thought I’d point out that not only did Mattingly like Henderson, Rickey LOVED DM. As is hinted at in the 3/26/02 article reproduced above (Rickey sharing the DM-modeled relaxation technique) and spelled out by the link below (a 1974 Baseball Digest article, the monthly ‘Baseball Profile’), Rickey always makes a point of acknowledging the enormous influence Maddingly’s had on his career (scroll down to ‘Player I have learned the most from’).

    BTW, if anyone has a copy of Henderson’s autobiography, ‘Off Base: Confessions of a Thief, they’ll find Ricky even more definitive, leaving no doubt as to how much he looks up to – and defers to – Don.


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