Rickey Henley Henderson (born December 25, 1958) is a professional baseball player. Many include him among the greatest baseball players of all time, including Rickey himself. Statistician Bill James was once asked if he thought Rickey Henderson was a Hall of Famer. James' reply: "If you could split him in two, you'd have two Hall of Famers."
Henderson was born in Chicago, Illinois, but grew up in the city of Oakland, California and became friends with Oakland Athletics owner Charles O. Finley as a boy. Henderson, blessed with speed and explosiveness, was eventually drafted by Oakland in 1976 and worked his way through the minor leagues in just three seasons. He made his big league debut with Oakland on June 24, 1979.
Early playing career with the Athletics
Henderson batted .274 with 33 stolen bases in little more than half a season and (it could be argued) was as strong a Rookie of the Year candidate in 1979 as either of the co-winners (John Castino and Alfredo Griffin). However, Henderson did not receive any votes for that award.
Finley hired legendary manager Billy Martin in 1980, and his "Billy-Ball" propelled Rickey into stardom, when he became the third modern-era player to ever steal 100 bases in a season (Maury Wills (104) and Lou Brock (118) had preceded him). (Henderson would finish his career with three 100+ SB seasons-- 1980 (100), 1982 (a record 130), and 1983 (108), a feat matched only by Vince Coleman from 1985-87, and by 19th-century player Billy Hamilton. Baseball has thus far seen 20 individual seasons of 100 steals, but a dozen of those all occurred between 1887 and 1891 when rules counted extra bases taken on another player's hit or sacrifice as stolen bases.)
Henderson was a Most Valuable Player candidate a year later, when he hit .319, fourth in the American League, and again led the league in steals with 56 in a season shortened by a players' strike. Finishing second to Rollie Fingers in the MVP voting, Henderson's flashy fielding that season also earned him his only Gold Glove Award. Rickey Henderson would later become known for his showboating "snatch catches," in which he would flick his glove out at incoming flyballs, then whip his arm behind his back.
Years with the Yankees
He had an off-season, by his standards, in 1987, beginning a problematic relationship with frustrated Yankee fans and the New York media. It wasn't until 1989 that Rickey bounced back after a mid-season trade to Oakland, eventually re-establishing himself as one of the game's greatest players during that postseason. He was MVP of the American League Championship Series with 8 steals in 5 games to go with a 1.000 slugging percentage. Leading the A's to their first World Series title since 1974, he hit .474 with a "mere" .895 slugging average.
A year later, he finished second in the league in batting average with a mark of .325, losing out to George Brett on the final day of the season. He had a remarkably consistent season, with his batting average falling below .320 for only one game-- the third of the year. Reaching safely by a hit or a walk in 125 of his 136 games, his on-base average was a league-leading .439. With 119 runs scored, 28 homers, 61 RBI and 65 stolen bases, he won the 1990 MVP award and helped Oakland to another pennant. He again performed well in the World Series (.333 batting, .667 slugging, 3 steals in 4 games) but the A's were swept by the underdog Cincinnati Reds.
Stolen base king
On May 1, 1991, Henderson broke one of baseball's most famous records when he stole the 939th base of his career, one more than Lou Brock. However, Henderson's achievement was somewhat overshadowed because Nolan Ryan, at age 44, set a record that same night by throwing a no-hitter against Toronto, the seventh of his career. Two years earlier, Ryan had also achieved glory at Henderson's expense by making him his 5,000th strikeout victim.
Rickey also took some heat for his famous speech afterwards where, with Brock looking on from the field, he proclaimed, "Lou Brock was a great base stealer, but today, I am the greatest!" As it now stands, however, Henderson has 468 more stolen bases than Brock. For his career, Henderson has 50% more stolen bases (1,406) than the sport's all-time runner-up (938). Just the difference in the two men's totals would place in the Top 25 on the all-time modern list. The proportional margin is one of the greatest for any career statistical category in professional sport.
In his prime, Henderson had a virtual monopoly on the stolen base title in the American League. Between 1980 and 1991, he led the league in SB's every season except 1987, when an injury caused him to lose the title to Seattle Mariners second baseman Harold Reynolds. He had one more league-leading season after that stretch, with 66 steals in 1998 making him the oldest SB leader in baseball history.
Henderson was an All-Star in 10 of his first 12 seasons. He went on to have many more good years, and earned a second World championship ring with the Toronto Blue Jays, who acquired him in midseason from Oakland, in 1993. In fact, Henderson was the first of two men on base (the other being Paul Molitor) when Joe Carter hit his legendary walkoff home run to end the World Series. He returned to Oakland after the season for two years, and made a 3rd return to Oakland in 1998, where he led the American League in stolen bases for a record 12th time at age 39. He also scored 101 runs, his 13th and final season topping 100. That season he also led the league in walks with 118.
Later years - career milestones
During the 2001 season, as a member of the San Diego Padres, Henderson broke 2 major league records and reached a career milestone. He broke Babe Ruth's all-time record for walks, Ty Cobb's all-time record for runs (doing so with a home run), and on the final day of the season, during Padre legend Tony Gwynn's last major league game, Rickey garnered his 3,000th career hit. He had originally wanted to sit out the game so as not to detract from the occasion, but Gwynn insisted that Henderson play. At the age of 42, his last substantial major league season, Henderson finished the 2001 season with 25 stolen bases, 9th in the NL. It is a measure of his skill and longevity that his 25 steals increased his existing lead on all nine of the other Top 10 active stolen base leaders. It also marked Rickey Henderson's 23rd consecutive season in which he'd stolen more than 20 bases.
Rickey played with the Boston Red Sox in 2002, where he became the oldest player to play centerfield in major league history when he stood in for starter Johnny Damon. It was the 8th organization he played for in his career, having also played with the Anaheim Angels, New York Mets, and Seattle Mariners. Incredibly, dating from 1979-2001, Rickey Henderson had stolen more bases than his new team, the Red Sox, had managed over the identical span: 1,395 steals for Rickey, 1,382 for the Boston franchise.
He started 2003 playing in the independent Atlantic League with the Newark Bears, hoping for a chance with another major league organization. Rickey got that chance (after much media attention) when the Los Angeles Dodgers signed him over the All-Star break. Though Henderson continued to put up good walks, runs, and SB totals in limited action, his last four seasons were spent bouncing among five different teams, and with increasingly limited playing time.
So far, Rickey ranks 4th all-time in games played (3,081), 10th in at-bats (10,961), 20th in hits (3,055), and first in runs scored (2,295), and stolen bases (1,406 - This record is remarkable because it is 468 more than second place Lou Brock). His record for most walks all-time (2,190) has since been broken by Barry Bonds. He also holds the record for most home runs to lead off a game, with 81. In 1993, he led off both games of a doubleheader with HRs. At the time of his last major league game, Henderson was still in the all-time Top 100 home run hitters, with 297. Bill James wrote in 2000, "Without exaggerating one inch, you could find fifty Hall of Famers who, all taken together, don't own as many records, and as many important records, as Rickey Henderson."
Rickey Henderson is the all-time leader in stolen bases before the age of 30. He is also the all-time leader after the age of 30. He has the most postseason stolen bases, 33 (Kenny Lofton, still active, currently has 32 in about 45% more plate appearances). Henderson also achieved an odd distinction by having four separate playing tenures with the same team-- the Oakland A's.
Although he has not played in a major league game since 2003, Henderson has yet to officially retire from professional baseball; for the second consecutive season, he started 2004 with the Newark Bears. On May 9, 2005, Rickey signed with the San Diego Surf Dawgs of the Golden Baseball League, a Class-A independent league. This was the SurfDawgs and the Golden Baseball League's inaugural season and Rickey did it again, helping the SurfDawgs to the League Championship. Henderson was quoted as recently as May of 2005, still insisting that he is capable of playing in the major leagues. Contrary to what some believe, Henderson's refusal to retire is not delaying his eligibility for Hall of Fame induction. Eligibility is based on major league service only, and at this point Henderson's will begin in 2008.
Unique playing style
Henderson's playing style has one especially unusual feature: he throws left-handed and bats right-handed. Many right-handed throwers bat left-handed, but the opposite is extremely rare, especially among non-pitchers. Another left-handed thrower who batted right-handed was former Yale baseball player and President George H. W. Bush. Explaining how that happened, Rickey once said, "All the other kids playing around me were batting right-handed, so that's the way I thought you were supposed to do it, so that's what I did, too. At one point, I wanted to be a switch-hitter and try the left side, but I was hitting .300, .350 in the minors, and they [the A's] wouldn't let me do it."
Many stories have been told about Rickey Henderson over the years, both the player and person. He is well known for his malapropisms, for referring to himself in the third-person (for example, calling Padres GM Kevin Towers to inquire about a contract and leaving a message starting "this is Rickey, calling on behalf of Rickey."), and for talking to himself at length when he is up to bat. He has been known to speak to his bats, asking them which one has the next hit inside them. He once fell asleep on an icepack, thereby contracting a case of frostbite in August. In 2001, he described a long single this way: "I hit it out, but it didn't go out." Another time, Rickey was offered a seat on the team bus, the player saying that he had tenure. To which Rickey replied, "Ten years? What are you talking about? Rickey got 16, 17 years."
Another story occurred while Henderson was playing for the Oakland A's. Team bookkeepers could not account for a $1 million discrepancy in their finances. The mysterious figure was eventually traced to Henderson, who had received the sum as a signing bonus. Instead of cashing the check, he'd had it framed, where it still hung on his wall.
One widely reported story, however, is by all accounts a fabrication. Supposedly while playing for Seattle, Henderson went up to John Olerud, a former teammate then with the New York Mets, and asked why Olerud wore a batting helmet out on the field, noting that he "used to have a teammate in Toronto who did the same thing," to which Olerud replied, "That was me."