Through the Years: Rickey Henderson

A couple of weeks back, the Baseball Writer’s released the official ballot for the 2009 Hall of Fame class. The ballots are never a surprise, because we know that once a player retires he’ll be placed on the ballot five years later. Still, the unveiling of the ballot is news because it marks “Hall of Fame Season”, when the baseball blogosphere (and some long-time writers) goes crazy for a few weeks debating the merits of their favorite candidates (or anti-candidates). This is a fun time, as it gives us baseball junkies something substantial to talk about.

So I’ve decided to join in the fun in my own way. Last week, I wrote about the newly-retired Greg Maddux in a piece I called “Through the Years.” I went back through my collection of preview guides and reviewed how Maddux was looked on by contemporary writers from year-to-year as he entered his prime. With such a great and unique talent, I felt it would be interesting to see how his talent developed in front of everyone’s eyes and to find out how long it took the writers of the day to notice it for what it was. I’ve decided to do the same type of piece for some of the current Hall of Fame nominees. I’m starting this week with the only no-doubt candidate on the ballot, the always entertaining and superbly qualified Rickey Henderson.

Drafted in the 4th round of the 1976 draft at the age of 17, Rickey was obviously an attractive player to his hometown Oakland Athletics. Making his debut on a double-header Sunday in 1979 against Texas in Oakland, Rickey got a double and single in his first two at-bats and never looked back over his 25-year career. Despite this solid start, Rickey did not garner a mention in either the 1979 Sports Illustrated baseball preview issue or anywhere in the 1979 run of Baseball Digest. This is more a product of the magazines’ short word limit and of the A’s ineptitude at the time, though.

Heading into Rickey’s first full season in 1980, neither Baseball Digest nor Sports Illustrated had room enough to mention him. The closest recognition Rickey got in that year’s SI was a reference to Oakland’s “speed in the outfield” even though they devoted an article to the future “Stars of the ’80s” (in which they predicted stunning success for Keith Hernandez, Carney Lansford, Bob Horner, Rick Sutcliffe, and Paul Molitor).

But 1980 was a doozy, and it would be a long time before any preview guide would feel able to leave out Rickey again. In his first full season, Rickey was named to the All-Star team and finished 10th in the MVP voting that year. Batting .303 with a .420 on-base percentage, he stole 100 bases (setting an AL record), scored 111 runs and helped the A’s improve their record by 29 games over the year before. The Sporting News was rightfully impressed in their preview guide the next year, and couldn’t wait to see how someone so young could improve:

“At age 21, Henderson became the first American League player ever to steal 100 bases. He was the only player on the A’s to hit .300 (.303) and he did it in his first full season. As the season progressed, Henderson’s defense in left progressed, and he showed some critics that his throwing arm is anything but weak.”

The strike-shortened year of 1981 led to an even better year with the bat for Rickey, where he increased his batting average and slugging percentage on his way to a second-place finish in the MVP voting. In 1982’s Street and Smith’s preview guide, the writers did their best to show both sides of Rickey’s talent:

“The Oakland outfield is nothing short of superb… Not only do Rickey Henderson, Dwayne Murphy, and Tony Armas take hits and runs away from the opposition, they provide most of the team’s offensive punch. Henderson barely missed winning the MVP award after a season in which he stole 56 bases and batted .319.”

But the talent on display in 1982 was that which Rickey will forever be remembered for: the stolen base. And 1982 was the year of the stolen base, when Rickey set the record for steals in a season at 130 (from 261 times on base). The next year’s preview guides definitely noticed this, though they also noticed his drop in batting average as he marched toward the record. From the 1983 Sporting News:

“Last year, for the first time in his career, he failed to hit .300 (.267), perhaps because he was too busy stealing bases. His 130 steals broke Lou Brock’s major league record of 118, and now that the record is safely tucked away, Henderson intends to reconcentrate his efforts on hitting.”

And from 1983’s Street and Smith’s:

“So what is left for him? His on-base percentage was the league’s third best last year. His 116 walks ranked first, and his runs scored (119) fourth. The season before he led the league in hits even while playing in Oakland, a notoriously bad park for hitters. All that really remains is to establish himself as a power hitter, which he intends to do this season. He has stated the intention to hit 25 home runs this year, something leadoff hitters not named Brian Downing just don’t do.”

Rickey didn’t increase his power all that much in 1983, but he did put together another all-around great year, stealing 108 bases and scoring 105 runs while batting .282/.414/.421 and an OPS+ of 139. It was a much better all-around performance than the record breaking year before, but it wasn’t as celebrated. He put up similar numbers in 1984, though he was able to increase his power, hitting .293/.399/.458 with 16 HRs and an OPS+ of 145.

This fifth straight all-star caliber performance paved the way for free agency that off-season, and led Rickey into George Steinbrenner’s open bill-fold. Signing for a then-large sum of $8.5 million over 5 years, Rickey moved over to Yankee Stadium’s spacious centerfield and brought some major expectations with him:

“Henderson (.293, 16 HR, 58 RBI at Oakland) will switch from left field, which he played adeptly for five years with the A’s, to center. He was down to 66 stolen bases last season but has gone over 100 three times, including a major-league record 130 in 1982. He’ll lead off… The Yankees stole but 62 bases last season. Henderson should have that many by August. Just think of the RBI situations he’ll create for Don Mattingly, Winfield,and Don Baylor.”

The season proved to be a success for Rickey and the Yankees. Rickey’s excellent season – .314/.419/.516 with 80 SBs, 146 Rs, 24 HRs, 157 OPS+ – helped the Yankees win 97 games that year and helped Don Mattingly win the 1985 MVP:

“Mattingly credits the presence of Henderson and Winfield as major factos in his success. ‘When you have Henderson hitting in front of you and Winfield behind you,’ Mattingly said, ‘it means someone’s always on base and pitchers can’t pitch around you. I put up some great numbers last year but I couldn’t have done it without them.'”

The 1986 Sporting News preview guide continues:

“Henderson, whose ankle injury at the beginning of the 1985 season was a major factor in the team’s slow start and the early-season firing of Manager Yogi Berra, came on strong to make his first Yankee season after six years with Oakland a rousing success.”

Rickey’s second season in New York was less spectacular than the first, but he did increase his power that year (28 HRs, .469 SLG) and play in his fifth straight All-Star game. He also stole another 87 bases, setting the Yankees club record for the second year in a row. His 1987 season did not go to plan, though, as he found himself sidelined for 67 games with a nagging hamstring injury. The New York City media naturally came down on Rickey in this disappointing season, but he seemed to have the right attitude about it over the off-season. From the 1988 Athlon baseball preview:

“‘What I do naturally,’ says Henderson, ‘is get on base, intimidate pitchers and get hitters pitches to hit.’ Henderson will be watched closely this summer after a season in which his desire was increasingly questioned the longer he remained sidelined.”

With his full health back in 1988, Rickey proved himself to his doubters, hitting .305/.394/.399 with 118 runs and 93 stolen bases. His performance didn’t carry over into 1989 though, the final year of his deal with the Yankees. Starting off the season poorly, Rickey was traded back to the A’s in mid-June and missed the All-Star game for the first time since 1981. His performance picked up in the second-half of the season as the A’s marched on to the World Series.

The Series victory – and a 4-year, $12 million offer – must have pleased Rickey, as he stayed with the A’s after the season. It was the second of three consecutive series appearances for the A’s, who were filled with stars such as Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Dave Henderson, Dennis Eckersley, Dave Stewart and Bob Welch. The quality of the team wasn’t lost on Rickey. In the 1990 Street and Smith’s, it says:

“Left fielder Rickey Henderson, a free agent who signed back on, thinks the A’s will continue to repeat in the AL West. ‘I think we fit right in with the great teams,’ he said. ‘I watched those A’s teams in the ’70s and we fit in with them. That team won three World Series in a row. I feel this club can do that.'”

But Rickey’s value was still there, as the magazine called the new A’s outfield “the best in baseball.” He did everything in his power to prove it that year, hitting .325/.439/.577 with 28 home runs, 119 Rs, 65 SBs, and a 188 OPS+. It was Rickey’s best season in the majors, and he was rewarded with his first and only MVP award.

By the end of the 1990 season, Rickey was “already recognized as the greatest leadoff hitter of all time” and was sitting only two steals shy of Lou Brock’s record of 938 career stolen bases. He would go on to break the record on May 1, 1991, and then steal 468 more bases over the remaining 12 years of his career.

From 1992 and on, Rickey played on 10 different teams, always looking for one more year of work. Even as his bat and speed left him, he was still a valuable player, posting on-base percentages routinely .100-.150 points better than his batting average. In 1996, he had 112 hits but 125 walks; in 2001, he had 86 hits and 81 walks. As Joe Posnanski points out, Rickey retired with the most walks in Major League history (2,190, since surpassed by Barry Bonds), and still holds the record for most un-intentional walks (2,129).

Rickey was a very special talent in the game of baseball, and it showed through very early in his career. He seemed to set challenges for himself often – steal 100 bases, break Brock’s record, become a power hitter – and he was always able to rise up and surpass them. Even when he heard whispers of worry and doubt or when he signed large contracts acknowledging his production, Rickey did nothing but prove that he was the star he claimed to be. Contemporary writers, as shown in this collection of preview guides, were able to recognize this quickly, praising Rickey for his many talents year after year.

It seems obvious that Rickey will get the call to the Hall in January. The only real question remains to be, will he get in unanimously?

Larry Granillo

About Larry Granillo

Larry Granillo has been writing Wezen Ball since 2008 and has dealt with such touchy topics as Charlie Brown's baseball stats and Ferris Bueller's day off. In 2010, he got the bright idea to time every home run trot in baseball; he has been missing ever since.