It’s hard to say something about baseball legend Rickey Henderson that hasn’t already been said.
One Sports Illustrated writer said this about Rickey Henderson’s celebrity:
“There are certain figures in American history who have passed into the realm of cultural mythology, as if reality could no longer contain their stories: Johnny Appleseed. Wild Bill Hickok. Davy Crockett. Rickey Henderson. They exist on the sometimes narrow margin between Fact and Fiction.”
Henderson had a persona that he was just as often swept up in as he was in control of it. Henderson had such a dynamic stature that it prompted sabermetrics guru Bill James to conjecture:
“… if you could split him in two, you’d have two Hall of Famers.”
It’s funny because it’s true. The outfielder led baseball in so many offensive and defensive categories for so long that statisticians still doubt anyone will ever snatch his stolen base record. He is the Man of Steal, after all.
“I don’t care about them… It’s Rickey time!”
Rickey Henderson: Before the Fame
Rickey Henderson was legendary from the first time he took a breath.
He was a Christmas baby, 1958. “Lonesome Town” by Ricky Nelson was the No. 7 song in America, but the No. 1 song in Henderson’s parent’s hearts when Rickey was born. He was named after Ricky Nelson when they got to the hospital. Henderson was born before they got there.
Rickey Henderson was born in the backseat of an Oldsmobile speeding through Chicago, racing to the hospital. The scene sounds reminiscent of Ricky Bobby’s birth in Talladega Nights, and Henderson sounds like Ricky Bobby when he jokes about his birth:
“I’ve always been fast, from the minute I was born.”
(Sources are scant, but it seems unlikely that Adam McKay didn’t know about Rickey Henderson when writing Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.)
And that’s just Henderson’s birth. As funny as it may seem, his speedy delivery was a good omen for his future. Henderson was always fast, and he didn’t limit his speed to stealing bases.
Anyone who has seen Henderson knows he’s a freight train. His first love was football, and he wrecked defenses as a running back in high school. Henderson also excelled in basketball and baseball. He received football scholarship offers out of high school, but his mother wisely convinced him to stay off the gridiron. To hear Henderson tell it:
“If I went out and played the game [football] the way I played the baseball, I probably think I would have been in the Hall of Fame.”
Rickey “Modesty” Henderson chose the MLB instead. The Oakland Athletics drafted him straight out of high school in 1976, so the speedy Midwesterner packed his bags for California.
Rickey Henderson’s Baseball Career
Anyone could accomplish a lot over a 25-year career. But to have a quarter-century as good as Rickey Henderson’s, most professional baseball players would need 50 years.
Drafted in 1976, Henderson didn’t play in the Bay Area until 1979. In his second season playing in Oakland, Henderson made his first All-Star appearance. Rickey Henderson won his first World Series with Oakland nine years later in 1989, but only after being traded to the New York Yankees from 1985-1989.
The Yanks traded Henderson back, and he helped Oakland win it all. He won the ACLS MVP on his way to glory and was voted AL MVP the following year for his postseason performance in the playoffs. All this, despite being swept by Cincinnati in the 1990 World Series.
The 1991 MLB season was one for the record books. On a May afternoon, Oakland A Rickey Henderson set his career stolen base record against the Yankees.
Henderson stole second base in the fourth inning, tying Lou Brock’s record. Before the next batter was out, Henderson had stolen a Major League Baseball record.
At this point in his career, Rickey was so good that he started plucking his stolen bases out of the ground, seemingly every single time. Here he is taking home third base, his 1000th base stolen:
Talk about salt in the wound — it’s basically a staged robbery. But when you’re the Stolen Base King, you’ve earned the right. You’ve also earned the right to make speeches like this:
“I am the greatest of all time.”
Echos of Muhammed Ali. Henderson meant to sound like his idol, even if the media did trash him for it. Regardless, Henderson was right: he was the greatest base stealer of all time. The stats are still on his side.
Despite how large his actual stolen base collection had grown, Oakland traded Henderson to Toronto in 1993.
Henderson won his second World Series in his first year with the Toronto Blue Jays the same season. The Athletics wanted their superstar back again the following year.
When Rickey Henderson went back to Oakland in 1994, his World Series, American League MVP, Silver Slugger, Gold Gloves, and All-Star days were far behind him. But his career was far from over.
Henderson spent 1994-2003 bouncing from the Oakland Coliseum to the San Diego Padres to the Anaheim Angels to the New York Mets to the Seattle Mariners back down to San Diego but then over to the Boston Red Sox and then to the minors before winning Minor League MVP and getting called back up to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Phew!
Henderson was way past his prime, but don’t tell Rickey that! He loved baseball and just kept playing. Rickey didn’t even stop after 2003, his final MLB season. He continued in minor league ball and said he was ready for a call back to the Majors until he was 50 years old.
(He would’ve played for anyone: Kansas City, Milwaukee, the Colorado Rockies, San Francisco Giants, Texas Rangers, or even the St. Louis Cardinals if they would have taken him. But he was way past his prime by then.)
It was one hell of a career for one hell of a personality.
Rickey Henderson: The Quotes King
Henderson set Major League steals and single-season records, but he was so much more than a common thief. The former Most Valuable Player could stop home runs, slug them, and even lead off with them.
With runners in place, nearly every at-bat for Rickey was an RBI. On top of a crazy on-base percentage, he was one of the greatest lead-off home run hitters of all time. Because of Henderson’s stealing abilities, nobody wanted to put him on base. And still, on-base is where the lead-off hitter found himself, time after time.
Pitchers walked Henderson to first base nearly 800 times in his career, which is insane. But it’s just another outrageous Rickey Henderson stat.
Henderson knocked off Ty Cobb for the record most career runs scored in 2001. Henderson set two records for stolen bases: most successful steals and most unsuccessful. (The stat is reminiscent of NFL great Brett Favre: fourth-most touchdowns, but the most interceptions.) You don’t make any of the shots you don’t take.
Rickey Henderson took a lot of shots, sliding into his base path head first. His personality was larger than life, and he was a quotes machine in his prime. Henderson spoke loosely, freely, and boldly with the media, never mired in scandal, only in humor.
“They kept that shit [steroids] secret from me. I wish they had told me. My God, could you imagine Rickey on ‘roids? Oh, baby, look out!”
Henderson’s long, loud, and spotless baseball career is a testament to his integrity and high character. You can take the Rickey out of baseball, but you can’t take the Rickey out of Rickey.
Rickey Henderson Now
If you’re looking for Rickey Henderson now, you’ll still find him in the usual spots. The Baseball Hall of Fame inducted and enshrined Rickey in 2009, but he doesn’t just hang around Cooperstown chatting it up with Babe Ruth’s ghost.
Henderson’s life is still devoted to baseball.
He may be chilling in the dugout, talking up a batter. You may spot him in the outfield, coaching a young prospect. You might even find him in Las Vegas, where everyone is obsessed with statistics. Everyone except Rickey, that is.
Henderson now works as a roving baseball instructor, following coaching gigs from town to town. He coaches minor league and independent league squads and will assist in the Majors when the opportunity arises. Henderson is a natural competitor.
He can never outrun that, no matter how fast he was.
Henderson eschews the modern statistics that made his former club famous in Moneyball. Those advanced statistics suggest Henderson may have done more damage than good with all his failed base stealing attempts.
But Henderson won’t hear it, and why should he? It was Bill James, the founder of those same statistics, who saw Henderson was good enough to be inducted, twice. Some things numbers can’t quantify, no matter how advanced the statistics.
Rickey Henderson had it all — those qualities both quantifiable and unquantifiable. Baseball history has never seen anyone like Rickey Henderson, and we likely never will again.