Today in Baseball History: Rickey Henderson passes Lou Brock

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The post about the 300-300 club the other day celebrated players who had a rare combination of power and speed. Which player you think had the best combination of the two of all time is a subject for debate.

One can say it’s Barry Bonds, although in his case he was kind of two players: the early career, speedy Bonds and the later career, PED-fueled power hitter. He didn’t steal as many as even 20 bases in a season in the last nine years he played. The pre-1999 Bonds, though, possessed a magnificent combination of the two.

One could also argue quite compellingly for Willie Mays, who led the National League in steals for four straight years in his prime while also being one of the most feared power hitters in the game. His running game fell off a good bit after he turned 30, however, and after speedier models of base stealers like Maury Wills and Lou Brock entered the league and changed the complexion of the game.

As I mentioned the other day, Rickey Henderson fell just short of the 300/300 club, smacking only 297 homers in his 25-year career. For a good portion of his career, though, he was considered a speed/power threat on par with the all-time greats. No, he was not the heaviest of hitters, but for a leadoff guy in a low-power era, Henderson’s four 20+ homer seasons made him the most unusual of beasts in Major League Baseball. The guy who, if he got to first base, was almost assured of swiping second but also the guy who, if you left one out over the plate, could quite easily deposit it into the left field bleachers.

Base stealing, though, was clearly his calling card. And on this date in 1991, Henderson passed Lou Brock to become the all-time leader in that category. Before we get to that, though, let’s take a quick look at how he got there.

(Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Henderson was born in Chicago and moved with his mother to the Bay Area as a child. He was an amazing all-around athlete at Oakland Technical High School where he was a three-sport star in baseball, basketball and football. Football, in fact, was his first love, and he was considered one of the top running backs in the country. He could’ve been college All-American and had an NFL career, but he let his mother decide which sport he’d ultimately pursue and she chose baseball. It ended up being a good choice.

The Oakland Athletics selected Henderson in the fourth round of the 1976 draft. The minors were not a challenge. In 1977 at Modesto of the Class A California League Henderson hit .345/.466/.468 with 104 walks, 11 home runs and scored 120 runs while stealing an astounding 95 bases in 134 games. He stole 81 bases the next season at Double-A and, in 1979, he opened the year at Triple-A where he stole 44 bases in 71 games. With the exception of a couple of rehab assignments and a stint in the independent leagues in his mid-40s, that was the last minor league action Henderson would ever see.

Henderson made his big league debut with the A’s on on June 24, 1979. He went 2-for-4 against the Rangers that day with a double and a stolen base. He’d lead his team with 33 steals, falling just out of the top-10 in the league despite playing only half a season.

Henderson would lead the American League in steals in 1980, his first full season. And then he’d lead the AL in steals in 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, and 1986. In 1987 injuries would cost Henderson almost the entire month of June and the entire month of July, allowing Harold Reynolds to beat him out for the stolen base crown that year with 60 swipes. Reynolds once told the story that, that offseason, Henderson called him:

The phone rings. ‘Henderson here.’ I say, ‘Hey, what’s going on, Rickey?’ I think he’s calling to congratulate me, but he goes, ‘Sixty stolen bases? You ought to be ashamed. Rickey would have 60 at the break.’ And then click, he hung up.”

Humility was not exactly Henderson’s strong suit. But as that old song goes, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way. And, as a ballplayer, Rickey Henderson in his prime was basically perfect.

In addition to all of those steals — he’d lead the league again in 1988, 1989, 1990, and 1991 — he was routinely among the league leaders in WAR, on-base percentage, runs scored, and walks. Bill James developed a metric called Power-Speed, which sought to measure that combination, and Henderson was routinely at the top of the league in that category as well. He won only one Gold Glove, but he was considered a plus defender in his prime.

He was also one of the most colorful players of his time. He was traded to the Yankees before the 1985 season and, though he’d clash with manager Lou Piniella during the latter portion of his tenure there, he was considered one of the few players who could loosen up the famously tense Yankees clubhouse. When he was traded back to Oakland during the 1989 season, he was able to loosen up even more.

By then there was another Henderson in town: Dave. Dave once told the story about how they settled a dispute over a nickname:

“When Rickey got traded to the A’s, we’d walk through the locker room, someone would say ‘Hey Hendu’, and we’d both look up,” said Dave Henderson. “We had to figure something out. So, we’re both in the on-deck circle one day and I say, ‘The first guy who goes deep is Hendu’, the other guy will be Dave or Rickey.’ I forgot the guy had the most leadoff home runs ever. He hits a homer in his next at-bat and he’s coming around the bases laughing like crazy, yelling ‘I’m Hendu! I’m Hendu!’ Well, the pitcher and catcher start getting pissed — they think he’s showing them up. I had to explain things before they started throwing at me. Rickey goes back to the dugout and he’s still yelling, ‘I’m Hendu! I’m Hendu!’ The funny part is, everyone knows he’s always been Rickey and I’ve always been Hendu. But it was still a bad bet.”

Stolen bases, though, were the sexiest part of Henderson’s game. In 1980 that steals title came on the power of 100 swiped bags. In 1982 he set the modern record for steals in a season with 130, topping Lou Brock’s record of 118. He stole 108 in 1983. All of those gaudy numbers made his passing Lou Brock for the all-time steals lead a matter of “when” not “if.”

Henderson had 936 stolen bases at the end of the 1990 season, trailing Brock by two. He stole a base on Opening Day but was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a pulled calf muscle the next day. He returned to the lineup and on April 28 against California when he stole another base to tie Brock at 938. Three days later his former team, the Yankees, came to Oakland. With his old mates across the field and his family in the crowd, there was no question it’d be Henderson’s day.

Henderson led off the bottom of the first with a walk and had the green light to steal — Rickey always had the green light to steal — but Yankees catcher Matt Nokes gunned him down. Henderson struck out in the bottom of the second. Henderson’s next at bat came in the fourth when he led off and reached on an error and then took second on an infield single from the real Hendu. He stayed put when Jose Canseco flied out, but he took off on the first pitch from Yankees hurler Tim Leary to Harold Baines and was . . . safe! Stolen base number 939 and the all-time record:

 

Henderson ripping the bag from the ground was an instant classic moment and his words during the mid-game, on-field ceremony were instant classics as well, even if some fuddy-duddy critics of the time considered them to be arrogant:

“Lou Brock is the symbol of great base stealing, but today, I am the greatest of all time.”

Brock, who was present that day and who joined Henderson on the field said “today you are the greatest competitor who ever ran the bases in the big leagues. I congratulate you. You are now a legend in your time.”

The game resumed after an eight-minute delay. The A’s won 7-4.

Henderson would go on to play 12 more big league seasons after that and swiped another 467 bases. When it was all said and done he’d have one MVP Award, for 1990, and probably deserved it in 1985 as well. He was a part of two World Series winners, the 1989 A’s and the 1993 Blue Jays. In addition to steals he finished his 25-year career as the all-time leader in runs scored, with 2,295.

According to that Bill James metric, Power-Speed he’s . . . second of all time to Bonds. But if you had to watch only one of those two play in the prime of their careers, which would you pick?

For my money it’s gotta be Rickey.

 

Also today in baseball history:

1924: Bill Barrett of the Chicago White Sox’s steals home twice, once the first and once in the ninth innings, against the Cleveland Indians.

1925: Jimmie Foxx makes his big league debut, pinch hitting and singling against Washington. He’s just 17 years-old.

1926: Satchel Paige, just 19 years-old, makes his debut in the Negro Southern League, pitching for Chattanooga.

1951:  Mickey Mantle hits his first major league home run. It comes off of Randy Gumpert of the White Sox. In that same game Minnie Minoso makes his debut for the White Sox, becoming the first black player in the club’s history.

1975: Hank Aaron drives in two runs in the Milwaukee Brewers’ 17-3 win over Detroit, breaking what is thought to be a tie with Babe Ruth at the top of the all-time RBI list at 2,209. The following February, however, MLB’s records committee will revise Ruth’s total down by five, to 2,204, which means that Aaron actually set the record on April 18, 1975.

1980: Pittsburgh’s Bill Madlock is fined $5,000 and suspended 15 games by N.L. president Chub Feeney for poking umpire Jerry Crawford in the face with his glove after being called out on strikes with the bases loaded. Madlock will appeal, and the appeal takes over a month to be heard. In the meantime, disgruntled N.L. umpires threaten to eject Madlock from every game he tries to play in unless Feeney finally makes a ruling, but they relent once Madlock drops his appeal on June 6th and serves his suspension.

1991: 44-year-old Nolan Ryan tosses his seventh career no-hitter, striking out 16 Blue Jays in the process and pitching the Rangers to a 3-0 win at Arlington Stadium.

1992: Rickey Henderson steals his 1,000th career base. He’s the only guy in the 1000 stolen base club.

 

(A big thanks to Joseph Wancho, who wrote the SABR biography of Rickey Henderson)