The Peerless Career of Rickey Henderson

“Rickey Henderson is a run, man. That’s it. When you see Rickey Henderson, I don’t care when, the score’s already 1–0.”– Henderson’s teammate, Mitchell Page

This week (Aug. 27) in 1982, Oakland A’s outfielder Rickey Henderson broke Lou Brock’s single-season record for stolen bases by stealing his 119th.  At season’s end his stolen base total was 130, still a major league record.  Other major league records he owns include career stolen bases (1,406), runs scored (2,295) and the most home runs to lead off a game (81).  Only Barry Bonds has more career walks, and many believe Henderson still has the most unintentional walks.

Sports writer Joe Posnanski once wrote, “Rickey Henderson walked 796 times in his career leading off an inning. Think about this. There would be absolutely nothing a pitcher would want to avoid more than walking Rickey Henderson to lead off an inning. And yet he did that 796 times.”

Rickey Henderson, deservedly so, is considered the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history.  He had real power, hitting 297 career home runs, but a “Rickey run,” as they were called, was usually a lead-off walk, a stolen base, an infield out and sacrifice fly—in other words a run scored without a single hit, which drove opposing pitchers crazy.

He was a winner as well.  He broke into the majors in 1979 with his hometown Oakland A’s, and although he was traded to the New York Yankees in 1984 — where he became the first American League player to hit more than 20 homers and steal more than 50 bases in a season — he was traded back to the A’s in 1989. The A’s won the World Series that year with Henderson batting .474.  In 1993, playing for the Toronto Blue Jays, he won his second World Series.

In addition to his many records, Henderson played for many teams, including the San Diego Padres, Anaheim Angels, New York Mets, Seattle Mariners and, at the age of 43, the Boston Red Sox. Astonishingly, when he joined the Red Sox he had, over the course of his career, stolen more bases than the team had — 1,395 for Henderson, 1,382 for Boston.

One reason Rickey played for so many teams was his refusal to retire — when one team let him go, he signed with another because he thought he could still play.

As the following attests:  In 2009, his first year of eligibility, Henderson was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame, receiving 94.8% of the vote, the 13th highest percentage in league history.  Two days later the 50-year-old legend told reporters he was still available if any club needed a lead-off hitter.  “That’s how much I love the game,” he explained.