Some professional athletes talk a big game but don’t have the talent to back it up.
Rickey Henderson was not one of those athletes.
Without a doubt, Henderson was an extremely talented athlete and he had no trouble letting people know how good he was.
Oftentimes, he would refer to himself in the third person while extolling his ability to strike fear into opposing teams.
It was no bluster.
Henderson would become the MLB’s all-time stolen base leader as well as the league leader in runs scored, unintentional walks, and most lead-off home runs to begin a game.
The active MLB leader in career stolen bases is Elvis Andrus. If you add Lou Brock’s entire career to his total, he’s still 151 steals behind Rickey Henderson. Read that again. pic.twitter.com/6hOZfmFWnA
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) October 16, 2021
Along the way, he won two World Series, was the American League’s MVP in 1990, and was a 10-time All-Star while winning Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards among a host of other accolades.
Henderson talked a big game, but that was because he was born with an immense desire to be the best, which he was.
This is the story of Rickey Henderson.
Gifted from the Start
Rickey Henderson was born Rickey Nelson Henley on Christmas Day, 1958 in Chicago, Illinois.
Dec. 25/1958 – Baseball Hall Of Fame OF Rickey Henderson is born. pic.twitter.com/VV0wIlcihE
— Today In History (@TodayThatWas) December 25, 2018
Apparently, he was ready to begin his life before his mother could get to the hospital.
Rickey’s parents couldn’t get to the delivery room in time, and he was born in the back seat of the family car.
“I was already fast. I couldn’t wait,” he joked years later.
Rickey’s birth father later died in a car accident and his mother married a man named Paul Henderson while Rickey was in high school.
The family then began using the “Henderson” surname.
By then, Rickey had barreled head-first into sports, including baseball.
“I went out for the Little League, and since everybody else was batting right handed, I did, too,” commented Henderson in 1981. “Since I’ve hit .300 or better at every level, I guess I did the right thing.”
Although he batted right-handed, Henderson threw with his left, a rarity in baseball.
Football or Baseball?
He continued playing baseball and added basketball, track, and football when he arrived at Oakland Technical High School.
Rickey Henderson, Class of 1976, Oakland Technical High School: pic.twitter.com/oukD8px7DK
— SI Vault (@si_vault) November 9, 2015
Henderson was not very tall, standing under 6’0”, but he was stocky and fast and committed to athletics.
Just before his sophomore year, new coach Bob Cryer initially put Henderson on the junior varsity squad.
That brought protests from his teammates and lit a fire in Henderson.
At one point, he walked up to Cryer and informed him that he had made a mistake.
“You must not know who I am,” said Henderson.
It didn’t take long for Cryer to see that he had made a huge error and put Henderson back on the varsity team.
During his junior and senior years, he batted .716 and .465 respectively.
“He was such a pleasure,” said Cryer. “Always upbeat and positive, always showed up on time and worked hard. I was never very close to Rickey, but I always liked him and wanted the best for him.”
Despite being supremely gifted on the diamond, Henderson’s favorite sport was football, and he became a 1,000-yard rusher during his junior and senior years.
After rushing for 1,100 yards as a senior, Henderson was named an All-American and had schools from all over the country courting him.
USC and Arizona State recruited Henderson heavily until Rickey asked his mom to make a choice for him.
On June 8, 1976, a 17-year-old Rickey Henderson was drafted by the Oakland #Athletics in the 4th round (96th overall pick) of that year’s amateur draft after showcasing his considerable talents at #Oakland Technical High School. pic.twitter.com/4p6ZeS7I7p
— Bottomms Cards (@BottommsCards) January 5, 2018
Should he become a college football player, and perhaps one day play for his beloved Oakland Raiders, or stay with baseball?
“I told my mother, Bobbie Earl, to choose one of the two sports for me,” he said. “She chose baseball because she thought I’d get hurt playing football. It would have taken me four years to play pro football, and I made the majors in 2½, so I’d say that turned out right, too.”
Drafted by Oakland
Now committed to playing baseball, Henderson was waiting to see which team would select him in the 1976 MLB free-agent draft.
As fate would have it, his hometown Oakland A’s took him in the fourth round.
Henderson was delighted to be staying close to home.
Growing up, he and a group of friends frequently snuck into A’s games, although his buddies had a habit of getting caught red-handed.
“We would find a way to get underneath the fence or cut the fence, and then during game time, we would sneak in and see the ballgame,” he said. “A lot of my friends got caught, but I was too fast.”
Oakland scout Jim Guinn was also very happy that Henderson was staying home.
“Henderson is the best-looking prospect in the Alameda County League and the Oakland Athletic League. I am impressed with this youngster mainly because of his all-around athletic ability,” said Guinn.
For the next four years, Henderson bounced around the Oakland farm system, playing in such locations as Idaho, California (where he stole 95 bases with Modesto and became team MVP), New Jersey, Mexico (where he helped win a championship), then Utah.
Today in 1979, Rickey Henderson makes his major league debut. This is going to shock you, but he also steals his first base. pic.twitter.com/lDSPj6LIWX
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) June 24, 2021
Partway through the 1979 season, the A’s called Rickey up to the parent club.
For the last few months of the year, he batted .274 with one home run, 26 RBIs, and 33 stolen bases.
It’s safe to say that anyone who didn’t know who Rickey Henderson was before 1980 knew his name by the end of the year.
One of the greatest to ever do it!
— MLB (@MLB) February 26, 2020
Of his many accomplishments that season, three things stood out: Henderson’s fielding, unique batting stance, and his ability to steal bases.
The outfield trio of Henderson, Tony Armas, and Dwayne Murphy led MLB that season in putouts with 696.
“I’ve only seen one outfielder who can run with him, and that’s (the Yankees) Paul Blair,” said Baltimore Manager Earl Weaver.
When it was his turn to bat, Henderson would hunch over the plate to the point where it looked like he was peering through an imaginary keyhole.
Opposing catchers mocked him for it and told Henderson to stand up straight.
Instead, he ignored them and proceeded to bat .303, with nine home runs, 179 hits, and 53 RBIs.
“I must be doing something right,” Henderson said at the time, “because kids keep telling me they’re using my stance. I can see the ball better this way than standing up. Stand-up hitters see only the top half of the ball. I see the whole thing.”
When he got on base, Henderson wowed crowds when he passed Ty Cobb’s single-season AL stolen base record, 96, with 100.
Rickey Henderson in 1980
100 stolen bases and only 54 strikeouts! pic.twitter.com/58hbamUCUT
— My Precious Chad (@TheFakeSith) March 11, 2022
He also led MLB when he was caught stealing 26 times.
His successful steals mark made Henderson just the third player in MLB’s modern era to steal at least 100 bags in a season.
He was named to his first All-Star team and earned the respect of everyone in the game.
“You have to be careful,” said Cleveland Pitching Coach Dave Duncan, “because he can knock one out. But you don’t want to be too careful because he’s got a small strike zone and you can’t afford to walk him. And that’s only half the problem. When he gets on base, he’s more trouble still.”
Just for the fun of it, Henderson spent the winter in Puerto Rico where he set the Puerto Rican Professional Baseball League record with 42 stolen bases.
In 1980, Billy Martin became the manager of the A’s. Martin’s style of play was aggressive and termed “Billy Ball.”
Henderson thrived in Martin’s system, as evidenced by his 1980 stats.
— 🅃🄷🄴 🄱🅁🄾🄽🅇 🅉🄾🄾 (@BronxZooNYY) January 23, 2022
In 1981, Rickey kept the gas pedal nailed to the floor.
While the A’s lost in the postseason to the Yankees, Henderson led MLB with 56 steals, 135 hits, and 89 runs.
His .319 batting average was fourth-best in the AL and Henderson received his first Silver Slugger award.
The only professional season in which Henderson won a Gold Glove was also in 1981.
All those stats alone should have brought the Oakland dynamo the league’s MVP.
Instead, it went to Brewers pitcher Rollie Fingers as Henderson came in second.
The following season, Henderson led the majors in walks with 116.
He also stunned MLB fans young and old when he broke Lou Brock’s single-season steals record with 130.
On this date in 1982, Rickey Henderson stole his 119th base of the season to break Lou Brock’s single-season record. pic.twitter.com/aH0Rjmnitn
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) August 27, 2021
The feat was unimaginable and put Henderson on a level not many professional baseball athletes can attain.
The record was remarkable not only in terms of how nearly impossible it was but how Rickey did it, typically throwing himself chest and face first into the base.
“Henderson comes in belly-first, bent on busting right through you,” California Manager Gene Mauch said. “Most runners who dive want to touch the base with their hands. Rickey wants to slide through and let his belly stop him on the base.”
The fact that Henderson’s method of stealing was dangerous not only to him but to others did nothing to deter Rickey.
“He’s much more daring than anyone I’ve ever seen,” said Davey Lopes. “His desire to run is constant. The country just doesn’t realize what an accomplishment this is. It’s comparable to Joe DiMaggio’s hit streak. And he’s doing it with a slide that has more disadvantages than advantages.”
In 1983, Henderson had 150 hits, 103 walks, and 108 stolen bases, all of which led MLB.
Rickey Henderson in 1983 when he had 103 walks and 108 steals. pic.twitter.com/KIMJWtomLl
— Stirrups Now! (@uniformcritic) October 29, 2022
That season was also the fourth straight year in which he led the majors in times caught stealing.
However, his other MLB best marks were so rare that no other modern-day player has managed to equal him.
Trade to the Yankees
During the 1984 season, Henderson led the majors again in stolen bases with 66.
Despite his consistent play in all phases of the game, Oakland couldn’t get back to the playoffs.
Martin had been fired after the 1982 season and the team was stuck at the 70+ win plateau.
After the ’84 season, Henderson was traded to the New York Yankees.
The A’s trade Rickey Henderson to the Yankees Rickey leads the American League in runs scored and stolen bases in his first two seasons in New York. It was one of seven trades on December 5th in 1980s Baseball: https://t.co/pH1LMzHofr pic.twitter.com/6WlQycsNnq
— ⚾ J. Daniel ⚾ (@JDaniel2033) December 5, 2022
It just so happened that he was reunited with Martin who had become the Yanks’ manager in 1983.
In his first year in the Big Apple, Henderson led MLB in runs with 146 and steals with 80.
Henderson was third in MVP voting but received his second Silver Slugger Award and his fifth All-Star game appearance.
Rickey Being Rickey
For the next few years, Henderson continued at his frenetic pace.
He led the league in runs and stolen bases again in 1986 and injuries limited him to “only” 41 steals in 1987.
— Vintage Jerseys & Hats (@PolyesterUnis) July 20, 2022
That year, the Mariner’s Harold Reynolds broke Henderson’s seven-year hold on the steals title by swiping 60 bags.
Henderson called to congratulate Reynolds and also sent a jab his way.
“60 stolen bases? You ought to be ashamed; Rickey would have 60 at the All-Star break,” said Henderson.
That type of dialogue was normal for Henderson, who would sometimes refer to himself in the third person.
According to Henderson, however, that was more of a joke than how he actually spoke.
“People are always saying, ‘Rickey says Rickey’. But it’s been blown way out of proportion,” remarked Henderson. “People might catch me, when they know I’m ticked off, saying ‘Rickey, what the heck are you doing, Rickey?’ They say, ‘Darn Rickey, what are you saying Rickey for? Why don’t you just say I?’ But I never did. I always said ‘Rickey’ and it became something for people to joke about.”
In 1988, Henderson put himself back at the top of the MLB steals list when he led the league with 93.
Back to Oakland
By 1989, New York wasn’t gaining much ground in the AL East and traded Henderson back to the Bay Area during the season.
— Amir Alhaj | ASM | International PR Consultant ℠ (@AmirAlhaj_ph) November 29, 2022
The timing was perfect as Oakland was hitting its stride with a 99-win season.
Henderson’s combined New York and Oakland stats led him to an MLB-best 113 runs, 77 steals, and 126 walks.
In the ALCS against the Toronto Blue Jays, Henderson nearly won the series by himself.
During five games against Toronto, Henderson stole eight bags, hit .400, scored eight times, crushed two home runs, was walked seven times, and had an astounding 1.000 slugging percentage.
After the 4-1 ALCS win, Henderson was named the MVP for the series.
“We’re a very relaxed club that knows what we have to do to win,” said Henderson. “I like to think that I’m a money player. When we need a steal or drive home a run, I like to think I’ll deliver.”
Then, in the 1989 World Series against the San Francisco Giants, Henderson had a home run, three stolen bases, and posted a .474 batting average and .895 slugging percentage.
That helped the A’s overcome a major earthquake before Game 3 and the talent of the Giants for a 4-0 series sweep.
MVP at Last
In 1990, the A’s continued the assault on their opponents by winning 103 games and sweeping the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS.
Henderson was brilliant as he finished second to Kansas City’s George Brett in batting with a .325 average and led the majors in five other categories including steals (65) and runs (119).
1990 American League MVP
Rickey Henderson (.325 with 28 HR and 61 RBI) pic.twitter.com/bQ572AtR6k
— OldTimeHardball (@OleTimeHardball) May 7, 2022
He received his third Silver Slugger Award and was added to his ninth All-Star team.
Henderson also continued to showcase his ability to hit timely home runs when he tied a career-best with 28.
After a few near misses in previous years, Henderson was finally named the MVP of the American League.
“I felt like I was cheated the last three times I was involved in the voting,” said Henderson. “But it’s not my decision. I still think that (1985) was my best year, but this isn’t far off. The only difference is that I hit for a higher average this season. That was a better year—and I had some great years in New York—but this was good because it helped the team win.”
Then, in the postseason, he batted .333 with a homer and three steals in the 1990 World Series. However, it wouldn’t help as Oakland was swept by the Cincinnati Reds.
The following year, the A’s missed the postseason for the first time since 1988 after winning 84 games.
Meanwhile, Henderson led MLB with 58 stolen bases.
He stole his 939th career base on May 1st, which set the modern-day record set by Henderson’s idol, Lou Brock.
30 Years Ago Today: Rickey Henderson steals base No. 939, passed Lou Brock for the All-Time Record.
Said the never humble Henderson: “Lou Brock was a great base stealer, but today I’m the greatest of all time.” pic.twitter.com/gE5GayAAHg
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) May 1, 2021
In 1992, Oakland returned to the postseason after winning 96 games.
Henderson had 48 steals, 112 hits, and 77 runs while batting .283.
Trade to Toronto
In 1993, Henderson was having another solid year in Oakland when he was traded to the Blue Jays in July.
During his short time with the club, Henderson stole 22 bases, scored 37 runs, and had 35 hits.
Toronto won 95 games and eliminated the White Sox in six games in the ALCS.
Henderson didn’t hit as well during the playoffs as he had in the past when he batted just .120 in the ALCS and .227 in the 1993 World Series against the Phillies.
However, he did claim another World Series ring when the Blue Jays won in six games.
Rickey Henderson and Joe Carter lift the World Series trophy, 1993 pic.twitter.com/bb4ew98lkd
— Baseball In Pics (@baseballinpix) November 29, 2022
Not long after the end of the ’93 season, Henderson went back to Oakland for his third stint with the franchise.
Never Too Old!
Over the next four years, Henderson played for Oakland, San Diego, and Anaheim.
He put up decent numbers, but many thought that Henderson’s best years were behind him.
Then, in 1998, the A’s brought Henderson back for his fourth tour with the club.
A few weeks into the season, the Cleveland Indians’ Kenny Lofton decided to talk a little trash at the aging Henderson.
That proved to be a mistake.
“And here’s Lofton across the diamond chirping at Rickey: ‘See that old man on the other side of the field? There’s a new sheriff in town. That dude is done,’” recalled the A’s Ron Washington. “And don’t you know, Rickey just went on a tear. Second—gone. Third—gone.”
Henderson indeed went on a tear as he displayed a resurgence in his career, leading the majors in steals with 66 and walks with 118.
1-22-1998, the A's signed Rickey Henderson, giving him a 4th(!) stint in Oakland! He hit just .236, but posted a .376 OBP with an AL leading 118 walks. At the age of 39 he also led the league with 66 stolen bases! pic.twitter.com/Q0AzcdP9J2
— Scott F (@TheFrizz87) January 22, 2022
That year Henderson also batted .236 with 101 runs and 128 hits.
Still Going Strong
In 1999, the New York Mets signed Henderson and he didn’t disappoint.
That year, he batted .315 with 37 stolen bases, 138 hits, and 89 runs.
The Sporting News named Henderson their NL Comeback Player of the Year as the Mets won 97 games but lost to Atlanta in the NLCS.
“The Greatest of All Time” pic.twitter.com/7zQJU62BEI
— Erico Inc.® 🌊🦩🌴 (@EricoTheriault) November 29, 2022
In 2000, Henderson was traded during the season to the Seattle Mariners then spent 2001 back in San Diego.
He had a decent year with the Padres, netting 25 steals, 86 hits, and 70 runs.
During the season, Henderson supplanted Ty Cobb on the all-time runs list when he scored his 2,246th career run.
“When I first started in the big leagues,” said Henderson, “I felt that as the leadoff hitter, my job was to get on the base paths, create stuff, and score some runs to help my teammates win some ballgames. It just happens over the 23 years I think I went out there and did my job as well as I could do… and all of a sudden, it’s a record breaker… it’s just an honor.”
That got Henderson a deal with the Red Sox in 2002 in which he had eight steals, 40 hits, and 40 runs.
After that year, Boston released Henderson and he wasn’t signed by any MLB team in the offseason.
Not Quite Done
Fans of the Newark Bears of the independent Atlantic League were shocked when they found out Henderson signed a $3,000 contract to play for the club in 2003.
After all, Henderson was 44 years old and had played 24 years in the majors.
ALPB Roundup here, just reminding everyone to stay safe and that Rickey Henderson posted a .300/.471/.489 batting line during his ages 44 and 45 seasons with the Newark Bears because the laws of aging don't work on Rickey. Oh, and he was 88% on SB attempts. pic.twitter.com/X5khQnNi6s
— Indy Ball Nation (@IndyBallNation) January 2, 2021
Why would he still want to play ball?
“If I feel I don’t have the skills, I’d be happy to hang up my shoes and go be with my kids,” Henderson said. “But I know I have the skill. The speed guys who can score runs? I think I’m better than the guys in the major leagues.”
Henderson would play well enough for the Bears that he was named the MVP of the Atlantic League All-Star Game.
The LA Dodgers were impressed and signed Henderson for the rest of the year.
In 30 games with LA, he stole three bases, hit two homers, had 15 hits, and seven runs.
After a quarter century playing professional baseball, Henderson retired after the 2003 season.
In his career, Henderson played in four different decades and had a .279 overall batting average, 1,115 RBIs, 2,190 walks, 1,406 stolen bases, 297 home runs, 3,055 hits, and 2,295 runs.
He was a two-time World Series champion, AL MVP, ALCS MVP, 10-time All-Star, Gold Glove winner, three-time Silver Slugger Award winner, and 12-time MLB stolen base leader.
His number 24 was retired by the A’s and Henderson was also added to Oakland’s Hall of Fame.
Furthermore, Henderson still leads MLB all-time with his career steals and runs as well as the distinction of holding the MLB record for times caught stealing (335).
"Some people have asked me whether or not Rickey Henderson belonged in the Hall of Fame. I've replied "if you could somehow split him in two, you'd have two Hall of Famers" ~ Bill James pic.twitter.com/uRDdszCQlR
— OldTimeHardball (@OleTimeHardball) June 2, 2020
He was unintentionally walked 2,129 times, another all-time best mark.
Henderson led off games with home runs 81 times, a number that has not been matched.
He also stole more bases after the age of 40 (109) than anyone in history.
After he finally retired, Henderson stayed close to the game when the Mets hired him in 2006 to be their special instructor.
As expected, his main specialty with New York was to teach the players hitting and stealing techniques.
He was promoted to first base coach in 2007 and was not retained in 2008.
In 2009, Henderson was selected for the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
July 26, 2009 – After a career in which he established MLB records for:
⭐ 1,406 career stolen bases
⭐ 2,295 career runs scored
⭐ 81 career lead-off home runs
⭐ 130 stolen bases, single season …
— JVAN (@VanderlansJim) July 26, 2022
By 2017, he was working with the A’s as a special assistant to Oakland President David Kaval.
Oakland named its playing field after Henderson the same year and a statue of him was placed in front of Oakland Coliseum in 2018.
Even though he is no longer swiping bases, the lore of Rickey Henderson still looms large over professional baseball.
“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 Hickock, Davy Crockett, Rickey Henderson,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci in 2003. “They exist on the sometimes narrow margin between Fact and Fiction.”