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How Rickey Henderson Played It Safe

REVIEW: ‘Rickey: The Life and Legend of an American Original’

Rickey Henderson in yellow takes off to steal second base (Wikimedia Commons)
• August 28, 2022 4:59 am

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Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN and the sports correspondent for NPR's Weekend Edition and has now come out with Rickey: The Life and Legend of an American Original. It is a biography of Rickey Henderson, the professional baseball player perhaps most well-known for his ability to steal a base. Playing for nine teams over a quarter of a century, Henderson was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in 2009.

Rickey was born in Chicago on Christmas Day in 1958 to Bobbie Earl and John Henley. The couple parted ways, and Bobbie moved the family (she had four children) to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, to work on her mother's farm. Writes Howard Bryant: "Pine Bluff was a nowhere town for black people. There were no jobs, and segregationists were waging a violent last stand against integration." Bobbie decided to move her family again. This time the destination was Oakland, Calif., where the prospects for her children were substantially better.

Bobbie's story was like that of thousands of black Americans, most of whom lived in Southern states. "The Great Migration" was the term used to describe this mass movement to California. It started around 1900 and ended in the late 1960s. Rickey was 12 when his family arrived in Oakland. Looking back some years later, he said, "Going to California was a one-way trip."

Sports had always drawn Rickey's interest, and he quickly impressed his new friends in Oakland with what he could do across a range of games. He was so good, they said, as to be special. At 5’10″, 180 pounds, and built tough, Rickey liked baseball, but not as much as he did football, where he competed with great force on both sides of the ball. Rickey said he received 125 college football scholarship offers, and it was assumed that he would take the customary path to the National Football League. But Rickey didn't have the grades to get into a Division 1 school. And his mother Bobbie (now married to truck driver Paul Henderson, who later would leave the family) worried that her son might shatter a knee or suffer some other serious injury playing football. In time, Rickey learned to read.

As between the two sports, baseball thus became for Rickey "the safer, surer bet," writes Bryant. And on draft day in 1976 the Oakland A's, an American League team, drafted Rickey in the fourth round. He asked for $100,000, but the A's held firm at $10,000. By accepting the money, Rickey was now a professional athlete. But he would never forget that he was worth significantly more, and throughout his long baseball career he insisted on being properly valued. In 2022, his net worth was reported at $20 million.

At age 17, Rickey told a friend of his, a Dodgers scout who had recently played in the minors, of his desire to become the greatest base stealer ever. Rickey was an ambitious young man. In an A-ball game his team won, 13 to 12, he went 7 for 7 in stolen bases, a spectacular performance. "Everybody was talking about seven steals but Rickey’s night was just more of what he had been doing all season writ large." Rickey thought he was ready to play at the highest level. Oakland management believed he should wait some.

Baseball’s minor leagues are the places where baseball men do their work. And Rickey was fortunate that the manager of the team (AA Modesto, Calif.) to which he had been assigned was Tom Trebelhorn, who saw Rickey’s enormous potential for stealing bases and proceeded to develop it.

Major League Baseball, a keeper of baseball doctrine, states, "A stolen base occurs when a baserunner advances by taking a base to which he isn’t entitled. This generally occurs when a pitcher is throwing a pitch, but it can also occur while the pitcher still has the ball or is attempting a pick-off or as the catcher is throwing the ball back to the pitcher." MLB makes the key point: "The upside to a stolen base is obvious; the runner advances a base and puts himself closer to scoring. However, the downside—a baserunner making an out—arguably far outweighs the upside." A stolen base percentage of 75 or higher justifies an attempted steal assuming the necessary sample size. Rickey had a lifetime percentage of 80.

Working with Rickey on the ball fields of Modesto, Trebelhorn couldn’t believe how bad his leads (from first) were, especially given his base stealing success so far. "Rickey’s burst of speed toward second was remarkable, however, and his ability to reach top speed within a step or two compensated for his poor jumps. With his speed, the jump was less important than getting the advantage on the catcher by stealing off the pitcher. If Rickey’s jumps improved even slightly, Trebelhorn figured, he'd be unstoppable."

Trebelhorn also worked with Rickey on reading pitchers, showing him "how to spot the little things that made a base stealer great, like noticing how the pitcher fumbled around with the ball in his glove. Too much movement meant he was trying to locate his curveball grip. Curveballs were great pitches to run on, because they were slower to the plate and had spin on them, which made it more difficult for the catcher to get the ball out of his glove and make a clean throw."

Soon enough the team thought Rickey was ready to go up to the big club and brought him up. He was a natural centerfielder who batted lead-off, and in that first, shortened season hit .277 with one home run and 29 stolen bases. As the years followed, Rickey put together a series of brilliant seasons. Notably, in 1982 he broke the all-time single season record by making 120 thefts. Rickey retired having stolen 1,406 bases—and thus having made good on his vow when he was 17 to become "the greatest stolen base stealer ever." He is, moreover, the only player in baseball history to have recorded 3,000 hits, 2,000 runs, 2,000 walks, and 1,000 stolen bases. He had a lifetime batting average of .279,  and he clubbed 297 lifetime home runs. To study more about Rickey’s body of baseball work, search the web, at, say, Baseball Reference.

For the epilogue of this book, Bryant interviewed Billy Beane, the baseball guru, to get his assessment as to how Rickey would be used in the modern game.

Beane thought Rickey would still be a great player, "but his power would be emphasized today over his speed—fewer stolen bases in exchange for more pop from his bat." Call that the Baseball Exchange: It’s the unintended legacy of one of the greatest players ever, the man Rickey, who expressed himself in the stolen base, which came to have too much risk in it, or so they say.

Rickey: The Life and Legend of an American Original
by Howard Bryant
Mariner Books, 448 pp., $29.99

Terry Eastland was publisher of the Weekly Standard, author of Energy in the Executive, Religious Liberty in the Supreme Court, and Ending Affirmative Action, and an unapologetic Braves fan.

Published under: Book reviews