The Rickey Henderson Chronicles – Part 1 – The Early Years
“It wasn’t until I saw Rickey, that I understood what baseball was all about.”
– Mitchell Page, former A’s teammate and should have been ROY in 1977
In any sport, this is the highest compliment a fellow competitor can pay you. Words like that tell you that you’ve reached the pinnacle in your chosen field.
These days, Rickey Henderson gets to live the high life – traveling around to the various farm teams in the Oakland A’s system. As a roving instructor, he’s seen working with players on everything from being more aggressive at the plate to getting a more advantageous lead from first base to helping guys field better in the outfield.
Last time Henderson stopped off at Raley Field to work with the Sacramento River Cats, I was able to catch up with him – and trust me – I had to get a great jump.
In this first segment of a three part story, Henderson talks about childhood – being born in the back of a car, his time in the minors, his style of play and making it in the major leagues. I have also included some comments from several River Cats players, demonstrating how special it was to have Rickey come to town and work with them. Throughout the piece, I’ll call them Cats Comments.
“It’s just awesome. Besides the fact that he’s a Hall of Famer, it’s just the way he goes about his game.”
– Adrian Cardenas
Out of the Gate
Rickey’s known for getting a great jump, and it started on the day he was born.
You see, Rickey couldn’t even wait until his mom got into a hospital bed.
From what his mother told him about that day, his dad was probably out gambling or something like that, and was late coming back home. She tried and tried to get in touch with him, to no avail. With less than moments to spare, Rickey’s father showed up and hustled his mom to the hospital in the family Oldsmobile.
“Once she got to the hospital,” said Henderson, “he jumped out and was going to get a doctor or nurse and she said, ‘Don’t worry about it, you’re already too late, he’s already out!’ So I was out in the backseat!”
Would you expect anything less from the greatest base stealer of all time?
Born Rickey Nelson Henley, after singer-actor Ricky Nelson, he moved to Oakland when he was two, after his pop left home. His dad would pass away 10 years later. His mother, Bobbie Henley, married again when Rickey was a junior in high school. His new stepfather’s name was Paul Henderson, and the family changed its last name to reflect the new union.
Rickey’s first love was football. He played for Oakland Technical High School and was a two-time All-American and had two 1,000 yard rushing seasons. After receiving over a dozen football scholarship offers, he turned them down on the advice of his mother. She was adamant about not letting his smaller frame get beat up on a football field every Sunday.
“I still, to this day, would have chosen football over baseball,” said a smiling Henderson.
“At that time, I was so involved with football that I wanted to play football. When I got drafted, my mom got talking about how she wanted me to play baseball and that’s how I got to sign with the Oakland A’s.”
“It’s a joy for me personally, and I’m sure it’s a great time for them to see a guy and have a guy here that has had so much success and played the game so well come out here and help them.”
– Manager Darren Bush
Making Hay in the Minors
In 1976, Henderson would be drafted and make his way to the Boise A’s of the Northwest League.
This was Rickey’s first extensive time away from home. With the help of his manager at the time, Tom Treblehorn, Rickey would get over missing his mom and his old life.
“I was homesick!” said Henderson, “It was one of the first times being away from Oakland, my parents and being away from home. I got lonely. He (Treblehorn) took me under his wing and made me feel a lot more comfortable and feeling good about me playing baseball.”
Later in his stellar career, Henderson would garner a Gold Glove, the highest honor bestowed upon a fielder.
But in 1977, he would make 20 errors at Modesto, the A’s Single-A club. Plain and simple, Rickey was too fast. Even though he set the minor league record for stolen bases with 95 that year, he still had a lot to learn about fielding.
“A lot of times, I was so fast that I didn’t know how to control it,” remembers Henderson. “I was overrunning the ground balls and making the ball get to me too fast and booting a lot of balls.”
It’s hard to believe that for a guy that made it look so easy, he really put in a ton of hard work to become the player he wanted to be. Henderson also had to learn how to throw the ball correctly.
“I really couldn’t throw the ball real, real straight,” continued Henderson. “I always seemed to have a slice – it would go the opposite way, so I had a lot more errors.”
By working with Lee Walls, one of his minor league coaches, he was able to overcome his lack of accuracy and improve his footwork.
Early in 1978, Rickey would have his first real problems in the minors. Well, let’s say that his manager had problems.
At Jersey City, his manager was having issues adjusting to the players. The entire team got off to a really slow start and Henderson decided to pick up the phone. The 20 year old would do something unheard of at the time – call the A’s owner.
“I really didn’t know how it was going to turn out. I was in a position where I had such a good season at A-ball and I was so frustrated at Double-A, that I was willing to go back. But Charlie Finley said he couldn’t send me back and there were no spots in Triple-A, so he told the manager to leave me alone. It gave me the confidence to go out and do what I knew I could do and not worry about everything else that was going on.”
Can you imagine being one of the newer employees and calling the owner of the company you worked for and saying that you can’t work for the boss? Especially if your boss were Charlie O., a stern man known for not mincing words with his players? It was a huge risk that paid off in the long run.
In 1979, Rickey had another major decision to make. While at Ogden, Oakland’s Triple-A organization, he got the call to fill in for an injured Dwayne Murphy. When Murphy came back from his stint on the DL, the management team came to Henderson and said he could either go back to Triple-A – if he wanted to stay in center field – or he could start playing in left and stay in the bigs.
“It really wasn’t a choice for me to make, so I just said I’ll go in left field and play. I figured if I could play one position in the outfield, I could play all three. I ended up having a decent year and made the club the next year.”
“It’s a big inspiration for us having a guy with that kind of stature.”
– Jemile Weeks
As a 21 year old, Henderson had one of his finest years. In his first full season with the Oakland A’s, he hit .303, had an .420
OBP (on base percentage), walked 117 times and scored 111 runs.
One more thing – he also broke Ty Cobb’s American League record of 96 stolen bases.
That’s right, in his first full season in the bigs, he would reach the unthinkable – 100 stolen bags! He had already swiped 96 in Single-A, 81 in Double-A and was on his way to the same success in Triple-A before getting called up.
“I felt if I had more opportunities in the big leagues with more games played, that I could steal even more bases. So I put a goal of 100 stolen bases in my head. I knew Ty Cobb’s AL record was in the 80’s or 90’s, so I was shooting to top that record. It seemed like it was natural for me as far as getting out there and reading the pitchers and pitches and using my speed. I was just using my speed and trying to outrun the ball.”
Even with the great start on the base paths, Rickey knew he had much more to learn if he going to keep up that pace. Enter Davey Lopes.
Lopes, who had led the NL in stolen bases twice with the Los Angeles Dodgers, became a teammate of Henderson’s in 1982.
“He was a genius as far as seeing things off the pitcher that helped him get a good jump. So he took me to the side and showed me some different moves and showed me what the pitcher was doing.”
But to steal a base, one had to first get on base. Henderson stole over 100 bases three times, but had over 100 walks on five occasions.
“Basically being patient and knowing your strike zone,” said Henderson when asked about the key to taking a base on balls. “A really big key is knowing you can hit with two strikes. I was the type of player that knew I could hit with two strikes. It would make me bear down more.”
When asked if being patient made you confident, or if confidence made you patient, he didn’t hesitate one iota.
“I think confidence makes you patient – believing in yourself and what you’re doing, feeling that it’s a challenge out there for you. If you feel like you’re going to take that challenge on, you’re going to build your confidence up.”
A year later, Henderson’s confidence would transfer to his play in the outfield. He won his only Gold Glove in 1981.
Next Monday in part two of this three-part story, Henderson recounts finally meeting his childhood hero – Reggie Jackson, his memories about the Bay Bridge “Earthquake” series against the San Francisco Giants, his MVP season in 1990 and playing with the Bash Brothers.