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The life and times of the Man of Steal – ‘Rickey’

June 8, 2022
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“If you cut Rickey Henderson in half, you’d have two Hall of Famers.” – Bill James

Where have all the characters gone?

In today’s professional sports realm, the massive amounts of money involved have led to something of a homogenization in terms of the individual. With such huge amounts of cash on the line, it behooves pro athletes to operate on a level of strategic blandness; most players land in a place of platitudes and cliches, all intended to say as little as possible about the people themselves.

But it wasn’t always that way.

There was a time when pro sports were littered with colorful characters, iconic and iconoclastic players whose compelling performances on the field were counterpointed by eccentricities off it. In sports, legends are born not just of greatness in the box score, but of the stories that surround them.

And Rickey Henderson, no matter your definition, is a legend.

“Rickey: The Life and Legend of an American Original” (Mariner Books, $29.99) is a new biography of the legend by sportswriter Howard Bryant. It is a deep and definitive look at one of the greatest to ever play the game of baseball. Henderson is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, the all-time leader for stolen bases both in a season (130 in 1982) and in a career (1,406), as well as for most runs scored in a career (2,295). He is the only man in MLB history with more than 3,000 hits and more than 2,000 walks. The numbers he put up over his 25 years in the big leagues are staggering.

But the craziest part of all is that those numbers only tell part of the story.

During his time in the majors, Rickey would become a true iconoclast – one of the last, really. The stories of his attitude and antics would become codified within the lore of the game, turning an all-timer of a ballplayer into an all-timer of a character. His unwavering belief in his own capabilities (not to mention their worth) would lead to a roller coaster of perception; he would go from being respected to reviled to celebrated to questioned to utterly beloved, all without ever once changing who he was on a fundamental level.

Basically, they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

And so Bryant – a gifted writer who spent a good chunk of time covering baseball in the Bay Area during Rickey’s myriad stints there – gives us a soup-to-nuts rendering of the man, from his humble beginnings in Oakland to his rapid ascent into stardom to his arrival the apex of the baseball world to his slow evolution into a hardball folk hero. The triumphs of Rickey are here, but so too are the tribulations, as we’re given insight into the struggles that marked Rickey’s life both on the field and off it.

Born in Oakland, Rickey Henderson grew up as an athletic prodigy, excelling at everything he tried up through his time at Oakland Tech. He was great at baseball, naturally, but also so good at football that he (and others) believed to be his best sport. Nevertheless, he chose the diamond and wound up in the bigs with his hometown Oakland Athletics in 1979.

Over the course of the next quarter-century, Rickey would rewrite the record books. The first thing anyone thinks about is stolen bases, and with good reason – the aforementioned incredible totals, of course, but also the fact that he led the league a dozen times, including 66 in 1998, when he was 39 years old. He is on the leaderboard of dozens of significant statistical categories. He essentially redefined what it meant to bat in the leadoff position, developing into a speed/power threat that was essentially unprecedented. His combination of compressed batting stance and keen eye made him a unique force in the annals of the game.

And yet, so much of what makes Rickey, well, Rickey, is who he was while accomplishing all this. He was brash and self-confident, utterly convinced of his own greatness. He came up during a time when players – particularly Black players like Henderson – were expected to behave with a certain degree of reverence for the institution of baseball. And that was decidedly not Rickey’s style.

Rickey wouldn’t hesitate to put on a show. If he hit a home run, he’d mosey around the bases, picking at his uniform the whole way. He’d steal at will, no matter the score or situation. He knew what his skills were worth and demanded to be compensated thusly, becoming for one very brief stretch the highest-paid player in the game. He didn’t feel obligated to put himself out for the media, a fact that led to decades of gleeful revenge from the scribes who delighted in calling Rickey and his attitude a scourge of the game.

But as those cantankerous voices faded, a new generation recognized the power and value of what Rickey had done and was in fact still doing. And that’s when “Rickey being Rickey” came to the forefront. Stories about Rickey’s eccentricities – the third-person talking, the inability to remember names, the disregard for convention on and off the field – became practically a cottage industry, a currency within the game. Despite staggering performance on the field, Rickey became just as famous for the tales of who he was as he was for what he did.

That’s what Bryant captures so beautifully in “Rickey.” Thanks to a stunning number of interviews – including some with the man himself – Bryant is able to assemble a complex and comprehensive look at a complicated legacy. The roots of so many criticisms of Rickey were born of racism, both inherent and explicit; Bryant doesn’t shy away from that reality, acknowledging that many in baseball at that time viewed Rickey’s behaviors and style of play as somehow less than simply because of the color of his skin.

Conversations with his peers – teammates and rivals and (more than occasionally) both; Rickey played for nine different squads over his career – revealed a deep respect for the man’s talents on the field. Even those who begrudged his style in the moment conceded his brilliance, though there were some who couldn’t resist a bit (or more than a bit) of back-handedness with their praise.

It’s all woven together into an engaging package, a fascinating read for anyone who loves baseball. Bryant’s affinity for both the game in general and his subject specifically results in a book that, while even-handed, is also something of a love letter to what baseball was once upon a time. It’s not romanticizing, or at least, not exactly, but rather, an affectionate look back at an imperfect time in which a force of nature fundamentally altered what it meant to be on first base.

I found “Rickey” to be a marvelous read. As someone whose own baseball fandom coincided with much of Henderson’s stardom, I was always going to love this book. But the truth is that any fan of the game will find much to like. It’s a chance for older fans to look back at Rickey’s impact on their own fandom and an opportunity for younger fans to gain some perspective on the seemingly-impossible numbers that litter his Baseball Reference page.

It's Rickey being Rickey and Howard being Howard – what more do you want?

Last modified on Wednesday, 08 June 2022 04:17

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