Rickey Henderson had an expansive career which spanned all across North America. Raised in Oakland, California, he quickly became the pride of his hometown as he built a Hall of Fame resume and brought home the A’s final World Series championship. Along the way, he became baseball’s greatest base-stealer, owning every major record in that category at the time of his retirement. He played with passion and a love for the game which brought him an illustrious 25-year career and a place in Cooperstown, New York. This is his story.
Rickey Nelson Henley was born on December 25, 1958 in Chicago, Illinois. When Rickey was two, his father abandoned the family and five years later they relocated to Oakland. Five years after their move, his father died in a car accident. When Rickey was a junior at Oakland Technical High School, his mother married Paul Henderson and the family adopted his surname.
Growing up, Henderson learned to bat right handed, though he naturally threw left handed. This ability is rare in non-pitchers to this day in the major leagues and Henderson proved to be one of the best. While attending Oakland Tech, Henderson excelled in baseball, basketball and football where he was a star running back. Though he received dozens of scholarship offers for football and despite a lifelong ambition to play for his hometown Raiders, Rickey Henderson heeded his mother’s advice that football players had shorter careers and pursued a baseball career.
The A’s: First Stint
Rickey Henderson was drafted out of high school in the fourth round of the 1976 MLB Draft by the Oakland A’s. After spending three years in the minors, Henderson joined the A’s in the summer of 1979. Though he hit just one home run, he averaged a respectable .276. The following year, he earned his first All-Star nod as he hit nine home runs, 53 RBI and batted .303. That season, he began a seven year streak where he led the league in stolen bases. Not only did he begin an impressive streak, but he also broke Ty Cobb’s 65-year-old American League record of stolen bases in a season with 100. It was a sign of things to come for the young homegrown talent.
Though he led the league in hits (135), runs (89) and stolen bases (56) in 1981, Henderson failed to make the All-Star team. However, not all was lost as he earned the Gold Glove Award and the Silver Slugger Award. The following year, he began a streak of seven straight All-Star selections and set the major league record with 130 stolen bases. In 1982, 1983 and 1984, Rickey Henderson hit 10, nine and 16 home runs respectively. Those were the final three years of his first stint with the A’s and after the 1984 season he was traded to the New York Yankees.
The New York Yankees are the most storied franchise in major league history but in the late 1980’s they failed to make the playoffs as they consistently paid huge sums of money for talented players. But despite the failures of the team, Rickey Henderson shined in the City that Never Sleeps. He hit 24 home runs, batted .314 and led the league in runs (146) and stolen bases (80) in 1985 and earned the Silver Slugger Award.
The following year, he again led the league in runs (130) and stolen bases (87) while slamming 28 home runs. Though he was named an All Star in 1987, Rickey Henderson had a down year and did not lead the league in stolen bases for the first time in seven years, stealing just 41. He was back to his old tricks in 1988 and led the league in stolen bases with 93 in 1988. The Yankees decided to go in another direction in the middle of the 1989 season and traded him back to Oakland where he would experience the most memorable season of his life.
The A’s: Second Stint
When Rickey Henderson rejoined the A’s in the middle of the 1989 season, Oakland boasted one of the most powerful lineups in major league history. Led by Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, the A’s constantly blasted home runs into the stratosphere. However, they knew that they could get faster and traded for the best base stealer in the business: Rickey Henderson.
He did not disappoint and stole 52 bases for Oakland while leading the league in that category between Oakland and New York with 77 stolen bases. He also led the league with 113 runs while hitting nine home runs for his hometown team. The A’s made the playoffs that year and looked to avenge their World Series loss from the year before. Henderson shined in the ALCS against the Toronto Blue Jays, batting .400, hitting two home runs, driving in eight runs and stealing eight bases in five games. As a result, the A’s won the ALCS and Rickey Henderson won the series MVP.
In the World Series against the San Francisco Giants, the A’s took a commanding two game lead until the world literally shook. Just before Game 3, a 7.9 earthquake shook San Francisco and Oakland, causing immense damage and chaos. As a result, the World Series was postponed for 10 days. When play resumed, the A’s continued their dominance and swept the Giants. Once again, Rickey Henderson was critical to the A’s success, batting .474, slamming a home run and scoring four runs while stealing three bases. As a result, he won the World Series MVP.
Rickey Henderson was sensational in 1990, slamming 28 home runs, batting .325 and leading the league with 65 stolen bases. As a result, he earned another All-Star selection, another Silver Slugger Award and the AL MVP while the A’s made the World Series for the third consecutive year. However, they could not sustain the magic that had brought them to the Fall Classic and they were swept by the Cincinnati Reds. The A’s didn’t know it at the time, but their time of dominance was coming to an end.
Henderson spent 2.5 more years in Oakland while picking up his final All-Star selection before being traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in the middle of the 1993 season. Ironically, his A’s had lost to the Blue Jays in the ALCS the previous year.
Henderson only appeared in the Blue Jays’ final 44 games of the regular season and batted .227 in the World Series as Toronto defeated the Philadelphia Phillies in six games to win their second consecutive world championship. After winning his second World Series, Rickey Henderson went back to Oakland for two years, stealing 111 bases and driving in 74 runs between those years. After the 1995 season, he went on a long odyssey around the major leagues, signing with San Diego in 1996-1997, Anaheim in 1997, Oakland in 1998 (where he again led the league with 118 stolen bases), the Mets in 1999-2000, Seattle in 2000, back to San Diego in 2001 and Boston in 2002. His major league career ended in 2003 with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Although technically he never played in the major leagues beyond 2003, Rickey Henderson did not officially announce his retirement until 2007. Until his official retirement, Henderson bided his time by playing with the Newark Bears of the Atlantic League and the San Diego Surf Dawgs of the Golden Baseball League, winning the league championship with the latter in 2005. In 2006, he became a hitting instructor for the New York Mets and was promoted to first base coach in 2007. Rickey Henderson officially announced his retirement on July 13, 2007.
He retired with major league records in career stolen bases (1,406), most times caught stealing in a career (335) career runs (2,295) and career lead-off home runs (81). He still holds the record for most stolen bases in a single season with 130 as well as most times caught stealing with 42; both records were set in the 1982 season. The A’s retired his jersey number 24 in 2009 and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame that same summer. On April 3, 2017, the A's honored their living legend by naming their playing surface after him: Rickey Henderson Field. They never forgot him as he never forgot them.