He was the player with the dirt-soiled uniform pants, inviting comparisons to a bygone era. Except that Rickey Henderson, who will be inducted into the Basebal Hall of Fame along with Jim Rice and Joe Gordon on Sunday, was thoroughly modern.
He wasn’t above proclaiming himself the greatest of all time, laid claim to a home run trot which nearly detoured him at times into the first base dugout, and, having begun his major league career after the advent of free agency, changed uniforms and teams with a casual ease.
Henderson was in some ways a throwback, in other ways, he was ahead of his time. Though widely hailed as the game’s greatest leadoff hitter ever, Henderson seemed to grasp the significance of getting on base — via either hit or walk — far before it became such a measuring tool for offensive excellence and an obsession of sorts for sabermetricians everywhere.
A common baseball truism is that a player can’t steal first base, but at times, Henderson seemed to have figured out a way to do just that. His career on-base percentage was a mind-blowing .401 and six times in his career, he compiled an OBP over .420. The last time it happened, in 1999, Henderson was 40, surely the modern equivalent of Ted Williams chasing a .400 batting average at 38 in 1957.
Once on base, Henderson wasn’t content to stay any one place for long. He holds both the single-season mark and career record for steals, and though it’s impossible to predict the game’s offensive cycles, both numbers could be unassailable.
He also could flash occasional power — he also holds the record for homers to lead off a game, thus filling out every box in the five-tool checklist. However, Henderson much preferred making his trip around the bases a scenic one, with periodic stops along the way to admire the scenery.
Photos: Baseball honored its Hall of Fame Class of 2009 in Cooperstown, N.Y. See all the best shots here.
Henderson, Rice, Gordon inducted
And just as a greater emphasis was being placed on scoring runs — the object of the game, after all — Henderson often did so almost entirely on his own. He could work a walk, steal second and third and ride home on something as innocuous as a teammate’s routine groundout.
It was often said when Henderson walked, it was tantamount to hitting a double, but that doesn’t give him the proper credit since Henderson was seldom satisfied with stopping halfway on his journey.
Henderson made tens of millions over his long career, but in the end, he was intent on continuing to play — either as an itinerant role player, or eventually, a 40-something in independent ball.
Baseball greatness, of course, takes many shapes and forms. Though they both played left field, there could not be a greater contrast to Henderson than Rice.
While Henderson got voted into the Hall of Fame in his first try, Rice had to waited until his 15th and final chance. While Henderson was bold and brash, Rice was humble and stoic. While Henderson did his damage (mostly) one base at a time, Rice was a feared power hitter, strong enough to hit balls over walls, and sometimes, or so it seemed, through them. And while Henderson played for nine different teams — including one four times and another twice — Rice played for just one.
Henderson was never captain, but wouldn’t stop talking. Rice was captain of the Red Sox and said as little as possible. Never shy, Henderson once proclaimed that he was the greatest; Rice would have preferred to bunt before speaking of himself that way.
If Henderson’s speed and athleticism represent a part of the game was that nearly forgotten during the steroid era, Rice’s achievements are a reminder of a time when numbers were less outrageous but more genuine.
And Rice was more than a slugger. He finished with a career average just a tick or two under .300, and for a decade, he led the American League in a slew of offensive categories, from homers, to RBI, to slugging percentage, to total bases.
In his prime, Rice was capable of leading the league in almost everything except steals and runs scored. Beginning in 1980, those were seemingly reserved for Rickey.
Former Yankees and Indians second baseman Joe Gordon was a dominant player over his 11-year career, and like Henderson and Rice, was an American League MVP.
Known mostly for his sterling defensive play, Gordon was also ahead of his time as a middle infielder with uncommon power. Gordon was the first second baseman to ever hit 20 homers in a single season and still holds the AL mark for career homers at his position.
Selected as the best second baseman in the 1940s, he wasn’t elected by the Veterans Committee until some 30 years after his death.