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The Brief, Wonderous Career of Rickey Henderson

December 19, 2008
I bat right-handed and throw left-handed. So did Rickey Henderson.
Strange fact: in the entire history of major league baseball, just two players have ever had careers of 2000 or more games, while batting right-handed and throwing left-handed:
Rk. Yr.
Jimmy Ryan
Rickey Henderson
One hundred and forty years. Two players. One came to the majors in 1885. The other is Rickey Henderson.
Alright, 2000 games is a long career. Only 215 guys have ever had careers that long. What if we dropped it down to 1000 career games? That gives us a total of 1407 players. How many of them batted right-handed and threw left-handed?
Seven players. Or one-half of one percent.  
Rk. Yr.
Hick Carpenter
Jimmy Ryan
Hal Chase
Rube Bressler
Johnny Cooney
Cleon Jones
Rickey Henderson
Of the seven, three actually had brief pitching careers. Rube Bressler came up as a pitcher before being converted to the outfield. Same goes for Johnny Cooney. Even Jimmy Ryan, the second finest bat-right, throw-left player in baseball history, was a scrub reliever for six years. 
It’s easy to understand why those of us who throw left-handed and bat right-handed have little success as major league hitters: the game of baseball is simply not designed for us.
Think about it: when do you think baseballers realize that being left-handed was a boon to pitching? When did we become aware of platoon splits? 1880? 1900? At what point did the coaches of the time start trying to convert every lefty in sight into a pitcher?
And when did it become apparent that right-handed hitters were at a significant disadvantage? Anyone aware of platoon splits understands that righties are at a disadvantage: there are far more right-handed pitchers in baseball, and left-handed hitters are better at hitting those pitchers. It pays to be a lefty hitter.
It pays, too, when the hits fall. A lefty hitter will typically hit a line-drive to right field, and is running ahead of the throw as soon as he rounds first base. But a right-handed hitter hits to leftfield, where it’s a short toss to third, and where a throw to second is going at the runner, instead of behind him.
And you know what? Being a left-handed non-pitcher is terrible defensively, because a lefty can’t play third, shortstop, or second base. And while lefties probably could catch, they haven’t in some time. So: you’re a lefty: you can only play four of eight defensive positions on the diamond.
So you bat right and throw left, and you want to be a major league hitter. You can’t play shortstop, second, third, or catcher. You can’t hit most of the pitchers as well as the lefties, and when you do manage a hit, you’re less likely to advance around the bases. What do you do?
If you’re Rickey Henderson, you build one of the most unique careers in baseball history.
I’ve written a little bit about Henderson, but with his Hall of Fame induction all-but-certain, I figured it was a good time to look into his career. A few thoughts on one of the most interesting players of my lifetime.
“Today I am the Greatest”
I think Rickey Henderson is one of the least understood players of my lifetime. I say because the general conception of Rickey Henderson, that image we hold of him, is inaccurate.  
As I’ve said before, Rickey Henderson exists as a sort of caricature. He’s remembered as a narcissist, a guy more concerned with himself than anything else. From his brash insistence to run every single time he reached first base, to the proclamation that he was ‘the greatest’ when he broke Lou Brock’s stolen base record, to that regrettable card game with Bobby Bonilla as his teammates were losing Game 6 of the 1999 NLCD, it has always seemed like Rickey Henderson is more aware of Rickey Henderson than anyone else.
What is left out of the caricature is the fact that Henderson was one of the smartest players of his generation.
As a young hitter, he realized early on that the best thing he tailored his entire approach at the plate to drawing walks, crouching down in that weird stance of his to draw as many walks as possible. The same holds true for his running: when he came up, most folks thought the head-first slide was a kind of arrogant play, a dangerous play that was about flash, about showmanship. It’s not: sliding head-first is a far more effective way to slide than feet-first. It’s a control thing: in a precision play, in a scenario where deftness is a plus, it’s better to use the more agile limb, which is the hand and arm.
Henderson also gave tremendous thought about how to read pitchers, and how to break to second base. In a New Yorker article written while he was trying to break in with an Independent League team, Henderson detailed the specifics of his break to second, which was to start off in a crouch, with his body low to the ground, and then rise up to full stride after a few steps.
My point? There are a lot of players who are naturally gifted, and who never spend time bothering to think about what the hell makes them gifted. Mickey Mantle was that kind of player: he didn’t think about why the hell he was so damned good, he just accepted that he was. A lot of these guys aren’t taken seriously: Babe Ruth couldn’t get hired to manage because no one thought he was particularly introspective about his abilities.
And then there are those guys who thought about every godddamn thing, guys like Ted Williams and Ty Cobb and Tony Gwynn, guys who were positively obsessive about baseball.
Maybe I’m reaching, but I think most people assume that Henderson belongs in the former category, as someone who isn’t worth taking seriously. I remember reading a lot of sarcastic things when the Mets made him a coach in 2007. And partially it’s Rickey’s own fault: he has a tendency to talk without thinking, and sometimes he says things that sound arrogant or ridiculous.
But a most of thing he did on the field were the result of careful and methodical thinking, and if you were to closely watch Rickey Henderson play, it’d become evident. Why does he have that weird stance? Why does he break to second like that? What’s up with that slide?
Okay, I’ve got it now: Henderson is exactly like Yogi Berra. People think Yogi is some kind of a goof-ball, and certainly Berra gave folks cause to think that. And as a player, Yogi did things that didn’t seem smart: he’d swing at just about every pitch he ever saw.
But Yogi, like Henderson, was a fiercely intelligent player, a guy who thought about everything he did. We’ve forgotten that about Berra, his intelligence, and pretty soon most of us will forget that about Rickey, too. We’ll remember that Henderson could be damned obnoxious, and forget the foresight that guided everything he did on the field.
Nature Versus Nurture
Here’s a question I don’t have an answer to: how much of the player Rickey Henderson became is attributable to circumstance, and how much has to do with his own ability?
Even as a young player, Henderson was a non-conformist, a guy who did things his own way. How many managers in 1980 would have put up with someone like Rickey Henderson? How many would seek to change him, to make him conform, make him play baseball ‘the right way’?
Yet Henderson drew Billy Martin, the non-conformist manager of his day. And Martin didn’t just put up with Henderson, he encouraged him. Martin made accommodations for Henderson, letting Henderson run at all times and ordering the other guys in the lineup to take pitches. Martin took it pretty far, once ordering an Oakland player to get picked off so that Rickey would have a chance to break Brock’s single-season stolen base record.
There were other environmental factors: Henderson career occurred during a time when speed was a dominant strategy. You had guys like Raines and Henderson and Vince Coleman and Ron LeFlore and Omar Moreno and Willie Wilson and Eric Davis stealing 50 or more bases a year. You also had teams like the A’s and the Cardinals who designed entire teams around speed. And then there was artificial turf, which increased the value of speed on offensive and defensive. The actual conditions of the fields made speed a valuable commodity.
I say this only to illustrate the contexts around which Henderson’s career took place. He was a speed player in an era where speed was celebrated, and speed players were considered great. And he was fortunate enough to have a manager who recognized Henderson’s abilites and made space for them. 
Truth in Fallacy
One last point: Rickey’s 1406 stolen bases didn’t do his teams a whole lot of good. In the early goings, when he was stealing bases at an unprecedented clip, Henderson was also getting tossed out at an unprecedented clip: between 1980 and 1983 he stole 394 bases and was caught stealing 109 times. That's a lot of bases, but they came at the expense of a lot of outs. In his big years, his stolen bases, when measured against his caught stealing, netted his team at best 5-10 runs a year, the equivalent of about one or two wins.
Henderson broke Brock’s record the night Nolan Ryan threw his seventh and last no-hitter. At the time, people wasted a lot of ink writing about the differences between the two men. One the one hand you have Rickey hoisting second base over his head, and on the other hand you have Ryan doing his post-game interview cranking on a training bike.
But they were similar players in that each of them had a spectacular talent that they were fixated on. Nolan Ryan wanted to blow away every hitter he faced: he never gave in, never groved a pitch to a soft-hitting shortstop. He was successful, but that success came at a cost: he is the all-time leader in strikeouts by a huge margin, and the all-time leader in walks, by an even greater margin.
Same thing holds for Henderson: he thought he could steal off anyone, and damned if he didn’t try. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t, and he’d cost his team an out and a baserunner. He is the all-time stolen base leader, and the all-time leader in being thrown out trying to steal a base. The two things even each other out.
Henderson’s real skill was his remarkable ability to get on base, to not make an out. But that skill wasn’t ever going to make him famous, anymore than Ed Yost or Eddie Joost or Gene Tenace are famous. The stolen base made Henderson a household name, a guy routinely talked about as one of the best players in baseball. It’ll be the reason he’s elected to the Hall-of-Fame on the first ballot, instead of having to waiting around a few years.
So the summary about Rickey Henderson’s career is a truth predicated on a fallacy. The truth is Henderson was a great player. The fallacy is that his stolen bases had much to do with that greatness. 
(Dave Fleming is a writer living in Iowa City, Iowa. He welcomes comments and questions here and at

COMMENTS (14 Comments, most recent shown first)

1-Rickey Henderson is underapreciated (or is, but for the wrong reasons)
2-Most comments about this article involve Babe Ruth, and not RH.
10:55 PM Dec 28th
I'm sure Richie is right about Ruth as a potential manager: if anyone had really thought he could do the job, they would have hired him in no time flat. Frank Navin evidently did contact him about managing the Tigers around 1933. Ruth was evidently so lackadaisical about pursuing the opportunity that Navin went out and got Mickey Cochrane instead, which obviously worked out very well, at least in the short term. The Dodgers hired Ruth as a coach in the late 30s, under Burleigh Grimes; Ruth's "contribution" to the daffiness boys was to badmouth Grimes and get himself fired. Ruth had matured a little by the late 30s, I guess, but very little; I doubt that he had much more chance of being a successful manager than Rube Waddell would have. Well, maybe that's a stretch, but not all that much of one.
6:52 PM Dec 23rd
Ted Williams actually won a manager of the year award, but I agree that, overall, superstar players don't have a good record managing. Most of the exceptions were in the early days.
3:29 AM Dec 22nd
"Players with high on-base percentages tend to make good managers"? Yes, I know you can anecdotally name a couple of guys. But the higher correlation is that good players tend to make bad managers; e.g., Ted Williams and a cast of thousands. In all sports.

If ANY-one in the late 30s thought Ruth even might-just-minutely-possibly be an effective manager, wouldn't they have eagerly hired him? Would've certainly been good for the box office. And in depression times, too. Did any other retired star players actually first have to prove their managing skills in the minors back then? They just didn't think Ruth could manage.
10:03 PM Dec 21st
Thanks for the correction, Anon.

To '3fer3's comment: I think the 2 steals = 1 caught stealing is probably innacurate, though I'm not nearly smart enough to run the numbers. But a caught stealing is huge: it costs the team a baserunner and an at-bat.

On the Ruth as manager thing: the Yanks were pretty upfront about wanting Ruth to start in the minors, which is reasonable. The Braves were a good deal less honest to Ruth, which was a shame.

I don't know what kind of manager Ruth would've been, but I sure as hell would've given him a shot. Plus, players with high on-base percentages tend to make good managers, hedonism be damned.

9:31 PM Dec 21st
I remember Rickey as the perfect leadoff guy. He got on base, could run, had enough pop to lead off a game with a homer, and yet not so much that you wanted to bat him in the middle of the lineup. He could also cover alot of ground in the Outfield (including being a CF in the mid 80s with and over 3.0 RF). There was never anyone quite like him before or since. If one were building an all time greatest team of the best players for each lineup spot it could be argued that he would be leading of and playing LF.
12:02 PM Dec 21st
Ruth's 'entertainment' appetites were not just Martinian, McCarthyish or Stengelesque, they were legendary. On a par with Wilt the Stilt, who quickly washed out as a basketball coach for those reasons. And what I've read, that is the reason the Yankee owners told him to try managing a minor league team first. They had no intention of letting him manage their major league team, nor did any other owner.

A manager or coach can be an alcoholic (functioning). He can't be a total hedonist a la Wilt or Ruth. Durocher was probably as close as you can come to it. And he was way this side of those two guys.
11:09 AM Dec 21st
In Babe Ruth's time, star players always managed, or wanted to. In our time, he would have been a talking head on ESPN, like Bobby Knight or Mike Ditka. If you think that being hung over was a detriment to managing in 1935, you are delusional. Clean living didnt't matter for managers until at LEAST 1985, and I a not sure that it is that important even now. We rarely go more than a couple of weeks without a prominant coach or manager getting a dui even now.
3:06 AM Dec 21st

Sure Rickey was good, but how does he compare to Gene Tenace?

12:07 PM Dec 20th
A small point on no one wanting to hire Babe Ruth to manage. When your star player shows up for practice hung over, it's one thing. When your manager does, well, then pretty soon half the team will be doing so.
11:04 AM Dec 20th
I think you downplay the value of Rickey's steals. Using the old 2 steals = 1 caught stealing (is that still right?)Rickey has an extra 736(!) steals. That would place him in the top ten of all time, and about where Vince Coleman was with NO cuaght stealings...

11:00 AM Dec 20th
Henderson is also known for scoring lots and lots of runs. Lots and lots of them. At one time he held the career MLB records for walks, runs, and stolen bases. As an aside, I believe that runs scored is the least cited (by fans media) and least appreciated of the traditional counting stats. Doubles is probably a close second. Stolen bases get more recognition than either of these, which is absurd.
12:46 AM Dec 20th
You want to re-read the opening sentence of the second paragraph?
6:16 PM Dec 19th
I seem to remember that a lot of PITCHERS batted right and threw left. Koufax did, and I believe Ken Holtzman did. Maybe the left handed catcher syndrome applies, i.e. if a guy throws lefty and can really throw, lets get him on the mound...
4:20 PM Dec 19th
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