New York Yankee Legends: The base stealing Ricky Henderson

William Parlee
New York Yankees, Babe Ruth
(Original Caption) After making a runaway race of it all season, the Yankees won the American League pennant. They took the opening series of the year from the Athletics, of Philadelphia, and held the lead until the end; their victory was due mainly to the heavy hitting of “Babe” Ruth, Lou Gehrig; Tony Lazzeri and other members of the team; Miller Huggins is the manager. Photo shows Combs, centerfielder; Ruth, left fielder and Meusel, right fielder. (Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images)

In his career, he would play for 9 different teams over 25 years!

On Christmas Day 1958, the New York Yankees and the baseball world got a Christmas present, a player that would be one of the longest playing players, one who would speed across the bases and would steal 1,406 bases in his 25-year career with nine different teams. The Yankees were lucky to have Ricky Henderson for five years in the prime of his career. There were many exciting events in Ricky’s life, including his birth. He was born to John and Bobbie Henley in the back seat of a speeding Oldsmobile, on the way to the hospital.

His Mother would divorce and marry Paul Henderson after his birth father abandoned the family when little Ricky was two years old. Ten years later he would die in a car crash. When a Junior in high school, he would take on the Henderson name. Although born in Chicago, the family would move to Oakland California, where he would learn to play baseball as a child. Although a lefty, Ricky would learn to hit from the right, mostly because everyone else did. A player that bats right but throws left is unusual in baseball.

Henderson was drafted by the Oakland Athletics

Henderson was an All-American running back for his Oakland Technical High School in 1976. For the school, he played football, basketball, baseball and played on the track team. He was a star football player and received many scholarships to play college football, but his mother convinced him not to accept them because she thought football players had short careers. In the 1976 draft, Henderson was drafted by the Oakland Athletics in the fourth round of the draft.

The Athletics sent him to Boise A’s, where he hit .336 in 46 games with three home runs. Henderson spent the following season with the Modesto A’s. He batted .345 in 134 games during his record-setting season with Modesto. Henderson nearly broke the league record for team stolen bases. The Modesto A’s finished the season with 357 stolen bases, He would spend the next season with the Jersey City A’s and part of 79 with the Ogden A’s.

He would make his major league debut on June 24, 1979.

Henderson would spend the next six seasons with the Athletics raking in four All-Star appearances, getting three MVP nods, a Silver Slugger Award, and being a Gold Glover in 1981. He would go on to play with Oakland for four separate stints totaling fourteen years. After the 1984 season, Ricky would be traded to the New York Yankees in a seven-player trade.

Ricky Henderson traded to the New York Yankees

In his first season with the Yankees, he led the league with 146 runs scored, with 80 stolen bases and was fourth with a .314batting average and 99 walks. He became the first player since Jimmie Foxx in 1939 to amass more runs scored than games played. In 1985 he became the first player to hit 20 home runs while stealing 80 bases. He matched the feat again in 1986. During the year he also lead the league with 130 runs scored and 87 stolen bases.

In 1987 he didn’t have one of his best seasons and was sometimes criticized for lack of hustle although he was the speediest player on the team. Because of his speed, stolen bases, and timely hitting, he quickly became a Yankee fan favorite. In 1985 and 1986 he had the most runs scored and most RBI’s of his entire career. He also had the highest number of home runs. In 1988 he would again lead the league in stolen bases with 93. In 1989 he would surpass the Yankee record for stolen bases of 248 by Hal Chase with 326. The record would stand until May of 2011 when Derek Jeter would surpass it while playing 1,700 more games than Ricky.

Midway through the 1989 season, Henderson would be traded back to the A’s where he would continue as a star player on their team amassing 72 runs scored and 51 more stolen bases in just a half of a season. Between the Yankees and the A’s, he would steal 77 bases, score 113 runs while hitting .274. In the years that followed Ricky would play with the Padres, Mariners, Jays, California, the Red Sox, two more stints with the A’s, and finally would end his major league career with the Dodgers in 2003. Afterward, he would prove his love of the game by playing two seasons for the minor league Newark Bears and a season with the San Diego Surf Dawgs. He finally retired on July 13, 2007.

Henderson personals and awards

In 1983, Henderson married his high-school sweetheart, Pamela. They have three children: Angela, Alexis, and Adrianna. He and his wife reside in California. He has been an Old Timer at Yankee Stadium. His records and awards are numerous. When asked after his retirement which of his records were more important to him, he answered his Stolen base record of 1,406, and his runs scored a record of 2,295. He would say the most important thing in baseball is scoring runs.

In his career with the New York Yankees, he would be an All-Star all five years, would be a MVP candidate three times, and a Silver Slugger in 1985. Altogether he was an All-Star in 10 of his seasons. He would be an MVP candidate nine times finally, winning the award in 1990. He was a Silver Slugger three times and would win the Gold Glove award in 1980. Six years after his retirement, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2009.

Henderson would write his autobiography with the help of John Shea. In the book “Off Base, Confessions of a Thief” the baseball star shares the story of his life, describing his relationships with such baseball greats as Charlie Finley, Dave Winfield, Jose Canseco, Reggie Jackson, and others, and discusses racism in baseball and player salaries.

As I stated earlier, Ricky was a fan favorite, and Yankee fans were disappointed when he was traded back to the Athletics.  Still, today when he attends the Yankees Old Timers Day celebration, he is still greeted with welcoming applause. Most Yankee fans remember the exciting moments in big games when he would steal bases, sometimes multiple times in the same game.  Even though he only spent five years of his career with the Yankees, they were happy to have him and consider him a Yankee Legend.’s Columnist William Parlee is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research.