You know the story of who inspired this holiday: His birth was an unusual one, but he grew up to perform amazing feats, and spoke in words that have been repeated again and again throughout history. Later in life, he became known for his ability to resurrect himself.
I speak, of course, of Rickey Henderson, born Dec. 25, 1958 in the back of an 1957 Oldsmobile.
I am not going to do the extremely easy joke that goes with that factoid of information.
Although he had hoped to play football growing up, his concerned mother and a school counselor got him onto baseball, mainly because they were worried he’d get hurt. During his Hall of Fame induction speech, in fact, he mentioned that his counselor gave him a quarter every time he did something well on the baseball field.
This is always ironic, because perhaps nobody was pulled from their baseball career kicking and screaming as Rickey Henderson had to be. After he washed up after 2002, he went to play in Newark to start 2003, for the indy-league Bears. He did well enough that he was signed by the Dodgers, which were the final team he’d play for in his big-league career.
But Rickey refused to go, and in the final years of his playing career, he was something of a joke, again returning to the Indy leagues, first for the Newark Bears again, and then the San Diego Surf Dawgs. Only then did he hang it up.
And when he hung it up, he left with one of the most distinguished careers in history. The Man of Steal was voted to 10 All-Star Games, three Silver Sluggers, a Gold Glove, the 1990 AL MVP, and won a World Series in 1993 during his brief stint with the Blue Jays. His 1406 stolen bases are well-known, but often forgotten is that Rickey also holds the record for runs-scored (2295), and is second only to the often-intentionally-walked Barry Bonds for BBs (2190). In fact, I read once that even if Rickey Henderson had never stolen a single base, he would likely have made it to the Hall of Fame, simply due to his good hitting and excellent eye.
But, of course, no discussion of Rickey Henderson is complete without some of his… unique words. Nobody knows for sure which of them are true, which of them are false, and which of them have been lost somewhere in between. Tom Verducci once noted this, writing that it made Rickey something like Johnny Appleseed or Davy Crockett, a character that could not be merely defined as fiction or nonfiction. Some of my favorite stories and quotes often attributed to Rickey:
- Perhaps the greatest story ever attributed to Rickey is that, with the Mets (some say it was when he was with the Mariners), he approached his new teammate John Olerud and remarked that he’d played with somebody who wore a helmet on the field during his time in Toronto (and, if going by the Mariners version, New York). Olerud, of course, was that person, having worn a helmet in the field since he had an aneurysm in college. The story is, by all accounts, not true, and started as a clubhouse joke about Rickey. However, the fact that anybody would ever think that was true describes Rickey Henderson perfectly.
- During the 1980s, the Athletics found that there was a hole in their check books. After some research they found out that Rickey hadn’t cashed a $1 million check, and had framed it instead.
- He considered it an honor to be Nolan Ryan‘s 5,000th strikeout: “I’ll have another paragraph in all the baseball books. I’m already in the books three or four times.”
- Professional athletes often sign in under aliases at hotels so they won’t be bothered, usually by using either outlandish names or names so ordinary nobody will notice (John Smith, for example). Rickey Henderson checked in at hotels as Richard Pryor, which would presumably get plenty of attention from fans of the comedian.
- After the Red Sox won the fourth game of the 2006 World Series, completing the sweep, Rickey reportedly called up and asked if he could have tickets to Game 6 at Fenway Park.
- It is said that, to pump himself before every game, Rickey would stand nude in front of a mirror and chant “Rickey’s the best” to himself.
How many of those are true? Does it really matter?