25 Years Ago – RICKEY HENDERSON & His 130 Stolen Bases
The silver anniversary of one of baseball’s most audacious individual achievements slipped by just over a week ago with very little fanfare. In retrospect, it took place in a season that the best leadoff hitter of all-time bested at least ten times in his career, but 1982 was when that Rickey Henderson shattered the single season stolen base record with an incredible total of 130!
The Man of Steal was born on Christmas Day, 1958 in Chicago, but his father left when he was a baby, and his mother took him to Pine Bluffs, AK when he was still in diapers. By age 7, the family relocated to Oakland, CA, near a park where Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson developed their baseball skills as kids. Though Rickey grew up to be a three-sport star at Oakland Tech High School, batting .716 as a junior, he couldn’t even make the baseball team as a 10th-grader. Football was his first love, and he drew comparisons to O.J. Simpson (back when that was high praise) by rushing for over 1,100 yards on the gridiron as a senior. Scholarship offers flooded in for Rickey the running back, but he listened to his mother’s advice and pursued baseball because it offered more longevity.
The Oakland A’s drafted him with their fourth-round pick in the 1976 amateur draft and, less than three years later, Rickey was in the major leagues. He batted .274 in 89 games as a 20-year-old rookie. In 1980, he made the All-Star team in his first full season and stole 100 bases to establish a new American League record. The following season left a bitter taste in his mouth, however.
Rickey batted .319 in 1981, won a Gold Glove, and led the league in both stolen bases and runs scored. His performance propelled the “Billy Ball” A’s into a surprising post-season appearance, but Rickey didn’t even make the All-Star team. When voting for American League Most Valuable Player was announced, Rickey finished a close second to Rollie Fingers of the Brewers – a relief pitcher!
That winter, Rickey had dinner with Lou Brock in St. Louis. Brock set the single season record for stolen bases in 1974, the year he turned 35, by swiping 118 for the Cardinals. Brock told Rickey that he had the skills to break the record. It didn’t hurt that the A’s coaching staff included Charlie Metro, who Brock considered a premier teacher of “baseball arrogance”.
Rickey, a willing disciple, arrived a spring training predicting he’s steal a bag per game in 1982. In April, he batted only .228, but kept pace with his prediction by nabbing 22 stolen bases in as many contests. Hitting out of a deep crouch that gave him a “strike zone the size of Hitler’s heart” in the words of columnist Jim Murray, helped Rickey walk 31 times in the season’s first month.
Rickey stole bases in seven straight games on a road trip, and the A’s were 16-11 and a game out of first place in the first week of May. “If I don’t get hurt, yes, I’ll break Lou Brock’s record of 118 stolen bases,” Rickey said confidently. “If not this year, then next year or the year after. And eventually I’ll also break Brock’s career record of 938 stolen bases. Those are my goals.”
Though he had to get a sign from third base coach Clete Boyer or manager Billy Martin before he was allowed to run, that didn’t figure to slow Rickey down much. “I’m going to make it a point for Rickey to break it,” Martin said in early-May. “I’ve never seen anybody with his acceleration. In two strides, he’s at full speed.” Martin later called Rickey baseball’s most exciting player since his former teammate Mickey Mantle.
Henderson, then 23, had yet to really perfect the science of stealing bases, though he’d studied pitchers a bit and was a technically perfect runner. He’d always lead exactly 3 1/2 steps off first base, crouched to give himself a low center of gravity, shoulders even with his feet, elbows tucked, fingers fluttering and eyes on the pitcher. He needed exactly ten strides to get from first base to second and, once there, required only seven more to steal third because he could get a bigger lead. When he took off, he did it explosively. Rickey often dove headfirst into bases with such force that his head and stomach would carry several feet past the base, which he’d stay in contact with using his foot.
By the end of May, Rickey’d stolen 49 bases in the A’s first 50 games. The team was falling apart due to an unravelling pitching staff, but he was just getting started. Though he had trouble getting on base while the team swooned in a 10-18 June, Rickey still managed to steal 24 more bases, bringing his total to 73 in Oakland’s first 78 games. Angels manager Gene Mauch called him “the most disruptive force in the game today”.
The only things really bothering Rickey were infielders that intentionally dropped on his hands with their knees when he slid into a base. He rated Baltimore lefties Scott McGregor and Mike Flanagan as the pitchers with the toughest pickoff moves for him to decipher. Another Oriole, catcher Rick Dempsey, was his most difficult catcher to run on, though he successfully swiped thirteen in eighteen tries against the O’s by season’s end.
Earlier in Rickey’s career, an umpire had to bear hug Dempsey to prevent a fight when Rickey followed him to the pitcher’s mound to listen in on a conference. “He ain’t really a bad guy,” said Dempsey. “But he always has something to say, and he’s always trying to do something to try to irritate you.”
One of those things was Rickey’s habit of walking very slowly to the batter’s box, taking a long time to dig in, and chattering “going on the second pitch”.
Red Sox pitcher Dennis Eckersley, often accused of needing more mustard himself, called Rickey the biggest hot dog in baseball. Ex-Angels catcher Ed Ott told a reporter, “If he doesn’t learn to button his lip, he’s gonna get punched out”.
While the A’s continued to flounder, Rickey batted .337 in July and attempted 37 steals in the 25 games that he played. He was caught stealing eleven times in the month, including three in a single game by California’s Bob Boone. Still, he was in position to match his career best of 100 steals by August 2. Brock was up next.
“He’s not going to break it,” predicted teammate Davey Lopes, who stole 557 career bases of his own. “He’s gonna shatter the thing.”
A weary Rickey hit just .192 in his first twenty-one games during August, but moved within three steals of equalling Brock when the A’s wrapped up a homestand in a Tuesday afternoon affair against the Tigers on August 24.
Rickey led off the bottom of the first with a walk, then stole second and third before scoring what proved to be the game-winning run on a single. He flied out in the second and fifth innings, then came up in the bottom of the eighth with one more chance to match Brock in front of the home fans before the A’s hit the road for their next ten games.
Fred Stanley was already at first with a leadoff walk, and Rickey singled to put runners at first and second. The crowd cheered when Stanley got picked off, and umpire Durwood Merrill believed he did it intentionally to clear a path for Henderson. Tigers manager Sparky Anderson agreed -saying the other A’s congratulated Stanley in the dugout- and called the sequence of events a “travesty”, “worse than the “Black Sox”. Sparky later apologized, and Martin called Merrill dumb, insisting that the A’s simply got their signals crossed on what was supposed to be a double steal.
The Tigers called a pitchout when Rickey took off for second and, instead of tying Brock, he surpassed Hall of Famer Ty Cobb with his record-setting 39th caught stealing of the season. Replays showed Henderson was actually safe, and Martin, Metro and centerfielder Dwayne Murphy all got ejected for arguing before the inning was over.
Two nights later in Milwaukee, Rickey finally tied Brock in the first inning after leading off the game with a single. He surpassed Brock on August 27, a chilly, Wisconsin Friday night after drawing a two-out walk on four pitches from Doc Medich in the third inning. After four pickoff attempts and a pitchout, Rickey stole number 119 by getting his right hand on the bag ahead of Robin Yount’s tag when Ted Simmons thrown arrived a little short and to the left.
The Brewers fans gave Rickey a brief standing ovation, which quickly turned to boos when the replay appeared on the scoreboard. He lifted second base off of the field, and walked it towards home plate to meet Brock and AL President Lee MacPhail. Brock presented Rickey the base, and Rickey handed it over to his mother Bobbie in the box seats. He also took time out to kiss Dwayne Murphy -the A’s number two hitter who’d allowed him to run all year by taking so many pitches- on the forehead. When the game resumed, Rickey stole numbers 120, 121 & 122 before it was over. It was his third four-steal game of the season.
A season of running more than any player in baseball history had taken a toll on Rickey’s body. The hand he used to reach in safely on the majority of his steals was cut and sore, and he was hampered by a sore left shoulder. He sat out eleven of Oakland’s last thirty-three games after breaking the record, though he did finish with a flourish by stealing three in his season finale. Overall, he stole 130 in 172 tries, both records that seem unlikely to be threatened anytime soon.
Rickey played another twenty-one seasons after his record-breaking 1982, winning two World Series, a MVP and scoring more runs than any player in player in history. Of course, he also achieved his other stated goal, obliterating Brock’s career steals record of 938 with 1,406 of his own. Nevertheless, “To me,” Rickey said of Brock. “He’ll always be the best base stealer ever”. No, Rickey, that’s your title. You earned it.
By MALCOLM ALLEN