Black History Month: Remembering “greatest leadoff man” in baseball Rickey Henderson

Former MLB outfielder Rickey Henderson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2009 for his impressive career. During his career, Henderson earned 10 All-Star appearances and an MVP award.

Rdikeman / Wikimedia Commons

Former MLB outfielder Rickey Henderson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2009 for his impressive career. During his career, Henderson earned 10 All-Star appearances and an MVP award.

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When Rickey Henderson broke the all-time stolen base record, he pulled the base with his left hand from the plug and raised both of his hands triumphantly, the base now held in his right hand. The game stopped. Henderson’s family members ran onto the field to share a hug. Oakland A’s fans stood and cheered wildly. At the time, picking up a base from the field was unheard of. In fact, it was groundbreaking. But that’s who Henderson was as a player: Loud. Charismatic. Disruptive. Relentless. 

In recognition of Black History Month, it is important to note that in 2018 only 8.4 percent of players on a Major League roster were African-American.

A key factor in this phenomenon is the burden of baseball’s “unwritten rules.” Unlike football or basketball, baseball culture frowns upon freedom of expression. Other factors apply, such as the high costs of baseball equipment, low exposure to the game of baseball and the slow pace of the game. The MLB is quickly losing its appeal to the African-American community, and so far, not much has been done to stop the bleeding.

“Today, I’m the greatest of all time,” Henderson said after breaking the stolen base record.

To many, this statement may come across as arrogant or cocky. But to those who really knew Henderson, they understood that he was just being himself.

According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Henderson used a rare combination of power and speed on the baseball field to ultimately break records and earn his place in Cooperstown. 

Henderson was confident in his abilities on the baseball diamond (sometimes too confident), especially on the base paths. He knew that he was fast and he wanted to showcase his speed every time he was able to reach base safely. 

“Rickey represented a run standing at home plate. If you walked him, he would steal second, third. He could also hit the ball out of the park. He was disruptive to opposing pitchers. He made pitchers make mistakes,” former Oakland A’s pitcher and childhood friend David Stewart said. 

Unfortunately, baseball has a code of unwritten rules that governs the game. One of those “rules” prevents players from stealing bases when their team owns a hefty lead. Yet, Henderson only knew one way to play the game: aggressively. Therefore, Henderson was often a culprit of breaking the unwritten rules of baseball.

Often, Henderson would be on the wrong end of fastballs from angry pitchers who would throw at him for breaking the code. Yet, Henderson would counter those pitchers by stealing a base or two. Henderson was often reckless but had an unsurpassable passion for the game of baseball. He was emotional, something that has traditionally been frowned upon in baseball. 

Yes, Henderson was a tremendous player, but it was his charisma that made him a favorite among his teammates. He was genuine, energetic and always having fun on the baseball field.

“Rickey was loud. You knew when he walked in the clubhouse,” Stewart said. “He was in the middle of everything.”