The Wonder of Rickey

Today Rickey Henderson will receive a phone call telling him he’s been elected to the Hall of Fame. I realize it’s presumptuous to declare someone’s election before the Hall elects him, but … c’mon. He’s going in and everyone knows it.

He is one of the players I’ve been able to follow for virtually his entire career. The 1982 All-Star game was one of my first baseball memories, and in it Henderson led off with a single and scored what turned out to be the American League’s only run of the game. Henderson’s pursuit of Lou Brock‘s stolen base record that season was the first baseball event I can remember.

One early memory of Henderson that sticks out for me comes from a time the A’s appeared on The Game of the Week. Henderson led off an inning, and—as he was prone to do—stole second and third. When a teammate hit a routine fly out, Henderson came home to score. As a kid, I didn’t think too much of it. That’s what leadoff hitters are supposed to do, right? But Henderson created that run all on his own.

Rickey Henderson’s base stealing was the stuff of legend. If he had swiped just one more base, he would’ve had exactly 50 percent more steals than Lou Brock, his runner-up on the career leaderboard. Brock had 938, Henderson 1,406—an advantage of 49.89 percent. Henderson’s lead amounts to approximately eight miles worth of stolen bases. (Yes, really.)

Let’s compare that to other stats. It was quite a news story when Pete Rose became the all-time hit king over 20 years ago. To dominate that stat the way Rickey Henderson leads in stolen bases, Rose would need 6,241 hits—about 1,600 more than he actually had. Barry Bonds would need 1,125 homers.

Well, those guys merely topped their lists; they didn’t dominate it. What about Nolan Ryan though? By acclamation the greatest strikeout artist of all time, he led the league in strikeouts 12 times, and no one has even remotely threatened his career pinnacle of 5,714 whiffs. Yet he would need over 500 more to have a 49.89 percent edge on second place Randy Johnson (who is still playing).

Perhaps the most untouchable record of them all is Cy Young’s 511 victories. That, however, is only 22.5 percent over Walter Johnson‘s 417 wins. Even if you limit the search to modern players, Warren Spahn, Greg Maddux, and Roger Clemens are all closer to Young’s win record than anyone is to Henderson’s stolen base total.

As far as I can tell, only one record holder outpaces the nearest competition by an even greater degree than Henderson tops the base stealers. Nolan Ryan walked 2,795 batters in his career, 52.5 percent more than second place Steve Carlton‘s 1,833. Impressive, but that isn’t a record one wants to own, let alone dominate.

As great as Henderson’s base running ability was, his endurance really set him apart. In any given season, Henderson rarely ever had a 50 percent lead over his nearest competitor (though he did a few times: 1982, 1986, 1989, and 1990). But he kept going year after year after year.

About two dozen players can say they played in four different decades, and a smaller number can claim they started in four decades, but how many can say they finished among the league leaders in steals in each one?

Henderson can. He was seventh in the AL in steals in 1979, and then led the league repeatedly in it in both the 1980s, and 1990s. In 2000—at age 41—Henderson finished fourth in the league in steals. Then he came in ninth the next year. Altogether, he came in the top ten 21 different times.

Base stealing is a young man’s sport. In the last half-century, only Brock and Henderson led the league in steals after their age-32 season. Brock last did it at age 35, while Henderson finished first in 1998 with 66 steals at age 39. That made him the oldest base-stealing champion in baseball history. Fittingly, Henderson was also tied for the mark of youngest theft leader in the last century when he topped the AL at age 21. (Both Ty Cobb and Jimmy Sheckard led at age 20 in 1907 and 1899 respectively.)

At age 20, Henderson stole 33 bases, the fourth most by any player since 1900 despite being a midseason call up. The next year, he stole more bases than any 21-year-old in history. He also stole more bases than any other post-1900 player at seven more different ages. In his 24-year career, Henderson was in the top 10 for every age he played at except two.

Bill James, in his New Historical Abstract had a pair of charts that did a great job demonstrating Henderson’s endurance: most steals by a person before his age-30 season and afterwards:

Pre-30	          SB		Post-30	          SB
Rickey Henderson 794	        Rickey Henderson 612
Ty Cobb	         648		Lou Brock	 604
Billy Hamilton	 638		Otis Nixon	 515
Vince Coleman	 586		Honus Wagner	 464
Tim Raines	 585		Davey Lopes	 458
Cesar Cedeno	 475		Harry Stovey	 441
Eddie Collins	 456		Tom Brown	 414
Hugh Duffy	 453		Maury Wills	 390
Willie Wilson	 436		Dummy Hoy	 379
John McGraw	 434		Arlie Latham	 372

Only one name appears on both lists: Henderson, who tops each one. If you limit it to post-1900 players, Max Carey makes both, but only barely.

Please realize base stealing takes a lot out of a body. You run as fast as you can, then dive on the ground while trying to avoid a fielder trying to tag you. Doing it occasionally is no problem, but if you do it several dozen times a year each year it takes a progressively greater toll on a person as he ages. Thus those who steal frequently when younger tend to flounder when older.

It’s similar to how pitchers who log a tremendous number of innings when young falter later. Since 1920, 16 different pitchers have won 150 games before turning 30, but only one (Greg Maddux) went on to win 300. Hal Newhouser, Robin Roberts, Catfish Hunter, Don Drysdale, Vida Blue all melted down or had their arms fall off.

A stealer’s legs don’t fall off, but they become inoperative. Look at Tim Raines—he played almost as long as Henderson, but he never topped 13 steals in his last eight seasons. That’s normal. Henderson was a freak of nature. He wasn’t just slightly on top of the pre-30 leaders, either, he smokes the competition there. If anyone ever had a reason to falter as he aged, it was Henderson. Didn’t happen. It’s like Hal Newhouser (whose 188 pre-30 victories are the liveball record) went on to have Warren Spahn’s second act.

People love to tell stories about Nolan Ryan and what a strong arm he had. He once pitched 13 innings over the Red Sox, striking out 19 and walking 10 in the process. Then he came back on just three days’ rest and threw six innings of shutout ball. He pitched 10 or more innings 11 times from 1973 to 1977, throwing a seemingly inhuman amount of pitches in the process. Yet the Ryan Express kept going year after year, decade after decade, while more gingerly treated pitchers broke down all around him.

We should be telling the same stories about Rickey Henderson. All the other great base stealers broke down. Willie Wilson stole 162 bases in his age 23-24 seasons, but only topped 50 twice more in 14 years of starting—and he actually aged pretty well for a base runner. Tim Raines’s peak ended at age 27. Players are supposed to enter their prime at that point. Ty Cobb never finished first in steals after age 30.

Yet Henderson, the man who brutalized his young body on the bases like none other, kept on going. He dropped off by the mid-1980s, but then again Nolan Ryan wasn’t lasting 11 innings by his mid-30s either. In both cases their abuse hardened them instead of breaking them down, allowing them to achieve heights seemingly unimaginable. If anything, the comparison is a disservice to Henderson, given that he dominates base stealers more than Ryan does power pitchers.

One story about Henderson claims that he would stand naked in front of the mirror before each game telling himself that he was the best. However vain that may sound, Henderson earned it.

Endurance paid off for Henderson not only on the bases but also at the plate. One of the great, lost facts of Henderson’s career (which is full of great facts) was that he never had 180 hits in a season. Obviously a lot of guys haven’t done it, but it’s safe to say most of them collected somewhere south of 3,000 hits. Henderson peaked with 179 in 1980.

Ivan DeJesus once got 180 in a season. So did Mike Easler and the immortal Miguel Dilone. Neifi Perez and Doug Glanville reached that rarefied air twice, and Felix Millan thrice. Garret Anderson did it seven times. Yet Henderson, #21 on the all-time career hits list, was unable to reach the single-season heights of Freddy Spurgeon.

By constantly chipping away at opposing pitches, year after year, he methodically worked his way up the all-time hits leaderboard. Every other player in the 3,000 hit club had 180 hits in a season at least once. Aside from Cap Anson, they all had 190 in a campaign. (And Anson once had 187 in a season that was barely 130 games long.)

The next-highest-ranking player on the all-time hits list who never topped 180 in a season was Jim O’Rourke, who ranks 69th with 2,643 hits. Really, he hardly belongs for two reasons. First, like Anson, O’Rourke played in the time of the 132-game schedule. Prorated by modern season length, O’Rourke was on pace for 200-hit seasons. Second, O’Rourke only scores that highly on the hit list because of his time in the National Association, more a proto-big league than an actual major league.

Beyond O’Rourke, you have to dip down to Reggie Jackson, ranked 78th all time with nearly 500 fewer hits than Henderson.

Henderson’s career hit total was over 17 times greater than his single-season best. Among non-pitchers, only Pete Rose, Hank Aaron, Carl Yastrzemski, and Eddie Murray can say likewise. (And Anson can only do so if you include the National Association years.)

There are greater ballplayers in baseball history than Rickey Henderson—not many, but a few. I’m not sure anyone was quite as unique as him.

References & Resources
Bill James’s New Historical Abstract provided the lists of top five base stealers before/after turning 30 that made me realize how incredibly Henderson aged.

If anyone’s curious, the top 10 highest marks for career hits divided by single-season bests are: Pete Rose 18.51, Cap Anson 18.28, Yaz 17.90, Eddie Murray 17.50, Rickey Henderson 17.07, Honus Wagner 16.99, Hank Aaron 16.91, Ty Cobb 16.89, Reggie Jackson 16.35, and Barry Bonds 16.22.

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