On July 21, 1958 Dave Henderson was born. “Hendu” would have a 14-year All-Star career but his chance at true historic notoriety slipped away through no fault of his own. But was it for the best?
There is probably no game more written about, more psychoanalyzed, more breathlessly retold and even more reenacted everywhere from backyards to YouTube Lego Videos than Game Six of the 1986 World Series. You can read perspectives from virtually every imaginable angle, and even buy a picture of the famous game-ending play signed by Bill Buckner and Mookie Wilson. I think they even do card shows together.
(That’s always struck me as a little bit like getting Gen. McArthur and Hideki Tojo together to sign photos of the USS Missouri, but I suppose you do what you can to pay the bills.)
There is also probably no game which defines players to the extent that Game Six did. Bill Buckner was the guy who let the ball go through his legs. Mookie Wilson hit that ball. Calvin Schiraldi and Bob Stanley were the relievers unable to get the job done. Even Bruce Hurst draws notice; he’s the guy who would’ve been World Series MVP if not for the Sox’ collapse.
Almost unnoticed in all this, however, was Dave Henderson. Henderson was a six-year veteran who had been picked up by the Red Sox in August. He appeared in only 36 regular season games for Boston that year, and hit a gruesome .196. Henderson was especially terrible ending the season, managing just three hits in his last 20 plate appearances.
Looking at the numbers alone suggest the American League Championship Series proved more of the same for Henderson, who went just 1-for-9. Henderson was a candidate to fill the role Buckner would someday have, after he nearly tracked down a long fly ball by Bobby Grich, only to see it pop out of his glove and over the wall for a home run and 3-2 Angels lead.
With all that in mind, Henderson’s one hit could not have come a more crucial time. With the Sox down to their last out and down by a run, Henderson cracked a home run to put them ahead 6-5.
So overwhelmed with joy, relief or both was Henderson that he practically danced around the bases. The hit stunned the Angels crowd and closer Donnie Moore, whose suicide a few years later was blamed in part on the home run. Boston would blow that lead in the ninth but go on to win the game and eventually the series.
One big home run aside, being in Red Sox uniform apparently had not agreed with Henderson. But that all changed in the World Series. Henderson’s total line for the series included a .400 average and team-leading .760 slugging percentage. Henderson hit two of the team’s five homers and led the Sox in OPS.
Once again, the numbers do not reflect Henderson’s contributions. With Game Six tied entering the (soon to be infamous) 11th, Henderson led off by hitting another home run to put the Sox ahead. The Sox would rally to score another run in the inning, before the adventures of the bottom of the inning sentenced Sox fans to another nearly 20 years of suffering.
I suppose it is no great surprise that people don’t remember a home run that could’ve—but didn’t—mean a World Series. I imagine most people don’t remember it was Alfonso Soriano who hit the home run that put the Yankees ahead in Game Seven of the 2001 World Series.
This is not to say no one remembers it. Bill Simmons wrote that Henderson “would have become a New England legend… (it) would have extended far beyond a mere statue in Faneuil Hall.” But then even Simmons calls Henderson’s role “the most underrated subplot in this whole thing.” Given all the names so inexorably linked with Game Six, perhaps there was not enough room for Henderson to also enter its lore.
Ultimately, that might have been to Henderson’s benefit. He played in just 75 games for the Red Sox the next season—hitting just .234—before being sent to the Giants in a September trade. A free agent after that season, Henderson would sign with the Oakland A’s, the best career move he ever made.
In 1988, Henderson returned to regular duty and put up the hands-down best season of his career. He hit .304 with a .887 OPS, good for a 149 OPS+ which ranked seventh in the league. Henderson finished 13th in that year’s MVP voting.
In the postseason, Henderson’s A’s swept the Red Sox, with the one-time Bostonian tormenting his team with a .375 average. He once again suffered World Series heartbreak, this time as the Dodgers (and Kirk Gibson) swept his A’s in the World Series.
Henderson finally would achieve baseball’s ultimate goal in 1989 when the A’s defeated the Giants in the World Series most famous for its interruption by an earthquake. Henderson once again hit well, putting up a .912 OPS in the ALCS and then a team-leading 1.423 OPS in the Series.
After again defeating Boston in the ALCS, Henderson’s A’s again lost in the World Series, this time going down to the Cincinnati Reds. That was the last postseason action of Henderson’s career; he finished a lifetime .324/.410/.606 hitter in the World Series.
In 1991, Henderson had the last great season of his career, putting up a 129 OPS+. His .298/.378/.551 line in the first half also helped Henderson make his only trip to the All-Star game. (At Toronto’s SkyDome, he started and was 0-for-2 before being replaced by Ruben Sierra.)
Henderson would play three more seasons—two with Oakland and one in Kansas City—but they were largely injury-plagued and ineffective. For many years after his retirement, he served as a commentator for the Seattle Mariners, the team with which he began his career. Henderson left his commentator gig in 2006 and now runs Dave Henderson Baseball Adventures, which includes both fantasy and youth camps.
It is an open question whether Henderson is lucky to have avoided identification with Game Six. On the one hand, everyone now associated with that game except Wilson was on the losing side, and Henderson would surely rather be known for his time with the multiple pennant winning A’s. On the other, there is something to be said for being known as a hero foiled by events outside your control.
Of course, few get to decide their historical legacy, so it is Henderson’s fate to be a footnote, a decent player on some great teams.