Yankees Magazine: Flashback

Rickey Henderson recalls his run in pinstripes

October 20th, 2017
Henderson went into Cooperstown wearing an Oakland A's cap, but he still treasures the time he spent with the Yankees. "I was really sad when I got traded," Henderson says. "Even though I ended up going back home and going to a championship team, it was hard to leave New York." (New York Yankees)

Sometimes, a player's legacy with a team has as much to do with the surrounding circumstances as it does with his own performance. Oftentimes, those situations -- such as the talent on the team or the way the ball bounces -- have nothing to do with individual players.
But in the end, history is much kinder to athletes who have won championships, especially in New York City. Great athletes who come to the Big Apple do so with the expectation of bringing home at least one championship. If a player helps bring the city a title, he's worshipped forever. As the old saying goes, he never has to buy a drink in New York again.
From Roger Maris to Reggie Jackson to guys such as Paul O'Neill and Tino Martinez, there have been plenty of players who came to the Yankees after establishing themselves elsewhere, played well, and then left again or retired. You may find their faces in Monument Park or maybe you won't, but either way, you can bet that they are widely remembered for what they did in pinstripes -- especially in October.
But what about the guys who showed up at the wrong time, who never got the chance to make Yankees history when it mattered most? It's easy for even the greatest contributors to lack the same level of hero worship.

In December 1984, the Yankees traded for a left fielder who ended up playing in the Bronx until June of 1989. In the four complete seasons he spent in pinstripes, he was selected to four All-Star Games.
But that's just the beginning for this electrifying leadoff man. He batted over .300 twice for the Yankees. He led the league in runs twice and in stolen bases three times. In less than five seasons, he amassed an astonishing 326 stolen bases, setting a new franchise record. His high- water mark for steals came in 1988, his last complete season with the Yankees, when he swiped 93 bags while getting caught just 13 times. To put that in perspective, the highest total that any Yankees player has had since then came when stole 49 bases in 2011.
Like Gardner, who has combined speed with power, he also hit 78 home runs with the Yankees.
Rickey Nelson Henley Henderson is all but universally considered the greatest leadoff hitter in the game's history. He played in the majors for 25 seasons, collecting 3,055 hits. By the time he called it a career at age 44 in 2003, he had also amassed 1,406 stolen bases, 2,190 walks and 2,295 runs. Henderson established himself with his hometown team, playing six seasons with the A's, before the trade to the Yankees. He ultimately returned to Oakland in a trade from the Yankees in 1989. He won a championship that season -- he would win another with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1993 -- and returned to the Bay Area two more times. Fittingly, Henderson's Hall of Fame plaque features him wearing an A's cap, and the team recently named its playing field in his honor.
But the years in New York were some of his best.
Billy Martin was familiar with Henderson from having managed him in Oakland from 1980 through 1982 -- before the skipper came back to New York -- and he encouraged the Yankees to swing a blockbuster deal to get Henderson in '84.
"I felt great about coming to New York because Billy [recommended me]," Henderson said from a Yankee Stadium suite moments after the 2017 Old-Timers' Day festivities wrapped up. "He felt that I should be a Yankee. He liked the way I played the game. When he went back to the Yankees, he told George Steinbrenner that I was a young man who could fit in with the Yankees organization, and they were able to bring me over here."
At the time of the trade, the 25-year-old was approaching his prime. The only question surrounding Henderson was whether he could pick up where he left off, since he would now be playing under the bright lights of New York.
"A lot of people said that New York was going to ruin me," Henderson recalled. "The Yankees were a different organization, and New York was a different city. A lot of what was being written was that if I didn't play well right away, the pressure in New York would be too much for me. But I felt like my job was to come in here, have fun and play like I always had. It didn't take long for New York to embrace me."
Henderson gave the fans no choice. As the Yankees' new leadoff hitter, he batted .314 with 24 home runs and 80 stolen bases in 1985. He became the first player in major league history to reach the 20-home run plateau and steal 80 bases in the same season.
"I was proud of what I did that season because I didn't know what to expect when I first came to New York," he said. "To have that type of historic year, I felt like I was a Yankee. I think Billy was more proud than I was because he told George the type of player I was going to be for the Yankees."
Besides the awe-inspiring numbers, Henderson's rare combination of speed and power captured the imagination of Yankees fans. He was on base more frequently than just about any other leadoff man in the game, and he was always a threat to steal.
"It was a great thrill to get on base," Henderson said. "I always thought that all eyes were on me. I was trying to bait the pitcher to give the next hitter a better pitch to hit. My job was to create something on the basepaths."
For as well as Henderson and the Yankees did that season, winning 97 games, he and his teammates failed to make the postseason, falling two games short of the Blue Jays in the American League East. The second-place finish in 1985, along with the play of Henderson and first baseman Don Mattingly, who captured American League MVP honors, were reasons for optimism.
"We played so well that first season," Henderson said. "We had a great hitting club. Don was a great hitter. Having him hit behind me was incredible. He would let me steal bases, and when I would get into scoring position, it seemed like he would always drive me in. He came through time and time again. Dave Winfield was an outstanding ballplayer, as well. He was a great line-drive hitter, and he had a great arm in the outfield. We could score runs and play defense, but we didn't have nearly enough reliable pitchers."
Not much changed in Henderson's second season in pinstripes. Although his batting average dipped to .263 in '86, he again put up huge numbers in several other categories. He led the league with 87 stolen bases and 130 runs, while also hitting a career-high 28 home runs.
"I think that pitchers started to change their approach with me," Henderson said. "I was stealing so much, so no one wanted to walk me. That encouraged them to throw more pitches over the plate and come at me a lot more. If I could get a good pitch, I was strong enough to hit it out of the ballpark, especially as a left-handed hitter in Yankee Stadium. My job was getting on base, then letting the big guys drive me in, but if it so happened that I'd get a pitch that I could drive out of the ballpark, it was a plus for our team because it would allow us to score early."
The team again finished in second place in '86, winning an impressive 90 games. This time around, the Yankees were edged out by the archrival Boston Red Sox. Making the outcome of the season even more painful for the Yankees and their fan base, Boston advanced to the World Series and faced the New York Mets.
"We felt like if we could have gotten into the postseason, we could have made some things happen," Henderson said. "We felt like we were close, and it was disappointing to watch things unfold the way they did that October."

The Yankees were again competitive in 1987, Henderson's third year with the team. New York won 89 games, but injuries sidelined Henderson for much of June and the entire month of August. Despite playing in just 95 games, he still collected 41 stolen bases and 17 home runs from the top of the order, numbers that most other leadoff men would be thrilled with.
Henderson's final full season in New York was perhaps his finest. He batted .305, marking the first time he finished a season above .300 since his first season with the Yankees. Additionally, his stolen base percentage was a vast improvement over his rate in Oakland. In his early 20s, Henderson stole more than 100 bases in three separate campaigns, but he got caught stealing an average of 29 times in each of those seasons.
"I got picked off a lot in Oakland, and that counted as getting caught stealing," Henderson said. "As I got more experience and kept learning, I was able to better time when I should take off and I was able to read pitchers. During the years I was with the Yankees, I became a lot more patient and selective about when I tried to steal. I always felt that if I could get a good jump on the pitcher, there were no catchers who could throw me out. But my biggest job was just reading the pitchers and figuring which of them I could steal on."
In Henderson's fifth season with the Yankees, the 30-year-old's numbers took a dip, as did his relationship with key people in the Yankees front office. The left fielder showed up to spring training late, which immediately irked newly appointed senior vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift.
Sixty-five games into the 1989 campaign, Henderson was batting .247, well below his lifetime .292 mark. He already had 25 stolen bases, but he had been caught eight times. Henderson, a free agent after the season, was unsure as to whether he would re-sign with the Yankees, who were intent on rebuilding their roster and specifically their pitching staff. So when Thrift approached the outfielder about waiving his no-trade clause, Henderson was open to being moved -- but only to Oakland.
On June 21, the Yankees traded Henderson back to his hometown A's in exchange for outfielder Luis Polonia and two much-needed pitchers, Eric Plunk and Greg Cadaret.
"I was really sad when I got traded," Henderson said. "I wanted to stay with the Yankees, but we were having a little bit of a controversy about the contract because I was about to become a free agent. I wanted to just sign here and get it over with, but it didn't work out that way.
"Even though I ended up going back home and going to a championship team, it was hard to leave New York," Henderson continued. "It was Billy's dream to bring me to New York, so in a way I felt like I had let him down. We didn't win a World Series, and that was disappointing because I came here to win."
Thrift and the struggling Yankees parted ways two months later for reasons that included Steinbrenner's unhappiness about the trade. Henderson proved that his decline was only temporary. He batted .294 in 85 regular season games with Oakland and captured his ninth American League stolen base crown in 10 seasons. That October, Henderson took home American League Championship Series MVP honors with a .400 average in his team's triumph over Toronto. He then batted .474 and helped the A's sweep the San Francisco Giants in the famous "Earthquake Series."
What Henderson did after his 31st birthday -- which was the same day that Billy Martin passed away in a car accident -- was almost as impressive as what he did before it. He batted .325 in 1990 en route to winning the American League MVP Award and played in two more All-Star Games and two more World Series. His A's lost to the Cincinnati Reds in 1990, but he won a second ring with Toronto in 1993.
When it was all said and done for Henderson, he had established himself as one of the best players ever to play the game, racking up more stolen bases, runs and walks than any other player in history. And although his efforts in pinstripes didn't yield a championship, his greatness during those prime seasons in his Hall of Fame career still hold a special place in his memory.
"I'm just proud of being a Yankee," Henderson said. "Being able to come over here and be successful is something that I will always think about." Another source of pride for Henderson is the fact that he set the franchise's career and single-season stolen base records.
"Those records mean a lot," he said. "When your name is in the Yankees record book, that's pretty special. I came over here and I just wanted to run, and they let me do that. Derek Jeter broke my record for career steals with the Yankees, but he never caught me for the single-season record."
Even though Henderson accomplished great feats in New York, his favorite part of the experience was being around two of the organization's cornerstones.
"I really, really enjoyed being teammates with Don Mattingly," Henderson said. "He's a great person, and there wasn't a better ballplayer than Don Mattingly. I was so sad when he got hurt because I believe that he deserved to be in the Hall of Fame. He was everything a Hall of Famer should be.
"And George was such a great owner because he believed in winning," Henderson continued. "He sometimes got us mad at what he was doing, but he did whatever it took to be a winner. He treated me like a true gentleman, and I respect that."
Now a regular in Cooperstown for the Hall of Fame induction ceremony each year, Henderson can also be found at Yankee Stadium on Old-Timers' Day. For him, the ovation he receives each summer in the Bronx -- and the connection he still has with the Yankees -- make baseball's stolen base king feel like Yankees royalty.
"I love coming back here," Henderson said. "There's only one club that has this fraternity. It's great to spend time with guys I played alongside and guys who played here after me. We reminisce about what we did on the baseball field and also about what has happened in our lives. The Yankees are not just about winning. This organization is about being a family, and there's a lot of joy that I have in being part of that family."