Rickey Henderson

December 31, 2007

I always end years this way, doing nothing. I eat a lot, mostly starch and fat. I sit a lot, on cushioned sofas and chairs and toilets. I even watch a lot of a particular kind of television programming, popular at this time of year, that centers on an interminable series of video reviews broken up occasionally by the homoerotic grappling of helmeted behemoths. At times I dream up an image of an improved version of myself. This New and Improved Josh Wilker will spring seamlessly into existence on the first morning of the new year. He will go on brisk jogs and teach creative writing classes in high-security prisons and learn how to play bluegrass guitar and remedy his decaying posture and lobby for federal funding for alternative energies and write novels brimming with fistfights and fornicating and timeless beauty and do a lot of sit-ups and pay more attention to life as it flies by and eat more salads and write a poem once in a while and volunteer at the animal shelter and radiate calm.

I wonder if it’s the same way for a baseball player playing out the string. I mean I wonder if in the dregs of the schedule in a season that long ago collapsed into meaninglessness a player will just sort of mail in his efforts and start thinking about next season, about how next season is going to be different, full of good habits and sustained effort and thrilling results and, above all, meaning. That’s always been the thought about those inhabiting the realm of the mathematically eliminated, that they don’t play with the same intensity as those in the middle of a pennant race.

That may indeed be true of mediocrities. (Take it from a mediocrity.) But Rickey Henderson’s 1980 rookie card suggests it is not true of the greats. The photo in this card was taken during his rookie season in 1979. He made his debut that year in a midseason double-header that the A’s lost, part of Henderson’s career-opening seven-game losing streak. Henderson finally played in a major league win, then the A’s promptly lost Henderson’s next three games, won one, lost five more, won one, lost five more, won one, and lost five more. Overall, the A’s record in Henderson’s first 29 games was 4-25. This was, incredibly enough, not that far off par for the course for a putrid team that went 54-108 on the year. If anyone was going to start mailing in their efforts it would have been a player finishing out that dismal campaign.

And yet here is Henderson, the rookie, locked in, ready to battle. I didn’t know when I got this card that it would one day become, in theory anyway, my most valuable card. (In practice the scratches below his cocked elbow surely strip this legend’s rookie card of its value; near the end of my collecting days I started sorting each team into batting orders by year, and since none of my few last 1981 cards were A’s the 1980 Rickey had to take the brunt of the elements for the decades in which my cards and I were estranged.) But I have to believe that I liked the card at first sight, that the rookie’s odd crouch differed not only from most of the posed wax figure stances that had populated my cards to that point but differed also from the feeling that mathematical elimination was unavoidable, that life itself was a losing season. Here was an electric moment, full of possibility, a young man who’d so far known nothing but losing in the majors but who despite that was about to treat the next pitch, the next moment, as if it could not be more important.

I meant to share this card earlier, my first thought being that I’d pass it along on Christmas Day, which also happens to be Rickey Henderson’s birthday. But I’m the kind of guy who lets things slide, who daydreams through pitches and at-bats and games. Let’s face it, entire seasons have gone by without me ever really leaving the fetid cycle of impossible thoughts inside my skull. But anyway, here it is, a few days late, a Happy Rickey Henderson’s Birthday to all, and hopes for a Rickey Henderson New Year. Here’s hoping we let all the bad pitches pass and that when a good pitch comes along we jump on it.


  1. 1.  I wonder if playing cards is considered mailing it in? Come to think of it I haven’t played any cards this Holiday season. Forget novels and alternative energies, break out some cards and whiskey.

  2. 2.  Rickey was appropriately born on Christmas Day, since despite the lack of any wise men or virgins, his career was a gift to baseball fans everywhere. Happy New Year!

  3. 3.  I even watch a lot of a particular kind of television programming, popular at this time of year, that centers on an interminable series of video reviews broken up occasionally by the homoerotic grappling of helmeted behemoths

    Josh, that is fantastic. Very well done.

    Rickey Henderson was on the first baseball card I ever got, out of a cereal box in 1984. Seen here (http://tinyurl.com/3alg65). That card started a love affair with baseball cards that lasted for a good eight or so years. I still love the cards, but don’t collect anymore, and these posts are a wonderful nostalgic tool.

    Cardboard Gods: come for the cards, stay for the wonderful writing. Happy New Year, Josh!

  4. 4.  Rickey was the best BR/TL position player ever. he was also the most exciting ballplayer – and the most disruptive – I’ve ever seen. Pitchers and defenses used to fall apart when Rickey got on first base.

    Strategies changed for Barry Bonds, but at least pitchers could walk him (and usually did). No one walked Rickey on purpose.

    Barry’s record for career walks still irks me. Rickey earned that record in a way Bonds never did.

  5. 5.  I can’t for the life of me think of any other throw left/bat right guys. The only guy that comes to mind is Doc Gooden, who preferred to bat left but batted right to protect his bread and butter arm from errant fastballs. Anybody else of note besides Rickey?

  6. 6.  Hal Chase and Cleon Jones. A guy named Rube Bressler, who had a decent careerin the ‘teens and 20s. After that you get down to guys like Mark Carreon “My Wayward Son.”

  7. 7.  I cheated and checked baseball-reference’s Play Index. After Rickey, the best career of a Bats: Right, Throws: Left guy is Jimmy Ryan, who was born during the Civil War.

  8. 8.  5 You should remember Dave McCarty, who played for both the A’s and Red Sox in recent years.

  9. 9.  8 : Oh my god, you’re right. My mind is a little muddled right now, typical of this time of year. Still, it’s pretty unforgivable to have a member of the ’04 Red Sox slip my mind.

  10. 10.  The battle for best active BR/TL position player is between Jason Lane, Ryan Ludwick, and Cody Ross.

    Other notable pitchers were Koufax, Randy Johnson, and Tommy John.

  11. 11.  10 Notable for the TL part, anyway. Well, I suppose Koufax was notable for his hitting as well, but not in a good way.

  12. 12.  This very card, along with the 1979 Topps rookie card of Wayne Gretzky, paid my rent for an entire summer in college.

    It was 1990, and that sucking sound heard everywhere was not Ross Perot warning us about jobs headed south (though it could have been) but the entire sports-cards-as-commodities market tanking. It was time, in so many ways, to divest myself of the portfolio; two months later, the shop that gave me $700 for both cards had been boarded up. It stood vacant until after I left town (not quite graduated, shall we say, but yet again, it was time) and long after the $700 had been squandered not just on rent but also Slurpees, medium-fast women, and Eugene Emeralds baseball tickets. I have no regrets.

    Thanks, Rickey and Wayne, and thank you, Josh. I hope the new year is happier for all of us.

  13. 13.  I am one of the BR-TL crowd myself. I will carry the spear for all of us.

  14. 14.  If I had a student who could write like Josh, I’d let him teach the damn class.

    Happy New Year to one and all. The Toaster is the one place where I make damn sure to visit on a daily basis. We’re lucky to have it here.

  15. 15.  I was at Rickey’s first game. I didn’t pay too much attention to the minor leagues, but because Rickey was from local Oakland Tech HS, where one of my brothers had attended, his reputation preceded him. Here is my probably inaccurate recollection of his first at bat: Rickey hit a flair down the right field line that the fielder played in routine fashion, but Rickey never slowed while rounding first and went flying into 2nd base with a headfirst slide. The fielder got off a strong throw but it was a hair too late. Rickey took third on a groundout, and then tagged up on a fly to medium shallow right field. I was thinking “No way, too shallow.” but not for Rickey. This time, though, the fielder was ready for him, and he set up for, and made, a strong, accurate throw home. It arrived a step before Rickey got there, but he went in head first anyway. When the dust cleared and the catcher showed he still had the ball the ump called “OUT!” Rickey jumped up arguing, but he was clearly out. Still, there was no mistaking the exceptional talent and attitude of this rookie, and he was the first wave of the tidal change that transformed the sad sack Triple A’s of the late 70’s into contenders and eventual champions.

  16. 16.  Oh, and have a happy 2008, everybody!

  17. 17.  For what it’s worth, Retrosheet confirms CMcFood’s memory with the minor exception that Rickey moved to third on a single rather than a groundout.

  18. 18.  15 : Speed! There aren’t too many things more thrilling than a rookie with speed to burn. It’s one reason why I’ve been mumbling “don’t trade Ellsbury, don’t trade Ellsbury” to myself for the past few weeks. (He’s been mentioned as a centerpiece in one of the Red Sox’ two multiplayer offers for Johan Santana.)

    And now if you’ll excuse me I must go continue nursing a hangover of frightening depth and complexity.

  19. 19.  Josh is so deep and complicated that even his hangovers are complex.

  20. 20.  BR-TL?

    I believe that George HW Bush did this while manning first base at Yale.

  21. 21.  I plan to devote 2008 to completing my masterpiece — a searing, darkly ironic four-volume graphic novel to be titled “Dick Grapenthin: Expos Prospect.”

    May everyone else’s New Year be similarly productive.

  22. 22.  19 : My hangover has morphed into a nasty cold. All I can hope for now is that it doesn’t develop into a full-blown outbreak of hrabosky.

  23. 23.  Good to see comment 12. This Rickey card and two Gretzky rookie cards are the only ones I have encased in Lucite in a fireproof box, along with my birth and marriage certificates.

  24. 24.  Matt Keough was 2-17 on that 1979 team. The 1978 team was 43-44 for the first half of the season, but only 26-49 in the second half, including a 14-42 record in their last 56 games. What a collapse. If they hadn’t gone 13-2 against equally hapless Seattle that season it would have been even uglier. The COMBINED announced attendence for their 3-game season-ending homestand was 6,877.

  25. 25.  A beautiful card of a beautiful ballplayer.

  26. 26.  17: Eric, thanks for looking that up.


  27. 27.  13 No need to carry for me, I have my own; I also BR-TL.

  28. 28.  There was always something about Rickey wasn’t there…..He was well into his 40s and still playing semi-pro baseball for near nothing with the hope of still getting a call by a big league club. And it wasn’t like he was some middling ballplayer trying to recitate his career. He is a first ballot HOF. For all his strange quirks which I find mostly hilarious(like forgetting that John Olerud was his teammate a few years before), it was always about doing whatever it takes to get on base and score. One of my favorite players ever.

  29. 29.  28 : Yeah, his last years of pro ball were strange, kind of like the boxer who can’t quit. But I was rooting for him to make it back to the majors, because as long as he was beating the bushes at least one piece of my childhood, one last Cardboard God, still had a chance to be present tense.

  30. 30.  I traded this card for a Don Mattingly rookie card. My older brother convinced me it was a good deal. I will never forgive him for that.

  31. 31.  30 : Older brothers! They must be watched in these matters. As I mentioned before, my older brother tried to trade one of his 1975 Bill Hands’ doubles for my 1975 Yaz (see Bill Hands’ profile).

    But all older brothers are redeemed by an act of X-mas-related baseball card generosity related in a great recent story on Shysterball: http://tinyurl.com/yopc5q.

  32. 32.  28 Just so you know, the John Olerud story was completely made up, although it got passed around a great deal because it sounded exactly like the sort of thing Rickey would do.

  33. 33.  28 Here’s my old story about watching a 40-something Rickey playing semi-pro ball:


  34. 34.  33 : Thanks for passing that along, Ken. That was a great read, right down to the last drop (i.e., the comment from a player on the team that Rickey played against that night).

  35. 35.  I’m not sure if Rickey’s stint as the Mets first-base coach helped Jose Reyes or Lastings Milledge’s running game all that much, but I’d wager for sure that they now know the difference between an “Inside Wrap” and an “Inside Straight,” as well as what a “blind raise,” a “burn and turn,” and “California Low-ball” are…

    Plus as an added bonus, Ruben Gotay was referring to himself in the third person during late-season interviews.

  36. 36.  12. 1980 was the last year I bought a lot of cards and I kept getting this particular card to my extreme annoyance. I did like the card at first but after getting double digits of Rickey I was frustrated and thought that Topps was a fucking conspiracy.

    In 1988 I lived off Rickey. He and Andre Dawson ’75 rookie outfielders (which includes Brian Asselstine) literally got me through my Senior year at Northeatern. When ever I quit Bickford’s or Wendy’s I went peddling my wares. All Redsox stars but for one Yaz had been cashed in ’87. Thank you Topps – others had saving bonds I had playing cards.

  37. 37.  Now Rickey walks with the immortals.

    and then steals second and comes around to score shortly thereafter.

  38. For another unusual bat-throw combo, how about switch hitters who throw left. Nick Swisher is one. Who can think of any others?

  39. shealives:
    I couldn’t think of anyone, then a couple hours after reading your question the name “John Cangelosi” came into my head.

  40. Josh, good call on Cangelosi. The only other switch hitter lefty thrower I can think of is me but I guess that doesn’t count. Speaking of John Cangelosi, he might be an interesting player to write about, in that he had a pretty good rookie year as a starter but then was a fourth outfielder/pinch runner the rest of his career. Unfortunately he played after the real heyday of the Cardboard Gods.

    Side note: I can’t believe the Pedroia play, although Damon getting picked off made me feel better. God, I hate the Yankees.

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