Player: A fourth round pick in '76, Rickey Henderson debuted with the A's in 1979. In a little over half a season of work Henderson stole 33 bases with a .274 batting average. His OPS+ of 88 would be the last time he would post under 100 until the year 2000.
Henderson quickly became the ideal and premier leadoff man in the league. Epitomizing Billy Martin's aggressive baserunning, Henderson would steal an even 100 bases in 1980 and top the century mark two more times. He smashed the single season record with 130 in 1982 and had an amazing 86 at the All-Star break. He was efficient and adept at his thievery, usually topping 80% in his success rate.
Hitting from a pronounced crouch, Henderson worked the count and led the AL in walks in '82 and '83. He typically hit around .300 and regularly topped a .400 on base percentage.
In 1981 Henderson stole two bases in both the ALDS and ALCS but the A's were defeated in the latter round by the Yankees. Henderson stayed in Oakland until he was traded for five young Yankee prospects following the '84 season. Over his first six seasons, Henderson averaged 102 steals and 107 walks per 162 games.
Awesome view of Henderson's low profile acceleration. Two other HOF'ers- Baltimore's Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken Jr., are an added bonus in this photo courtesy of Gary Soup.
Henderson's developing power coincided with his move to New York. He hit 24 HR to go with 80 steals, 146 runs scored, and a 157 OPS+. Along with positive contributions in the field it all added up to 9.8 WAR. He duplicated his 20/80 feat in '86 with 28/87. He and Eric Davis are the only players to have reached that level of power and stolen base production in the same season and Henderson did it back to back.
He played only 95 games due to injuries in '87 but still stole 41 bases to go with his .423 OBP. He lost out on a eighth consecutive SB title as Seattle's Harold Reynolds swiped 60. Reynolds recalls this phone call from Henderson after the season ended:
"The phone rings. 'Henderson here.' I say, 'Hey, what's going on, Rickey?' I think he's calling to congratulate me, but he goes, 'Sixty stolen bases? You ought to be ashamed. Rickey would have 60 at the break.' And then click, he hung up."
Things returned to normal in '88 with Henderson swiping a league best 93 bags to go with a .305 average. He would not be bested again until '92. He was in the midst of a long slump in '89 when the Yanks traded him back to Oakland for three players (including Eric Plunk who had traveled west in the first trade). Rickey turned it on once back with the A's and finished the year a league best 126 walks. He was electric in the postseason, stealing a record eight bases in the ALCS while getting on base fifteen times in five games. He got on base 11 out of 19 times in the World Series victory over the Giants.
Henderson and the A's tried to repeat but were swept by the Reds in '90. The regular season was typical Rickey with a AL leading 119 runs scored. He battled injuries the next two years but was still getting on base more than 40% of the time. In '91 Henderson broke Lou Brock's All-Time record when he stole bag number 939. 1993 saw the A's trade Henderson to Toronto and although he didn't produce all that well for the Jays he won a second World Series ring.
The A's brought the free agent Henderson back to Oakland on a two-year deal. He played only 199 games over the '94 and '95 seasons. He ventured down the coast and signed with the San Diego Padres in '96. Playing in the National League for the first time, he was still getting on base often enough to be a valued commodity. In August of '97 he was dealt to the Angels for three fringe players. He struggled with the Angels and returned to Oakland as a free agent following the '97 season, marking his fourth tour of duty as an Athletic.
Although Henderson batted just .236 he led the AL with 118 walks and 66 steals. At 39 years old, he stayed healthy all year and played in 152 games. He then signed with the Mets for the '99 season and batted 315/423/466 with an OPS+ of 128. It would be the last time he would finish over 100 in the category.
Henderson returned to Mets in '00 but was released in May. Although he no longer hit for average or power he could still get on base and steal some bases, even in his early and mid forties. He hung around with stints in Seattle, back to San Diego in '01 where he got his 3,000th hit on the last day of the season, Boston in '02, and one last hurrah with the Dodgers in '03. Although that marked the end of MLB career Henderson still insisted he could play and finished his playing career in independent leagues in '04 and '05. He finally conceded that he was retired on 7/13/07.
In all Henderson played 30 years of professional baseball. His major league totals are astounding and he holds the career record for steals (1,406) and runs scored (2,295).
Flipside: Henderson played so long, it seems strange now seeing such a short stack of stats on the back of his card. He was born in Chicago, moved to Oakland when he was two years old and was able to play for his home town team.
Oddball: There are so many great quotes and stories about Henderson that they have taken on mythical status. Even if half the stuff attributed to Henderson is true (see links) it's still great stuff.
History: Growing up in the 80's, I cherished all Henderson cards. He was the first non-Tiger that I made an effort to collect. His cards were like gold to me and seeing card of his from the early 80's brings back great memories.
Henderson won two World Series and retired with a line of 279/401/419 with 106.8 wins above replacement. His wikipedia page is solid and detailed and if you are a fan you should check it out.
Henderson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009 with 94.8% of the vote. I think A's GM Billy Beane said it best:
"He's the greatest leadoff hitter of all time, and I'm not sure there's a close second."