This weekend I was finally able to get some downtime between work, a 3 year old and just life in general. After finding myself on the couch with nothing to do, I took a look at our DVR and saw that I had recorded the ESPN “30 for 30” episode where they explored Deion Sander’s 1992 season where he not only played baseball for the Atlanta Braves and football for the Atlanta Falcons but actually played a game for each on the same day. It was pretty good and there was a lot that I didn’t know about that particular part of his career. I enjoyed watching Deion play football but his petulant arrogance and incessant mouth-running never really generated any admiration from me.
Ironically, I have always been a big fan of Rickey Henderson who is also a character of arrogance and big-talk. I’m not sure why I have that double standard but I’ve always dismissed his antics as “Rickey just being Rickey”. There are many “Rickey stories” out there and none of them are particularly flattering. They are however, pretty entertaining.
Sunday I came across an article online where Rickey Henderson said he was hoping that Oakland’s top draft pick Kyler Murray would have chosen to come play baseball for the A’s instead of opting to play professional football. He said that in 1986, he had gone to the LA Raider’s owner Al Davis and asked him if he could play football. Davis agreed but the Oakland A’s put an end to that idea. Seeing Rickey suit up for the Raiders would have been exciting to watch.
I’ve decided that in 2019, I’m going to focus on a few “player collections”. I’ve had a few going over the years such as Gary Carter, Michael Cuddyer, Ryan Zimmerman, and David Wright. I’ll add Rickey Henderson, Adrian Beltre, Don Mattingly, and Harrison Bader. I also think I’m going to start a collection focused on great action shots of catchers, outfield catches, or maybe acrobatic double plays. I’ll save those ideas for another post in the future.
In the meantime, here are some of my favorite Rickey cards for your viewing pleasure.
1999 Topps Stadium Club – Of course I would pick one of Rickey’s Stadium Club cards to lead off. I’m a sucker for the photography and Stadium Club is just loaded with exceptional photos. This is my favorite of Rickey’s SC issues. I can’t tell if he’s on his way to swiping second or third base but I’m nearly certain, he was called safe. I love this card for so many reasons. First off, it’s Rickey doing what ultimately defined his career, stealing bases. I love the bright white, green, and gold uniform. I love the mid-stride action shot and how he’s only player in sight. The fact that this shot was taken during a sunny Oakland day game also helps. Rickey was a New York Met in 1999 so this shot was likely taken the year before when he was with the Oakland Athletics. Ironically, Rickey hated playing day games. Pitcher Tom Candiotti said, “We had a day game in Oakland, and Rickey struck out. He walked all the way through the dugout talking to himself, he always talked to himself. He was saying, ‘I don’t know who’s inside Rickey’s body, but he better get out because the guy in there doesn’t like day games, he only shows up on day games, so he better get out.'” Candiotti said that the entire dugout was screaming in laughter.
I love collecting the photo variations and short prints of past legends. Topps has done a nice job with doing this. Here are a few of my favorite Gypsy Queen Rickey cards as well as Rickey’s 2011 Topps Update “Legends Variation”.
1981 Fleer – As a kid in the 80’s, I knew Henderson only as a New York Yankee. I started collecting around 1986 and every Rickey card I had featured him in Yankee pinstripes. My grandparents lived next door to a family who had a kid that was a bit older than me and he had a shoe box full of mostly Fleer and Donruss cards from the early 80’s. I remember sorting through them one day and seeing these two cards of the 22 year old Henderson in his green Athletics uniform. I realized then that I would have known he was a former Athletic if I had ever bothered to read the stats on the back. From that point forward, I began looking at both sides of the cards. When you look at his 1981 season stats, you will see that Rickey lead the American League in runs scored (89), stolen bases (56), and hits (136). 89 runs scored and 56 stolen bases may not seem like a lot (he stole 100 bases in 1980) but 1981 was a strike-shortened season. This was also the year that the Athletics accounting department found their books off by about a million bucks. They actually had about 1 million MORE than they should have. They traced it back to Rickey’s million dollar bonus. Instead of cashing it, he framed it and hung it on his wall. Adding to the allure of this story, some sources state is was the Yankees who were missing the million bucks.
1992 Donruss – This set has always been a guilty pleasure of mine. In 1992, Donruss celebrated Rickey’s greatest achievement. On May 1, 1991, he stole his 938th career base; in doing so, he succeeded Lou Brock as baseball’s career stolen base leader. Henderson would end the 1991 season with 994 stolen bases. 1992 saw the Athletics finish first in the American League West with a record of 96-66. Their offense was centered around Henderson, Canseco and McGwire. The bulk of the Athletics’ 1992 accolades, however, went to closer Dennis Eckersley. Eckersley led baseball with 51 saves over the course of the season; in the process, he posted a 7-1 record with a 1.91 ERA. Eckersley’s efforts netted him both the 1992 AL Cy Young Award and the 1992 AL MVP Award. The mighty A’s would eventually fall to Toronto in the ALCS. In 1993 Henderson would find himself in a Toronto uniform and eventually a World Series champion. His Donruss base card puts you about as close as you can get to his record breaking signature head first slide on May 1, 1991. Here he is swiping 3rd against the New York Yankees. Seconds later, he would be called SAFE and as such; the all-time base thief. Now that I look at it, if it had been up to me, I would have used the base card as the “Highlight” card. The lime green and white batting gloves he’s sporting in that photo were a must-have for many little players that year. They were made by Mizuno and featured white leather with a lime green padding on the top. Very flashy and very expensive at the time. I had a pair thanks to Mom and Dad.
1987 Topps – The 1987 Topps set has always been a favorite of collectors. featuring the wood-grain borders and loaded with rookies and future Hall of Famers, there are about 25 cards in the set that have always been my favorites. The Henderson is one of them. I love the symmetrical cropping of the photo. Starting in the top left hand corner of the card, you can follow the Yankees logo right to his head, down his torso and all the way down to the bottom right hand corner of the card. Straight as an arrow. Kind of a weird thing to find appealing in a baseball card you’re probably thinking. Due to injuries and only playing in 95 games, 1987 was a below-average season for Henderson and drew public criticism from Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. It was the only season from 1980 – 1991 that he did not lead the league in steals. Harold Reynolds lead the league in steals with 60 and tells a funny story about a phone call he received one night from Rickey:
“The phone rings; ‘Henderson here.’ I say, ‘Hey, what’s going on, Rickey?’ (and I think he’s calling to congratulate me,) but he goes, ‘Sixty stolen bases? You ought to be ashamed. Rickey would have had 60 at the break.’ And then click, he hung up.”
1989 Topps & Traded – In 1989, the Yankees; uncertain whether Rickey Henderson was worth a new three-year contract and desperately in need of pitching, decided to send him back home to Oakland in exchange for pitchers Erik Plunk, Greg Caderet, and a speedy outfielder named Luis Polonia. Contractually, the Yankees needed Henderson’s approval prior to any trade and he said that Oakland was the only place he would go. Wasting no time after the mid-season trade, Henderson reasserted himself as one of the game’s greatest players, with a memorable half-season in which his 52 steals and 72 runs scored led the A’s into the postseason. The move back to Oakland proved to be a good one for Henderson as Oakland ended up in the World Series for the first time since 1974. Despite a devastating earthquake at the start of Game 3, the A’s would eventually go on to sweep the San Francisco Giants. Henderson hit .474 with an .895 slugging average (including two triples and a homer), while stealing three bases. Earlier that year on August 22, 1989, he became Nolan Ryan’s 5,000th strikeout victim, but Henderson took an odd delight in the occurrence, saying, “If you haven’t been struck out by Nolan Ryan, you’re nobody.”
1980 Topps (Rookie Card) – Rickey had no problem making a splash into major league baseball. At the age of 21, Rickey led the American League in stolen bases (100), was an All-Star, and helped lead the Athletics to a 2nd place finish. His rookie card is one of the most iconic cards in the hobby and it’s easy to see why. As kids, we all emulated his batting stance at one point or another. His signature fits nicely at the bottom of the card and even with a pen, you can tell Rickey was “flashy”. Check out his loopty-loop on the “y”. Ask any of his teammates how “flashy” Rickey is and they will likely tell you the same thing about his pre-game ritual. Since he broke into the league, before every game he plays, he stands completely naked in front of a full-sized mirror, points at himself and says “Rickey, you’re the best…” (over and over…)
1997 Topps Gallery – This 180 card set was released to hobby shops only and as I was heading off to college that year, I didn’t discover it until years later. Here we see Rickey in a Padres uniform. One can only assume he successfully nabbed second base from the New York Mets. That looks like second baseman Edgardo Alfonso in the picture. I believe this is Shea Stadium and after reviewing Alfonso’s 1996 game log, he played second base for the Mets against the Padres in the August 27-29 home stand. Looking at Henderson’s game logs, the only game he was in a situation to steal was the August 29th game. Paul Wilson would walk Rickey Henderson in the top of the 5th. With Tony Gwynn at the plate, Rickey swiped his 35th base of the season as catcher Todd Hundley’s throw comes in late. Gwynn would go on to poke a ground ball through the middle for a base hit, scoring Henderson. That same year, Rickey was caught speeding but not by an opposing catcher. It was actually a San Diego police officer. As he approached Henderson’s sports car, the driver’s side window slips down a few inches and a hand emerges with a $100 bill in it. The officer shook Rickey’s hand and sent him home (with his money) and a gentle warning.
One time, the Padres GM Kevin Towers was trying to contact Rickey at a nearby hotel. Not finding him checked in under his real name, Towers decided to think like Rickey and asked to be transferred to “Richard Pryor’s room”. Rickey picked up the phone.