Is Rickey Henderson an underrated player?
That question may look absurd because he was a first ballot Hall of Famer, celebrated during his career, won the MVP and multiple All Star berths and shone on the biggest stage.
Rickey Henderson was not exactly an obscure player.
But that isn’t the question.
The question was “Is Rickey Henderson an underrated player?”
How can someone with that sort of resume POSSIBLY be underrated? I will show you. Let me ask a simple question:
Who is the greatest player you ever saw play?
That is a subjective question. It isn’t based solely on stats. A lot is based on what years you saw someone play, what team they played for and personal perception.
If you were old enough to see Rickey play and did not at least nominate him or throw him into the mix, then you might be showing how Rickey Henderson was underrated.
It isn’t just that he was a Hall of Famer and the Stolen Base King. He was more than a fine, flashy player with a quirky streak and no shortage of “Rickey being Rickey” stories.
He was, and please say this with me, ONE OF THE GREATEST ALL TIME OFFENSIVE PLAYERS IN BASEBALL HISTORY.
I am talking top 10 OF ALL TIME.
Of course you knew that nobody stole more bases than Rickey in baseball history. Also nobody scored more runs in baseball history.
If you like WAR, he is in the top 20 all time for pitchers and hitters. if you dig walks, when he retired he was the All Time leader in that category. Barry Bonds has since passed him.
But consider the stat “Times on Base.” That includes hits, walks and being hit by a pitch. For someone like Rickey, a walk was the same thing as a double. He got on base and second base would soon be his. So getting on base made him a borderline unstoppable weapon. He would be in the head of the pitcher AND the catcher, usually dancing at first with a big power hitter at the plate.
When Rickey retired, only Pete Rose and Ty Cobb reached base more than he. (Bonds since moved into second place, between Rose and Cobb.) Now think about that for a second. Yes, Rickey was a member of the 3,000 hit club. He got 3,055 total.
But when hung up his spikes, the only two players who got on base MORE than he were two guys who amassed more than 4,000 hits in their career. They had a 1,000 hit headstart on Rickey and he came close to catching him.
Rickey understood early the importance of on base percentage over batting average for his skill set. When he told reporters that he doesn’t care about his average but rather he looks at his on base back in the mid 1980’s, it was chalked up as a “Rickey being Rickey” quirk. No. He was decades ahead of the curve.
Only seven players in baseball history got on base more than 5,000 times in their career.
Pete Rose is first. Then Barry Bonds and Ty Cobb. Rickey is currently in fourth. Carl Yastrzemski, Stan Musial and Hank Aaron round out the 7.
The list does NOT include Tris Speaker (2 shy) nor Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Alex Rodriguez or any other star you could think of.
I am not saying that Times on Base should be a litmus test of greatness. But when you consider only 7 have ever achieved the number of 5,000 in history and Rickey is one of them, that should at least impress.
In my life time, I only saw the tail end of Yaz’s career and I saw all of Rickey Henderson and Bonds’ time. Chances are, if you were a baseball fan of the 1980’s and 1990’s, you will put Bonds on your “Greatest Player I ever saw” list.
Clearly the steady production of Henderson makes him worthy of at least consideration of best you ever saw.
Between 1979 and 2003, Henderson was teammates with future Hall of Famers Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro, Dave Winfield, Rich Gossage, Dennis Eckersley, Roberto Alomar, Paul Molitor, Tony Gwynn, Eddie Murray, Mike Piazza and Pedro Martinez.
His first manager was Jim Marshall. His last one was Jim Tracy. Between them, he was managed by Billy Martin in both Oakland and New York, Lou Piniella in both New York and Seattle. He was hurt when Yogi Berra managed his 16 games for the Yankees in 1985. Later Cito Gaston, Tony LaRussa, Art Howe, Bobby Valentine, Bruce Bochy and Grady Little all put him in the game.
At age 39 he led the league in stolen bases and walks during his last stint with the A’s. He wound up playing in the post season with the Billy Ball A’s and the Tony LaRussa A’s, the Cito Gaston Blue Jays, the Bruce Bochy Padres, the Bobby Valentine Mets and along side Alex Rodriguez in Seattle.
I picked this card and the tone of this post for a reason. There are plenty of cards of Rickey in an obscure uniform that would have made a funny image. And there are no shortage of goofy stories that make Rickey seem like a bit of a joke.
I did not want to do that. There are plenty of Rickey Henderson goofy moment pages on line. There are lots of think pieces about his “I am the greatest of all time” speech was bad for baseball.
I wanted a picture of him in his A’s uniform and looking dignified. And I wanted a post that honored his greatness breaking records. This Topps card is for the time he set the record for lead off homers. He would spend the rest of his career breaking records left and right.
I think I got caught up in criticizing his flashiness and seeming to be me first on the field. I think during his playing days, I rooted against him and hated his brashness.
In retrospect, I should have just sat back and appreciated everything. I got to see live one of the greatest offensive players in the history of baseball be magnificent at his job and put up numbers that placed him among the best players of all time.
Is the greatest player I ever saw? I will consider him. For that reason, I think he was underrated during his day.
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