On May 1, 1991, Oakland Athletics outfielder Rickey Henderson steals his 939th base to break Lou Brock’s record for stolen bases in a career. Henderson stole a total of 1,406 bases in his major league career, almost 500 more than the next closest player. Henderson was also the premiere lead-off hitter of his generation.
Rickey Henley Henderson was born on Christmas Day, 1958. When he was seven years old, his family moved to Oakland, where the gregarious boy befriended Charles O. Finley, the owner of the Oakland Athletics. He played youth baseball in Oakland with pitcher Dave Stewart, later his teammate on the 1989 Oakland A’s and 1993 Toronto Blue Jays World Championship teams. According to Stewart, Henderson had the same loquacious, energetic personality as a boy that he did when he became a baseball star: “Rickey was always the life of the party.”
Henderson was drafted by the A’s in the fourth round of the 1976 amateur draft. In the minor leagues he stole bases at a tremendous clip, including 95 at Double-A Modesto as an 18 year old in 1977. He broke in with Oakland in the 1979 season, but initially struggled to find his game. Then, in 1980, under a new manager, the pugnacious Billy Martin, Henderson broke the American League record for stolen bases in a season. His batting crouch and keen eye for the strike zone drew him walks by the dozen, and in 1982 he stole 130 bases, breaking the single season record of 118 that Brock had set in 1974. Henderson was traded before the 1985 season to the New York Yankees, with whom he added power to his game, hitting 24 home runs in 1985. In his career he hit 75 lead-off home runs, a record. Back with the Oakland A’s, Henderson was named MVP of the American League Championship Series in the 1989 season, and followed that up in 1990 with his only American League MVP award.
The seemingly ageless Henderson was loathe to retire and became a journeyman in the twilight of his career, playing stints with Toronto, San Diego, the New York Mets, Anaheim, Boston and the Los Angeles Dodgers. When his major league career finally ended in 2003, Henderson was baseball’s all-time leader in stolen bases and lead-off home runs, as well as the all-time leader in bases on balls (walks) with 2,190 (Barry Bonds later broke this record) and the all-time runs leader, with 2,295. Henderson left the majors at age 45 and ended his career playing independent minor league baseball, still getting on base and still scoring runs. In a sport where the point of the offensive player is to score runs, Henderson did it more than anyone in history. He was inducted into the Baeball Hall of Fame in 2009.