Excerpt: Doc, Donnie, the Kid, and Billy Brawl

The following is an excerpt from Doc, Donnie, the Kid, and Billy Brawl: How the 1985 Mets and Yankees Fought for New York’s Baseball Soul by Chris Donnelly (April 2019).

 

From Chapter 2: “Never Played the Game”

Three years. That was how long it had been since a member of the Yankees referred to himself in the third person. That streak came to an end on December 5, 1984. The Yankees, shut out of the playoffs for three straight seasons, had acquired baseball’s flashiest and perhaps most eccentric player by acquiring Rickey Henderson from the Oakland A’s in a mega seven-player deal. It was the biggest trade of the off-season, for at least the next week anyway. Henderson was the game’s greatest lead-off hitter and the fastest man to ever don a pair of cleats. It was not a stretch to say he was the most talented player the Yankees had traded for since Babe Ruth.

Rickey, as he sometimes called himself, grew up in Oakland, California, and might have become a football player had his mother not feared him getting injured on the gridiron. Drafted by the A’s in 1976, he made it to the club in 1979. Outside of 33 stolen bases, his first season was nothing remarkable. The following year, however, people in baseball began to take notice of Rickey after he stole 100 bases and hit .303. It was only the third time in the twentieth century a player stole 100 or more bases. In 1981 he hit .319 and stole 56 bases in a strike-shortened season, a performance that earned him enough votes to finish second in the American League Most Valuable Player voting. Under the tutelage of manager Billy Martin, the A’s surprised many when they reached the playoffs that year, though they were eliminated in the American League Championship Series by the Yankees. By 1984 Henderson was one of the premiere players in baseball. He shattered the single-season stolen-base record in 1982 when he swiped 130 bags. The next year, he stole 108, marking the third time in four seasons he reached the 100 plateau. He led the league in swipes every season from 1980 to 1984. Only six years into his career, Henderson was already halfway toward breaking the all-time stolen base record held by Lou Brock.

While speed was his most renowned talent, Henderson was also an excellent hitter who could be counted on to bat .300 or better. But Henderson’s most valuable asset at the plate was his batting eye. He was patient, rarely swung at the first pitch, and wore pitchers down. His eye was coupled with an unusual batting stance: he crouched his body toward the back end of the plate, drastically shrinking the size of the strike zone. Pitchers could either throw something down the heart of the plate and take their chances, or walk him, which with Rickey’s speed was the equivalent of giving up a double. As a result, Henderson led the league in walks in 1982 and ’83. His on base percentage hovered around .400.

But Henderson was set to become a free agent after the ’85 season, and he had already rejected a seven-year offer the A’s put to him before the ’84 season. It seemed obvious Oakland would not be able to retain him. They began talking trade with the Yankees during the winter meetings. The Yankees were amendable to a deal so long as they could discuss a contract with Henderson beforehand. When the negotiations stalled, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner contemplated backing out of the deal. “Get him,” Martin, then an advisor to the Yankees, told Steinbrenner. “He could be the most exciting Yankee since Mickey Mantle.”1

The Yankees eventually worked out a contract and the deal was done. Richie Bry, Henderson’s agent, made a statement after the trade was announced that was rather telling in terms of his client.

Donnelly

“This is an excellent opportunity for Rickey to be with the Yankees, to have more fame and fortune than he’s had before,” said Bry.

While perhaps unintended, the statement indicated Henderson wanted the deal not because it could lead to a championship, but for what it could bring him personally.

Many teammates, however, spoke highly of Henderson, and he made clear he wanted to win a ring in New York. But there was another element to him outside his talent. Henderson had a personality to match his skills.

“Rickey was Rickey,” said teammate Rich Bordi. “It sounds weird, but people in the baseball world would know what I mean when I say that. Rickey was in his own world.”3

A fitness fanatic who rarely drank and did not smoke (two qualities that would make anyone on a 1980s baseball team an outcast), Henderson did not hesitate to make grievances known through the papers. If Rickey was unhappy, people were going to hear about it. Moreover, stories had emerged from Oakland that Henderson had not played in games simply because he did not feel like it.

“He asked out last season when the A’s were still in contention, claiming he had a cold. On many occasions, he refused to steal,” reported the Trenton Times’ Bus Saidt.4

He also had a flair for the dramatic that surpassed anyone else’s who had been in a Yankees uniform. When Henderson hit a home run, he would tug at the collar of his uniform before taking his sweet time rounding the bases. It was beyond ironic: the fastest man in baseball took perhaps the longest amount of time to circle the bases on a homer.

 

“I will never forget how he wore leather outfits in the summer. No matter how hot it was,” recalled teammate Rex Hudler.5

Rickey also brought the famous “Snatch” catch along with him, which was a method of catching fly balls where Henderson essentially snatched them out of the air with his glove. Usually he would give his upper thigh a good pat or two with his glove before he did this. Yet, while Henderson could be a headache for managers and owners, to his teammates he was as good as they came.

“He was the first guy to give a kid in camp or rookie [something]. He’d give you spikes, give you a glove,” said Dale Berra.6

The Yankees were aware of Henderson’s personality. Everyone was. But they saw the skills as far exceeding any problems that might arise off the field.

“Rickey Henderson is the most exciting player in baseball,” said Martin after the trade. “There’s no player I’d rather have if I was starting a team.”7

The deal was meant to solidify the outfield and provide more RBI opportunities for the Yankees’ middle of the order, which was perhaps the strongest in baseball. Rickey’s speed would be an element the Yankees had not had in years (he stole more bases in 1984 than the entire Yankees team combined). The trade was an important statement by the Yankees that they did not wish to repeat their performance of 1984, when a bad first half effectively killed the season before the All-Star break. Of course, 1984 was supposed to be an improvement over what happened in 1983. Nineteen-eighty-three was supposed to be an improvement over what happened in 1982. And 1982 was supposed to be an improvement over what happened in 1981.

 

Notes

1. Moss Klein, “Henderson Proves a ‘Steal,’” Star Ledger, June 23, 1985.
2. Murray Chass, “Yanks and A’s Complete Deal for Henderson,” New York Times,
December 6, 1984.
3. Rich Bordi phone interview, August 12, 2010.
4. Bus Saidt, “Rickey Henderson,” Trenton Times, December 19, 1984.
5. Rex Hudler phone interview, February 3, 2011.
6. Dale Berra phone interview, October 14, 2010.
7. Moss Klein, “Henderson a Yank, If He Signs,” Star Ledger, December 6, 1984.

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