The Man, The Myth, The Legend: Rickey Henderson

July 25, 2009 - 12:32 pm

Long before Manny was being Manny, Rickey was just being Rickey.

At first glance, Rickey Henderson is the prolific leftfielder who played for nine teams in 25 seasons and became widely regarded as the sport'€™s greatest leadoff hitter of all time, holding the MLB records for career stolen bases, runs scored, and leadoff homeruns '€“ the man who will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday.

But after further examination, he is also the idiosyncratic Rickey Henderson whose unintentional humor and candor inspired SI'€™s Tom Verducci to write this in 2003:

'€œThere are certain figures in American history who have passed into the realm of cultural mythology, as if reality could no longer contain their stories: Johnny Appleseed. Wild Bill Hickok. Davy Crockett. Rickey Henderson. They exist on the sometimes narrow margin between Fact and Fiction.'€

The legend of Rickey Henderson far surpasses anything he ever did on the baseball field. His true greatness lies in his stories, his personality, his inner-Rickeyness. Like Yogi Berra and his witty malapropism or '€œThe Big Aristotle'€ and his pithy humor, Henderson transcends the platitudes and clichés that have become all too common in post-game press conferences and interviews around the league '€“ around the world of sports, for that matter.

He is perhaps best known for referring to himself in the third-person, as in the time he called San Diego Padres GM Kevin Towers and left a message saying, '€œKevin, this is Rickey calling on behalf of Rickey. Rickey wants to play baseball.'€ (Although Verducci reported this to be true in his 2003 SI article, Henderson denied the quote during a 2009 interview on Mike & Mike in the Morning).

But there are so many more anecdotes, myths, and legends. Like the times he checked into hotels under the aliases Richard Pryor, Luther Vandross, and James Brown (confirmed as true). Or the time he was sidelined for three games in mid-August with frostbite after he fell asleep with an icepack on his ankle (also confirmed as true).

There was also the game in 2001 when the 42-year-old Henderson broke Ty Cobb'€™s all-time runs record with a homerun, and to celebrate, he slid into home plate.

Other Rickey Henderson folklore has not yet been confirmed, but knowing Henderson it almost doesn'€™t seem too farfetched. Number 24 on The 25 Best Stories of '€˜Rickey Being Rickey'€™ asserts the following:

'€œTo this day and dating back 25 years, before every game he plays, Henderson stands completely naked in front of a full length locker room mirror and says, '€˜Rickey'€™s the best,'€™ for several minutes.'€

There'€™s also the widely known story about Henderson and former teammate John Olerud:

'€œThe story went that a few weeks into Henderson'€™s stint with the Mariners, he walked up to Olerud at the batting cage and asked him why he wore a batting helmet in the field. Olerud explained that he had an aneurysm at nine years old and he wore the helmet for protection. Legend goes that Henderson said, '€˜Yeah, I used to play with a guy that had the same thing.'€™ Legend also goes that Olerud said, '€˜That was me, Rickey.'€™

The two had played together on the Blue Jays and Mets. Unfortunately, the story is too good to be true.

The Baseball Hall of Fame is replete with baseball superstars '€“ sluggers, aces, and defensive whizzes. But Sunday, the Hall will welcome Rickey Henderson, a true legend of cultural mythology.

'€œHe wasn'€™t just a ball player,'€ said Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins in a recent interview on MLBTV. '€œHe was an entertainer.'€