Baseball’s most brilliant leadoff man came to quick prominence under Oakland A’s manager Billy Martin and his hustling brand of “BillyBall.” The speedy Henderson set the AL season steal record with 100 in 1980, his second major-league season. After leading the American League in hits in strike-shortened 1981, Henderson broke Lou Brock‘s single-season steal record with 130 in 1982. He then topped the hundred-steal mark for a third time with 108 in 1983.
After the 1984 season the righty-batting, lefty-throwing Henderson was traded to the Yankees along with pitcher Bert Bradley in a December 5 deal that sent Stan Javier, Jay Howell, Jose Rijo, Eric Plunk and Tim Birtsas to Oakland. In New York, Henderson was soon reunited with Martin when Yogi Berra was canned after a 6-10 start and went on to have one of the best seasons of his career. Wearing number 24 in honor of Willie Mays, Henderson hit a career-high 24 homers, batting .314 with a league-leading 80 stolen bases. In doing so, Henderson became the first AL player ever with a 20 homer-50 steal season, a feat he repeated in 1986. His 146 runs scored were the most by any major leaguer since 1949 (when Ted Williams scored 150), and his average of more than one run scored per game was the best since the days of Lou Gehrig. Though teammate Don Mattingly won the 1985 AL Most Valuable Player award, Henderson may have been more valuable, scoring on 56 of Mattingly’s 145 RBI. Rickey was a close second in the 1981 MVP voting, but a distant third in 1985.
A Gold Glove winner in 1981, Henderson proved somewhat versatile in the outfield, as he moved from left to center in 1985 (though he would later return to left, his preferred position). He became notorious for his snatch catch on easy fly balls, swatting his glove from over his head to his side; it earned him his nickname Style Dog. Henderson’s 1985 achievements came despite missing the first 15 games of the season with a sprained ankle.
Henderson continued his power tear in 1986, this time ripping 28 home runs, nine of which were game-openers. In 1988, he broke both the Yankees’ single-season steal record with 93 swipes. In the process, he stole his 249th base as a Yankee, surpassing Willie Randolph‘s record.
Off to a bad start in 1989, Henderson was soon victimized by the “what have you done for me lately?” attitude prevalent among New York fans and media. By June he was mired in the worst slump of his career and started hearing the catcalls from the Yankee bleachers; his flashy personality wasn’t winning him many fans when his production couldn’t back it up. On June 21, he was traded back to first-place Oakland for pitchers Greg Cadaret, Eric Plunk (again), and outfielder Luis Polonia. As it turned out, the blockbuster move ushered in a dark age for the Yankees and revived Henderson’s career. In July, he stole five bases in one game against Seattle. His 1989 post-season was awesome; in nine games overall, he hit .441, scored twelve times, and stole eleven bases. In addition, he was named MVP of the Championship Series. The following season, Henderson was named American League MVP for an amazing year in which he batted .325 with 119 runs scored, 28 homers, and 65 steals.
Henderson continued to steal bases — except for injury-torn 1987, he led the league every year from 1980-91 — but leg injuries ranging from hamstring strains (“my hammies,” he called them) to a sprained knee to frostbite slowly began to limit his playing time. All the same, more laurels started rolling in. His inevitable eclipse of Lou Brock‘s career steal record came with steal #939 on May 1, 1991 against New York at the Oakland Coliseum. During the celebratory ceremony he held his base aloft and told a packed crowd, Brock included: “Today I am the greatest of all time.” A year later (to the day) he became the first player ever to reach 1,000 steals.
In 1993 Henderson was traded by the last-place A’s to Toronto for the stretch drive, and was on base when Joe Carter hit his World Series-ending home run off the Phillies’ Mitch Williams. After the season, he returned to Oakland for two more semi-productive years, then signed with the Padres in 1996. In his first season in the NL, Henderson hit .274 and stole 27 bases before being traded to the Anaheim Angels. Henderson re-signed with the A’s in the offseason and began his fourth tour of duty in Oakland in 1998.
In December 1998, Henderson joined his sixth club, the New York Mets, as a free agent. The following year was filled with ups and downs for the future Hall of Famer. He exceeded all expectations, batting .315, getting on-base at a .423 clip, and stealing 37 bases, but his personality rubbed many in the Met organization the wrong way.
One of the most glaring incidents took place during the emotional sixth game of the NLCS, which New York ultimately lost to the Braves. As the Mets struggled, it was rumored that Henderson wiled away the last innings in the locker room, playing cards with Bobby Bonilla. New York released him the following May. The Seattle Mariners quickly became the seventh team to pick up the stolen base king, and Henderson once again went to the postseason.
In what has become a telling sign of Henderson’s career, the wiry leadoff man remained in great physical shape, drawing walks, stealing bases, and scoring runs. However, his reputation for “dogging it” on the basepaths and in the outfield led yet another team — Seattle — to pass on re-signing Henderson, and he entered the 2001 season without a contract.
Henderson signed a minor-league contract with the Padres in March 2001, and got called up in April with injuries to outfielders Tony Gwynn and Mark Kotsay. Used as a pinch-hitter and platoon outfielder, he passed Babe Ruth as the career walks leader on April 25, 2001, drawing a base on balls against Philadelphia Phillies‘ reliever Jose Mesa. In an about-face from his relatively selfish attitude over the last two decades of his career, Henderson said, “It’s great to be in a class with Babe Ruth and all that good stuff, but I’m the type of person that wants to win.”