Today is a day to celebrate, among other things, the birthday of Rickey Henderson, a man who embodies baseball at its best so completely that it’s hard to do him any justice. Here’s to you, Rickey.
Going just by what he did on the field, Rickey was one of the greatest of all time, every bit the equal of, say, Mickey Mantle or Tom Seaver or Cal Ripken, Jr. (As Bill James wrote, years before the man retired, “Without exaggerating one inch, you could find fifty Hall of Famers who, all taken together, don’t own as many records, and as many important records, as Rickey Henderson.”) If he’d done nothing else but hit the ball and run well, that would have been more than enough, but then he worked his way into the accidentally mythic just by being himself. Probably the most self-confident player in living memory—to the point where he was, in his prime, held up (stupidly) as the epitome of the selfish modern player—he cheerfully played in low-level independent leagues into his late 40s just because he liked baseball that much, all the while inspiring a list of tall tales Yogi Berra or Satchel Paige wouldn’t have been ashamed of.
That list—every bit of which is definitely true, even the parts that aren’t, and which you should absolutely read right now if you haven’t—is near-canonical at this point, but it feels worth pointing out a few great Rickey-isms that aren’t on it. Happy birthday to the great man, who at 57 could definitely draw a walk or two and swipe a bag if some team had the sense to put him in a game this summer.
“I don’t care about them ... It’s Rickey time.”
On being told maybe they shouldn’t:
“Fuck that! You can change somebody’s life!”
On being beaten out for the American League stolen base title in 1987 by Harold Reynolds, whom he then called up on the phone:
“Henderson here ... Sixty stolen bases? You ought to be ashamed. Rickey would have 60 at the break.”
“That’s a bunch of crap. I don’t even think it’s two or three of them that’s better than me, so 40’s way out of there, man.”
“James Brown, Luther Vandross. A lot of different names.”
On why he framed a million-dollar bonus check and hung it on the wall of his house rather than cashing it:
“I go, ‘Wow, I’m a millionaire, so I’m gonna frame this here check and put it on my wall’ ... I wasn’t a millionaire. I wasn’t even getting no interest ... I eventually took the check down and went and cashed it.”
“That’s what I did! I took off!”
“No, it doesn’t. I try to just watch the man real close.”
“If I went out and played the game the way I played the baseball, I probably think I would have been in the Hall of Fame.”
“They kept that shit a secret from me. I wish they had told me. My God, could you imagine Rickey on ‘roids? Oh, baby, look out!”
Photos via AP