I suspect that it’s impossible to exhaust the subject of Rickey Henderson. Jon and Alex did a whole Dorktown on him — you can watch it above — and I think they would agree that they only barely managed to scratch the surface of his fascinating career.
As a late arrival to baseball, I only caught the tail end of The Rickey Henderson experience. But he didn’t have to be active to Be Around The Game, and any baseball nerd playing around with career numbers will instantly recognize Rickey, who annihilated the stolen base record so thoroughly that no active player has even reached a quarter of his total.
Even the historical base-stealers are nowhere close. Only nine players in MLB history have stolen even half as many bases as Rickey; two are within 500. In other words, you could add ten 50-steal seasons onto #4 Ty Cobb’s career and he’d still end up a couple short.
Other stolen base numbers that amuse me: Rickey’s tenth-best stolen base season was his 1990 MVP campaign, in which he stole a mere 65 bases. Since the turn of the millennium, that number would have been good enough to lead MLB in every year but 2004, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010. In every other year since 2000 even a middling Rickey stolen base haul gets it done.
Rickey was impossibly good at stealing bases. He put pressure on defenses in a way nobody else really ever has, and still managed to drew free passes. Imagine how frustrating it would have been to the most dangerous base-stealer in history down 0-2 and end up walking him anyway. Fifty-one pitchers knew this pain, and while I can’t easily figure out how many stolen bases and runs came from those particular walks, I think we all know that the answer’s going to be ‘a lot’.
“Rickey Henderson was a stolen base deity” is not news to anyone, of course. It’s basically the first thing they tell you when you get your official fan card. But one thing my British ass didn’t know about Rickey is that for a while he held the following career records simultaneously:
- Runs (overtook Ty Cobb on Oct. 4th 2001)
- Walks (overtook Babe Ruth on Apr. 25, 2001)
- Stolen Bases (overtook Lou Brock on May 1, 1991)
His dominion over the all-time walks leaderboard was ended by Barry Bonds in 2004, but for almost three years Henderson was the best hitter baseball had ever seen at basically everything involving locomotion. If we ignore baseball analytics and define the ‘big six’ offensive categories as Hits, Runs, RBI, HR, BB and SB, we find that Henderson spent a little over 1,000 days owning half of baseball’s major offensive records (he’s still first in runs and stolen bases, and the latter record looks unbreakable).
MLB has been around for well over 100 years and over 15,000 people have appeared in the league. One person — and that person debuted well after the league had settled down, records-wise — owned half of the major offensive career records. Even if Rickey could only claim the Treble Kingship of Runs, Walks and Stolen Bases for a couple of years, that is astonishing.
We mentioned above that Bonds annexed one of Rickey’s domains in 2004, but it’s important to remember that that feat was done with the help of some dubious outside assistance. No, I don’t mean PEDs. Don’t be silly. The steroid era ruled, and it was both hilarious and utterly compelling to watch superhuman pitchers get taken to the cleaners by superhuman-er hitters.
What I’m actually talking about is the intentional walk. For Bonds, these made up 688 of his 2558 career walks. Henderson, whom few in their right mind would willingly put on the basepaths (which in retrospect makes his plate discipline look even more incredible), earned 61 intentional walks over 25 years. I’m not trying to put an asterisk next to Bonds’ number or anything, but it’s important to note that his playing profile literally invited walks and Rickey’s very much didn’t. And he’s still second all-time!
Henderson’s Baseball-Reference page is a repository of near-mythical numbers earned over a 25-year career. Logs of a 130-steal season? A 1.016 OPS from the leadoff spot? A 40-year-old hitting .315/.423/.466 for the Mets? All told, this might be as close as baseball gets to an Odyssey. Except I think Rickey would have ended up at home a lot faster.