Day 20 of 2022 baseball books: Bryant being Bryant, on the life of the ultimate lead-off hitter, disruptor and quote machine

“Rickey: The Life and Legend of
An American Original”

The author:
Howard Bryant

The publishing info:
Mariner Books/
HarperCollins
430 pages
$28.99
Released June 7, 2022

The links:
The publishers website
The authors website
At Bookshop.org
At Indiebound.org
At Powells.com
At Vromans.com
At TheLastBookStoreLA
At PagesABookstore.com
At Amazon.com
At BarnesAndNoble.com

The review in 90 feet or less

Now it can be told:

Rickey Henderson, right, looks over J.J. Guinn’s shoulder to see the scouting report Guinn wrote about him in 1976. Credit: .Jim Wilson/The New York Times

In July, 2021, the New York Times’ Alex Coffey dove into the relationship between Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson and the scout that signed and nurtured him, J.J. Guinn. The focus is on what Guinn saw of Henderson on one particular day:

“Guinn focused on his strengths: Henderson’s speed, athleticism and lateral range,” writes Coffee. “Where others saw impediments, Guinn saw possibility. …

“Only two M.L.B. teams were present for an American Legion game at Bushrod Park on that day in 1976: the Athletics and the Los Angeles Dodgers. After Henderson struck out in his first two at-bats, the Dodgers scout stood up. ‘I’ve seen enough,’  Guinn recalled him saying. ‘I have a plane to catch.’

“Henderson homered in his next two at-bats and Guinn feverishly typed out a report to his scouting director. His advice: Sign Rickey Henderson ‘right away’.”

On page 34 of Howard Bryant’s book, now it can be retold with a few more pieces of info:

“The scouts who watched Rickey had no doubt they were watching a gifted athlete, but they were unconvinced about him as a baseball player. Doubt was baked into their DNA – scouts never missed a chance to emphasize what a player couldn’t do. Rarely did they see what a player was or what he could be. … So they were doubtful that 17-year-old Rickey would ever make it to the big leagues. Too many problems, they said.”

Yet this was an area that had not-too-far-back produced players like Curt Flood, Joe Morgan, Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson. As Bryant adds, “Oakland kids were defiant, wholly independent, creative outsiders with an irreverent style. Rickey’s generation was young, and they were imbued with the spirit of Oakland.”

Now it was Henderson, Gary Pettis, Claudell Washington, Dave Stewart, Von Joshua, Bip Roberts, Ruppert Jones, Glenn Burke … all-around athletes who might be lured to baseball for the right price and nurturing.

The Dodgers had two full-time scouts in the area – Dick Hager and Dick Hanlan — who had been watching Stewart, an up-and-coming catcher (before he would be drafted by them and converted into a pitcher). This time, the franchise’s scouting director, Bill Brenzel, had come to watch Oakland Tech against Skyland (a high school game, not an American Legion contest?)

Brenzel was an Oakland guy, himself a player who grew up in the area 50 years earlier.

“He showed up, sat right down and waited for Rickey to show him what he had,” Bryant writes. “Brenzel introduced himself to J.J. Guinn, who was seated next to him. Guinn would recall that Brenzel’s countenance said it all: Important guy. With the Dodgers. The Dodgers always created a buzz.”

Henderson strikes out his first two times up.

“As Rickey walked back to the dugout, Brenzel was done. He was a performance scout, and Rickey hadn’t performed. Guinn would remember that, as Brenzel stood up, he heard the scout mutter something to the effect of ‘I’ve seen enough’ and ‘got a plane to catch.’ Then he left.

“And that is how J.J. Guinn and the Oakland A’s got the inside track on signing Rickey Henderson.”

Henderson homersin his next two at-bats, the second one longer than the first.

“ ‘If he’d have stayed,’ Jim Guinn recalled (referring to Brenzel), ‘Rickey would have been a Dodger.’”

Guinn watched Henderson for 20 games, 140 innings in all, yet still didn’t write up all that impressive scouting report. In the one done prior to the June 1976 draft – using the 2 to 8 scale, with 8 being outstanding — he gave Henderson’s running ability a 7 (present, and future), a 5 for baseball instincts and aggressiveness and a 3 for fielding and hitting ability. Guinn also compared him to a Cleon Jones because he threw left and batted right.

All in all, Guinn still recommended the A’s draft the local kid. As a pitcher. They did.

At the end of the fourth round, long after the Dodgers had already drafted catcher Mike Scioscia in the first round (who would play more games at that position in L.A. Dodgers history than anyone else), shortstop Don Ruzek in the second round, outfielder Max Venable in the third round (an eventual big-leaguer) and, six picks before Henderson, pitcher Marty Kunkler.

(Kunkler, listed by his formal first name of George below, was a 20th-round pick out of high school by the Dodgers in ’73. Then he went to college. He lasted two minor-league seasons in the Dodgers organization.)

For what it’s worth, Jack Morris went to the Tigers two picks later after Henderson, in the fifth round, and Ozzie Smith went to the Tigers and Wade Boggs went to the Red Sox in the seventh round. All Hall of Famers as well. The California Angels weren’t any more insightful, but at least were looking OK taking L.A. native Ken Landreaux in the first round out of Arizona State plus a couple others who got to the big-leagues without much fanfare.

So go many MLB drafts.

Just 27 years after that draft, Henderson did become a Dodger. He was 44 years old and a hired gun, and the Dodgers (and GM Dan Evans) rented him from the Newark Bears to play left field for the final two months of the season — the last of his 30 games, all in left field.

Henderson managed a .208 average, stole the last three of his MLB record 1,406 bases, and scored the final seven of his MLB-record 2,295 runs. He also got the last 15 of his 3,055 hits and last two of his 297 homers – just three short of what would have been one of four to have have 3,000 hits, 300 home runs and at least 200 stoken bases (with Henry Aaron, Willie Mays and George Brett).

In his final plate appearance for the Dodgers, he led off the bottom of the seventh inning against San Francisco at Dodger Stadium on Sept. 19. He was hit by a pitch from Jason Christiansen, went to second on a sacrifice bunt by Dave Roberts and scored on a Shawn Green single. The Dodgers and Kevin Brown still lost the game, 6-4.

His final homer in the big leagues was on an ESPN Sunday Night Baseball game on July 20, ’03 — it was also the 81st time he homered to start a game, a record that could be broken (Mookie Betts?) with the right person in the right spot.

In between, it seems Henderson almost became a Dodger, twice. Again, kinda.

In 1984, there were strong rumors that Oakland needed to ship off its 25-year-old four-time All Star, because his value was so high and the need too plentiful to plug holes. Oakland GM Sandy Alderson — “a newbie and not quite sure what to do,” as he explains – might get a bunch of prospects from the Dodgers. But the A’s wouldn’t bite. Instead, they shipped him to the Yankees (with another player and cash!) for Jay Howell, Stan Javier, Eric Plunk, Jose Rijo and Tim Birtsas.

Three years later, Henderson still with the Yankees (from ’85-to’88), more trade rumors linked him to the Dodgers – a package deal featuring Orel Hershiser and Ken Howell? The Sporting News surmised it wouldn’t happen because it “would be foolish to give up significant players for Henderson when they could simply sign (pending free-agent Montreal Expos outfielder Tim) Raines for approximately the same salary that they’d have to pay Henderson.”

The Expos ended up re-signing Raines, a seven-time NL All-Star and leadoff man. Henderson stayed in New York two more seasons. Instead, the Dodgers landed free-agent Kirk Gibson (three years, $4.5 million with a $1 million bonus), Hershiser hung around, and 1988 happened.

Henderson’s story can’t really be told by the stats, salary figures or roster moves. His four tours with Oakland (’89-’93, ’94-95, ’98) as well as two stops in San Diego, plus the New York Mets, Seattle, Boston and a half-season with the Angels in ’97 are one way to size him up on a spread sheet.

Then there are the numbers here on page 407 – the index. After three pages of listing all the references to “Henderson, Rickey, baseball career,” we come upon:

But we’re not supposed to get too absorbed with much of that, we’ve been instructed.

In his review of the book for the Wall Street Journal, noted journalist Leigh Montville points out that “Mr. Bryant, an African-American, is uneasy” with all the stories about Henderson’s character quirkiness. Bryant “declares that while some of the stories are true, some are apocryphal and, in their telling, are touched either by racism or by a lack of understanding by old-time white sportswriters.”

Montville, the 79-year-old former Boston Globe and Sports Illustrated writer, can possibly be included in that large-cast net.

If Bryant is trying to explain there’s racial overtones and embellishment for the sake of making Henderson look less than brilliant, that’s the filter by which we’ll accept.

But it continues all the way to Henderson’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, where in Chapter 18, Bryant again recounts how some didn’t consider Henderson a first-ballot inductee because “he took too many days off,” a theme Bryant revisits many times. Bryant also writes that those at the Hall of Fame feared Henderson would embarrass himself and the organization with self-absorption and mangling of the language with his speech “in front of one of America’s august institutions, before a predominantly white audience.” Bryant writes that Hall president Jeff Idelson would connect Henderson with a junior college teacher in Oakland to help him craft it, rehearse it and not be ill at ease in public speaking. (His entire speech is published on pages 360-362).

Montville continues: “The best way to stay away from the Rickey stories is to keep them to a minimum. Baseball is Mr. Bryant’s main focus. This is not a personality book. There are few family details, either from Rickey’s upbringing in Oakland or from his marriage. There are no detailed descriptions of any of his houses, meals, workout routines, tastes in clothes, vacations or holiday celebrations. His agents don’t talk. His non-baseball friends don’t talk. This is a baseball book, a chronicle of Rickey’s excellent work between the white lines in the biggest games in the biggest stadiums in America. Is that enough? It sure is.”

Sure, but …

This review in the New York Times adds: “While his new book is a biography, it is remarkable for the way in which it tells a broader story about the social and political forces — starting with the segregation that divided Oakland, where Henderson grew up and made his name — that shaped this player and the way he was perceived by his peers, the media and the fans.”

OK, but …

Few baseball-related books coming out this spring/summer with as much anticipation as this one – mostly because of those who know there’s a lot to know about one of the most flamboyant baseball players of the late last century.

What we’ll also find out: It was his wife/longtime companion Pamela who understood his love for the game superseded anything she could attain. Her suggestion to Bryant in 2014 at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. for a Henry Aaron 80th birthday celebration about how a bio project was long overdue for Rickey planted the seeds.

“It was her insistence that Rickey not be diminished as the decades move forward – or worse, be forgotten, as eventually even the greatest of players will be without surviving stories,” said Bryant, adding that Rickey himself wasn’t enthusiastic about the book because it “without his control.” But between 2018 and 2020, he did four long interview sessions with Bryant, who added: “No secondhand story or video can match the power of witnessing Rickey Henderson in person, or listening to him tell his tale. You had to be there.”

It didn’t hurt that Bryant was the Oakland A’s beat writer in 1998 for the San Jose Mercury News – Henderson was 39 that year, his last in Oakland, and led the league with 118 walks and 66 stolen bases despite just a .236 average.

Taken for all it has to offer, Bryant achieves what appears to be his mission:

“Only three players in the history of the sport, Pete Rose, Carl Yastrzemski and Henry Aaron, played more games than Rickey, and yet the one person who bled to play baseball was accused for most of his career of not wanting to; no volume of redemptive Rickey stories and myths could change that. As an undisputed legend, Rickey would now be celebrated for his longevity, and with those commendations came tactic acknowledgement that, in the end, he had understood the game better than the people who gave the orders. He was vindicated … As of July 2021, 22,467 players had appeared in a Major League Baseball game, and no position player who began his career in the 20th century had played more seasons than the legendary Rickey Henderson.”

Message received.

How it goes in the scorebook

We stand corrected. We’re not sure if that’s a statement or a question, but time will tell.

Bryant is almost as much the headliner for this piece as Henderson.

Having already worked on a major-league-weighted biography project with Henry Aaron on “The Last Hero” was in 2010 (which we referenced in this review of the newest Aaron book), Bryant may be at his best known these days as the sports correspondent for NPR’s “Weekend Edition” with Scott Simon. He was also recruited for Ken Burn’s “The Tenth Inning” update of the “Baseball” documentary for PBS.

Bryant speaks from a depth of experience, research and a need to mythbust.

Consider as well that Bryant is also author of “Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston” from 2003, “Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball” in 2006, “The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America and the Politics of Patriotism” in 2018 and “Full Dissidence: Notes from an Uneven Playing Field,” in 2020, which is his 200-page warning about dangerous narratives that shape sports and culture, where African-Americans navigate “the sharp edges of whiteness.”

With that as the lead in, the arrival of “Rickey” makes perfect sense. The discussion about African-American justice, perception, myth and revealing what’s accurate continues, even as Bryant has interviewed more than 120 people for this.

Publisher’s Weekly adds: The book most succeeds in its rich historical context, underscoring Rickey’s outsize influence in a new vanguard of “great Black talents” that shook up the hallowed white halls of baseball. The result is an indelible account of a one-of-a-kind player and personality. Kirkus adds: Sprawling biography of baseball great whose accomplishments certainly merit a tome. A readable, appropriately fast-moving portrait of a baseball giant.

You can look it up: More to ponder

== In his book, “The Baseball 100,” Joe Posnanski has Rickey Henderson at No. 24 (perhaps more a nod to his uniform number). He allows 10 pages of material between Pop Lloyd and Albert Pujols and notes the Bill James line (which Bryant uses himself on page 291): “If you could split him in two, you’d have two Hall of Famers.” (Or as Bryant writes: “If you split Rickey Henderson in half, you’d have two Hall of Famers.”)

“Has there ever been a player who was more fun, who is the centerpiece of more great stories, who made your heart sing the way he did?” Posnanski asks. “In the end, no, the 28 people who didn’t vote for Henderson (as a first-ballot Hall of Famer) don’t really matter, and his plaque begins with these words: ‘Faster than a speeding bullet.’ Those 28 votes are nothing more now than pointless trivia.”

Posnanski then goes on to tell a few “Rickey” stories, comparisons to Yogi Berra, and included the line that L.A. Times columnist Jim Murray once used about Henderson: “He has the strike zone the size of Hitler’s heart.”

== Henderson is one of five Baseball Hall of Famers to play for both the Dodgers and Angels. The others: Frank Robinson, Don Sutton, Hoyt Wilhelm and Eddie Murray. Then there’s Gene Mauch, Norm Sherry, Dick Williams and Mike Scioscia: Four former Dodgers players who managed the Angels. Williams is in the Hall of Fame. Mauch and Scioscia could be.

== One more reminder about how it doesn’t hurt to have another set of eyes read a manuscript before it is published (which also helps tightening up sentences and paragraphs to end repetitiveness: Bryant writes on page 142 about how the A’s had decided in ’84 that Henderson was prime trading commodity, and they had talks with the Dodgers.

“Had Dick Hager not left after Rickey struck out that afternoon years ago against Skyline, he would already have been wearing Dodger Blue,” Bryant writes on page 142.

But you just told us earlier, the scout was named Bill Brenzel, right?

== To demonstrate the anticipation of this book, Amazon already has it listed No. 2 in baseball best-sellers — before its release — sadly with Paul O’Neill’s “Swing and a Hit” at No. 1.
BTW, Amazon, it is still listed this way:

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