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The art of the steal: A look at Rickey Henderson’s long, dazzling career on the baseball diamond

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Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson attends the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony at Clark Sports Center on Sept. 8, 2021, in Cooperstown, New York.

Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson attends the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony at Clark Sports Center on Sept. 8, 2021, in Cooperstown, New York. (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images/TNS)

NEW YORK — Theft never looked so good.

Rickey Henderson stealing bases was a thrilling spectacle. So was watching him hit and trying to spot the ball as it entered the stratosphere. Yet as amazingly talented as Henderson was on the diamond, bad press dogged him, especially here in New York.

That wasn’t without basis; Henderson was an ego to be reckoned with.

“I don’t need no press now, man,” he infamously told reporters when he joined the Yankees.

The difference between Henderson and so many who strut is that he had the talent to back up the swagger.

Henderson shattered records, and sometimes it seemed as if he would play forever. Only three others — Hank Aaron, Carl Yastrzemski, and Pete Rose — played more games than Henderson.

Howard Bryant’s 10th book, “Rickey: The Life and Legend of an American Original,” is a deep and unvarnished look into one of baseball’s all-time greats. Despite the access Bryant had — Pamela Henderson, the athlete’s wife, suggested writing the biography, and the author had four interviews with the baseball player among his dozens of other interviews — this is not an approved biography.

Instead, it’s an accurate account of who Henderson is, how he earned his place among the baseball greats, and what made him who he is. From tracking his dramatic birth in an Oldsmobile on Christmas 1958 to explaining the games, Bryant puts the man in context. Among the misconceptions Bryant clears up is that the birth was not during a blizzard.

As a former reporter for the Oakland Tribune (Disclosure: Bryant was in sports, and I was in news there in the early 90s), Bryant details the Black migration from the South and how it changed the city.

“Their exodus made a political statement,” he writes. “Black people weren’t just looking for good jobs but leaving something very specific and unique to them: violence at the hands of white southerners … They were leaving behind the notion that they were unentitled to be American.”

Bryant understands the people of Oakland and its beloved baseball team, The A’s, for which Henderson played four times.

His stats are stellar: Henderson stole 1,406 bases, including the 1982 season when he swiped 130. But he was far more than just the Man of Steal, as he was dubbed. Henderson also clocked 2,295 career runs, the all-time record, played in the All-Star games 10 times, and was a World Series champ twice. Incredibly fast and powerful, Henderson threw left, batted right, and crouched at bat, resulting in an exceptionally compacted strike zone.

While Henderson’s story began in that Oldsmobile, he had opportunities because his young mom, Bobbie Earl, had left her home of Pine Bluff, Ark., for a better life in Oakland. Bryant recounts games and adds perspective from players and coaches, but this book is nuanced because of the author’s understanding of Oakland.

“Almost as a collective, residents of Black Oakland had arrived in town seeking better and by disposition were ready to demand their rights without asking for permission,” Bryant writes. “That attitude seemed to permeate the city. The kids saw the (Black) Panthers, dressed like superhero-revolutionaries, who were armed to protect them, and saw what the FBI did to them, from little Bobby Hutton to Fred Hampton. And they understood why, Hutton was just 18 — the same age Rickey and his group were now — when he was killed by police two days after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.”

Henderson came of age during the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s and found his way in sports. Like so many elite athletes, he excelled at other sports and initially wanted to play for the Oakland Raiders.

At Oakland Tech High School, Henderson also ran track for a bit, played football, basketball, and baseball. Yet who couldn’t see the speed of a runner on the baseball field? Many commented that Henderson didn’t need a step or two to burst into a full-out run; he went from still to flying.

Henderson was, as coaches recollect, exceptional from the start. This was no secret, certainly not to him. The shocker was when others didn’t recognize this.

Henderson knew his value even as a high school sophomore. When a new baseball coach, Bob Cryer, came to Oakland Tech, he bumped Henderson to junior varsity, despite the advice from anyone who had seen what he could do.

“While the players pleaded with Cryer that there was no way Rickey belonged at the kids’ table, 15-year-old Rickey interrupted his new coach, a grown man, in midsentence and said to him, ‘You must not know who I am.’ ”

He then proved it, catching fly balls from the varsity team while playing in the adjoining JV field. He then swung a bat to prove his prowess.

It wouldn’t be the last time.

Henderson never doubted his worth. His unshakeable confidence and attitude infuriated baseball club owners because he wouldn’t settle for a penny less than what he felt he deserved.

He kept track of his money and always knew what others earned. And, Henderson made some pocket change separating teammates from their cash playing cards in the clubhouse.

“As relationships went, Rickey and his money were never far apart,” Bryant writes.

Henderson had learned early on from his high school guidance counselor, who paid him a quarter for each hit, run scored, or stolen base.

Sharp with numbers, even if words were sometimes problematic. Henderson had struggled with reading at one point. Yet, his spirit of competitiveness would always surface and he learned quickly.

Bryant tracks Henderson from Little League through the pros, beginning in 1979 for his hometown team, The A’s. He was then traded to: The Yankees, back to the A’s, the Blue Jays, back to the A’s, the Padres, the Angels, back to the A’s, the Mets, Mariners, back to the Padres, the Red Sox and finally the Dodgers. He later played for the Newark Bears, and even in the minors, Henderson played all-in and was thrilling to watch.

Sometimes, though, he made fans cringe. When Henderson broke Lou Brock’s record for stealing bases, he neglected to thank his wife, who had been with him since she was 14. And, he unnecessarily insulted the gentleman, Brock.

“Lou Brock was the symbol of great base stealing, but today, I am the greatest of all time,” Henderson said on May 1, 1991, in his hometown, standing next to Brock.

Though Henderson remains a fan favorite to many, he was never the sort of accessible player as some at that level.

“Rickey had consistently told everyone that buying drinks and snapping pics with the fans when he was off the clock wasn’t his way,” Bryant writes. “Rickey Time provided a nine-inning spotlight for his abilities, and their money’s worth for the fans, but after the final out he became as anonymous as a commuter.”

Bryant goes deep on Henderson’s talent, expectations, and place in baseball history, which in many ways is American history. A poor kid who was brash, bold, and a boss showed the world what he brought to the game.

Incidentally, as Bryant notes, “stolen bases were never what made him proudest. Steals were a means to an end. The endgame was scoring.”

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