Updated: Oct 26, 2020
When assembling a team of the greatest players in baseball history, there is no better place to start than the top of the order. An elite leadoff hitter not only creates opportunities for his team, he creates chaos for the opposing team. No player created more chaos at the top of the order than Rickey Henderson.
From the moment he stepped into the batter’s box, Henderson was a nightmare for opposing pitchers. As an accomplished batter with over 3,000 career hits, he was always a threat to get a base hit. As the player with the most leadoff home runs in history, he was a threat to go deep. If pitchers tried to avoid the strike zone, he would likely draw a walk, having done so over 2,000 times in his career.
Once you put Henderson on base, that’s when the real chaos began. The all-time stolen base leader was always a threat to steal, and thus a major distraction for pitchers. There is no stat for the amount of times he caused pitchers to throw mistake pitches to his teammates, but it’s safe to say he would be the all-time leader in that category too.
It didn’t take long for Henderson to make an impact at the Major League level. In his first full season as a starter in 1980, the 21-year-old outfielder hit .303 with a .420 on-base percentage and 111 runs scored for the Oakland A's. The first-time All-Star also became only the third player since 1900 to reach triple digits in stolen bases with 100.
In the strike-shortened season of 1981, the young A’s star built on his success from the previous year. He hit .319 with a .408 OBP, and led the American League in hits, runs and steals. The well-rounded Henderson also won Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards.
The next year was a historic one for Henderson, as he set the modern-day single-season record with 130 stolen bases, breaking the previous mark of 118 by Hall of Famer Lou Brock. In the 37 years since he set the record, the closest anyone has come is Vince Coleman’s 110 in 1985.
Henderson played two more All-Star seasons for the A’s in 1983-84, leading the league in steals each time, including 108 in 1983. In 1985, the future Hall of Famer took his talents to the Big Apple.
In his first season with the New York Yankees, Henderson expanded his already impressive repertoire by increasing his power. As a result, he set new career-highs with 24 home runs and 72 RBIs. He also hit .314 with a .419 OBP, and led the AL with 146 runs and 80 steals. The power surge continued in 1986, as Henderson hit 28 homers and drove in 74, while once again leading the league in runs with 130 and steals with 87.
In 1987, Henderson’s streak of leading the league in stolen bases was snapped at seven, as he was forced to miss 67 games due to a hamstring injury. He started a new streak in 1988 with a league-high 93 steals, while also hitting .305 with 118 runs.
On June 21, 1989, a trade returned Henderson to the place where it all began. Now a powerhouse in the American League, the Oakland A’s had pitching (Dave Stewart, Bob Welch and Dennis Eckersley) and power (Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire). All they were missing was a leadoff hitter. In Henderson, they got the best one in Major League history. After a regular season in which he led the league in runs, walks and steals, the returning superstar had a postseason for the ages.
In nine combined AL Championship Series and World Series games, Henderson hit .441 with a .568 OBP, .941 slugging percentage and a phenomenal 1.509 OPS. He had three home runs, eight RBIs, 12 runs, three triples and was 11 for 12 in stolen base attempts. For his contributions Henderson was rewarded with the ALCS MVP, and most importantly, his first World Series ring, as the A’s swept their cross-bay rivals, the San Francisco Giants.
Henderson had arguably his best season in 1990, as he set career highs in average (.325), OBP (.439), slugging (.577), OPS (1.016) and doubles (33), and equaled his best in home runs (28). Once again he led the AL in runs (119) and steals (65). For his efforts, Henderson was named AL MVP, and returned to the World Series for the second straight year. This time, though, the A’s were swept by the Cincinnati Reds.
After two and a half more seasons in Oakland, including his 10th and final All-Star appearance in 1991, Henderson was headed north. On July 31, 1993, the A’s legend became a Toronto Blue Jay, joining a lineup that included Roberto Alomar, Paul Molitor and Joe Carter. The star-studded Blue Jays brought Henderson his second World Series title. In 12 playoff games, he scored 10 runs and stole three bases.
Over the final 10 years of his career, Henderson played for seven different teams, including two more tours of duty with the A’s. In 1998 at the age of 39, he led the AL in steals for the 12th and last time with 66. The next season at 40, Henderson hit .315 and stole 37 bases for the New York Mets. In two playoff series for the Mets, he stole seven bases in 10 games.
The career numbers for Henderson are impressive. He is the all-time leader in runs (2,295), stolen bases (1,406) and leadoff home runs (83), and is second in walks (2,190), fourth in times on base (5,343) and 26th in hits (3,055).
While the numbers are undeniable, there’s something else that made Henderson so special: his love for the game. After playing in his final Major League game in 2003, the Hall of Famer continued to play baseball. With nothing more to prove on the field and little to gain financially, Henderson played for the Newark Bears of the Independent League in 2004 and the San Diego Surf Dawgs of the Golden Baseball League in 2005. Many wondered why, but the answer was simple. The greatest leadoff hitter in the history of Major League Baseball simply wanted to play the game he loved.