Thursday, August 18, 2022

Rickey: The Life and Legend of an American Original (Howard Bryant)

Rickey Henderson played in Major League Baseball for 25 years, playing for nine teams. Included in those teams were four separate terms playing for the Oakland Athletics, where many casual baseball fans remember him from. Growing up in the 1980’s, I liked watching Rickey play baseball despite his perceived cockyness and aloofness as presented to the media. Rickey could run for days on the basepaths and his keen batting eye helped him set a major league record for most walks over a career. 

Howard Bryant presents Rickey through a new lens in his book Rickey: The Life and Legend of an American Original. Bryant talks about Henderson not just from a biographical perspective but ties in his story to that of many Black baseball players in the 1960’s, 1970’s, and 1980’s. Oakland was one of the nation’s baseball hotbeds during these years, fueled in part by The Great Migration of Blacks seeking a better life from America’s South out to California during and after World War II. Henderson and many other kids grew up in West Oakland, played sports together, and pursued professional sports as a livelihood. Many, like Henderson, were very successful in their career. But very few set records for longevity and success like Henderson did.

Bryant’s biography shows not just the aspect of place in fueling one’s life but how Rickey was often misunderstood and poorly characterized by sportswriters and many in the public for some of the ways he went about his business. Some of that, fueled by stereotypes, made Rickey out to look dumb or arrogant. In many cases, Bryant argues that Rickey was living true to keeping his public life and private lives very separate, living true to himself as a player, and fighting for his worth. Given the value of many baseball contracts today, Henderson’s arguing for an extra million per season looks like mere child’s play. However, he was among the pioneers in the free agent era that fought hard for what they perceived themselves to be worth.

I follow baseball much less now than I used to but I found it very refreshing to read back to a day when guys could hit for batting average, occasionally hitting for power, while not striking out 200 times a year. It was the baseball I remember as a kid and many people older than me would remember baseball at its best being played that way. Bryant’s book is not only a great reminder of what was arguably a more entertaining era of baseball but of a player that was very responsible for it being a show.