New book makes the case that Rickey Henderson is one of baseball’s all-time greats

During a career that spanned more than two decades, Rickey Henderson was arguably the greatest leadoff hitter in the history of Major League Baseball and is officially the all-time leader in stolen bases with more than 1,400. Sportswriter Howard Bryant makes the case that Henderson is in a new book “Rickey the Life and Legend of an American Original.” Bryant joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, baseball's All-Star Game is tomorrow night, a showcase for the best in the game.

    That gives us a moment to look back at one of the sport's all-time greats, but one who's hardly a household name these days. Over the course of a career that lasted more than two decades, Rickey Henderson was arguably the greatest leadoff hitter in history, and is officially the all-time leader in stolen bases with more than 1,400. He also had 3,000 hits, 2,000 runs and 2,000 walks.

    A new book by sportswriter Howard Bryant makes the case for Rickey Henderson as an underappreciated historical great. It's called "Rickey: The Life and Legend of an American Original."

    And I spoke with Bryant recently about his latest work.

    Howard Bryant, welcome back to the "NewsHour." Good to have you here.

    So, Rickey Henderson played his last game back in 2003. What made you want to tell his story now?

    Howard Bryant, Author, "Rickey: The Life and Legend of an American Original": Well, I think the biggest reason I wanted to talk about him is because he is underappreciated, if it's possible to steal 1,400 bases and be under appreciated, and to have 3,000 hits and to really obliterate the record book as he did.

    I just felt like there aren't as many people as we think who can really carry a full biography, and especially one that is not completely tainted by drugs. And when you write about baseball these days, it feels like it's steroid, steroids and more steroids. And I wanted to get back and to write a story about somebody who really was a giant in the game, and was really going to allow me to dig into some of the issues that really built this last sort of half of the sport, where money sort of dominates and where you're looking at a certain type of player that really in a lot of ways doesn't exist anymore.

    They don't steal bases in baseball anymore. It's a totally different game. He was one of the most exciting, electric, unique players. And I really felt like it was — as he would say as a player, I thought it was Rickey's time.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Did he want his story told? Did you have to convince him?

  • Howard Bryant:

    A lot of convincing, not really sure he wanted his story told.

    And what I tried to appeal to him was to say that the stories that get told are not always the best people. The stories that get told are not always the most important. The stories we remember are the ones that get repeated.

    And to be remembered is to have your story repeated over and over again to make sure people don't forget your greatness. And he's one of the top 10, 15 players who ever played the game. They have been playing baseball since the end of the Civil War. And to be in the top dozen, it's pretty good company.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me ask you about his story. He grew up in Oakland, right? His family moved there from Arkansas. In 1969, he was just 10 years old.

    He thought he would be a Raider. You wanted to play pro football, right? How and why did he end up in baseball instead?

  • Howard Bryant:

    He ended up playing baseball because his mother thought he was too small to play football. She was afraid he was going to get hurt, and that baseball was the faster path to the major leagues.

    And it was also the fact that he was just physically gifted. There are so many people who make the big leagues, and a small percentage of them from any given place. But he comes from a spot where there were so many great players, the legacy of Oakland sports, Bill Russell, and Frank Robinson, and Curt Flood, and Vada Pinson, and so many players.

    I asked Rickey once, when did you believe you had world-class ability? When did you think you could play in the Major Leagues? And he said, oh, I don't know, sixth grade.

    I said, you were 12 years old. And so he just had this unbelievable confidence that he was destined to be a great, great player and really saw himself in the Muhammad Ali mold of, it ain't bragging if you can do it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, he went on. He did do it. He became the greatest bass dealer of all time.

    Rod Carew actually shared a funny story last year, I saw, when he said, right before he stole, Rickey would always say out loud, "Rickey's got to go," and then take off.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And that was just it. So he didn't lack confidence.

    But, Howard, a lot of people said that he came off as standoffish or egotistical. He referred to himself in the third person. What did he say about that?

  • Howard Bryant:

    Well, I think that, if you ask Rickey himself, he will tell you that he came to win, he came to compete, he came to beat the other guy.

    And one of the reasons why I wanted to do this book was because it is one of those American stories where he was not a popular player, despite his greatness, despite everything he did. This really is a story of a player who was one of the more disliked players in the early '80s.People — and back in the '80s, there was so much fighting between the Players Association and the league, strikes and lockouts, fighting over money.

    It's fascinating to me that, back then, people were so angry that these players, that Rickey was actually asking for the princely sum of $500,000 in his contract. And now you look at the NBA and the NFL and baseball, you got a guy like Russell Westbrook today who just opted into a $47.1 million contract, and people were calling Rickey greedy back then because he wanted a half-a-million.

    But the story arc really is of a guy who wasn't that popular. But, by the end, as he goes on, as he grew on us, as he obliterated the record book, that now people want to tell stories about him, and now he's beloved, and they treat him like he's this combination of Satchel Paige and Yogi Berra, where everybody has a Rickey story, just like Rod Carew.

    And I wanted to tell that arc of what happens when your greatness sort of wins the public over.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    How much of that personality narrative do you think, looking back on that, was attributed to a mostly white sportswriting core and any underlying racism, looking at a Black payer who was among the first to really publicly advocate for himself?

  • Howard Bryant:

    Well, it's a huge piece of it, because who tells your story is as important as the story itself.

    It's also important to remember once more that, when Rickey first came in, in 1979, free agency was only 5 years old. The public wasn't used to that. And it certainly wasn't used to now having these African American players be the public face of your franchise. And people viewed them as greedy and selfish.

    And we all say we want capitalism, and then when you see how much players are actually able to make, then the public didn't love that so much.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Howard, the game is different today than when Rickey was playing, right? The art of the steal mattered so much more back then.

    Do you think we will ever see the likes of Rickey Henderson play the game again?

  • Howard Bryant:

    Three thousand hits, 2,000 runs, 2,000 walks, 1,400 stolen bases, you're never going to see it again. They don't steal bases anymore.

    People have said to me during this book tour, what is Rickey's legacy? And, sometimes, I think he doesn't have a legacy. He's a unicorn. No one ever — no one's going to do what he what he does, or what he did, because the game is so totally different. Rickey's work started when he got on first base, so it would be nice to see that again. But that's not how baseball is played anymore.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The book is "Rickey: The Life and Legend of an American Original."

    The author is Howard Bryant.

    Howard, always good to have you here. Thanks.

  • Howard Bryant:

    Thank you.

    And I love your baseball. This is great.

    (LAUGHTER)

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