By Kevin Glew
Rickey thinks Rickey is a Hall of Famer. At least, that’s what baseball’s stolen base champ would likely say about his Cooperstown chances. And it would be difficult to argue with the fleet-footed superstar who often talks about himself in the third person.
Before Manny was being Manny, Rickey was being Rickey. Though he hasn’t officially retired, Henderson is eligible for the Hall of Fame for first time in 2009. And when the new induction class is announced on Jan. 12, it’s expected that Henderson will be a near unanimous selection.
The 10-time All-Star is baseball’s all-time leader in stolen bases (1,406), runs (2,295) and leadoff homers (81). A member of the exclusive 3,000-hit club, Henderson also owns the record for most stolen bases in a season (130 in 1982). Add in an American League MVP award (1990), 297 career round-trippers and three Silver Slugger awards (1981, 1985, 1990) and you’ve got yourself a Hall of Fame resume.
“Without a doubt, he’s the best leadoff guy in the history of the game,” said Dave McKay, a former A’s teammate, who also coached Henderson in Oakland. “He was just such an impact player.”
Longtime Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Rance Mulliniks, who played against Henderson dozens of times, agrees.
“He was without a doubt the most dynamic, unstoppable offensive force I’ve ever played against,” he said.
Dan Shulman, baseball play-by-play announcer on ESPN, shares similar sentiments.
“He’s an automatic first-ballot Hall of Famer, and I’d imagine he’ll get at least 95 per cent of the vote. He was as unique a weapon as there was in baseball for a long, long time,” he said.
Of course, along with his stupendous talent, Henderson was also a controversial figure. His patented snap catches drew the scorn of baseball purists, who labeled him a hot dog. But if you read Henderson’s biography, Off Base: Confessions of a Thief, you’ll discover that Henderson viewed himself as an entertainer and the catches were part of his act. And to Henderson’s credit, he won a Gold Glove in 1981 while still perfecting his snap catch.
But even Henderson has expressed regret about his remarks after he broke Lou Brock’s all-time stolen base record on May 1, 1991. Speaking to the crowd with Brock on hand, Henderson declared, “Lou Brock was the symbol of great base stealing. But today, I’m the greatest of all time.”
“People gave him a hard time after that speech, but he gets a bad rap for that. He really was the greatest base-stealer of all-time. That can’t be disputed. Maybe he shouldn’t have said it, but I don’t mind it,” said Perry Andrews, a longtime Henderson fan and card collector.
Actions like these are what have made Henderson one of the most colorful characters in baseball history. They also help to explain his strong collector following.
“People that collect him really have a passion for him,” said Jim Kramer, owner of Southpaw Cards in Roseville, Minn.
Matt Taylor, owner of the top Henderson basic set on the PSA Set Registry, is one such collector.
“He’s the best leadoff hitter of all-time. He was definitely one of my favorite players when I was a kid, so that’s where I started with the collection,” he said.
Andrews has created a website dedicated to his Henderson collection (www.rickeyhendersoncards.com). Brad Abbott was similarly inspired. His online shrine (www.rickeyhendersoncollectibles.com) has been up and running since January 2008.
“Despite the reputation that he has gained over the years, I admire Rickey’s determination and desire. All he wanted to do was play baseball, and he’d play for whoever would let him. He knew that his job as a leadoff hitter was to get on base and score runs, and he did everything in his power to make that happen. He was a lot of fun to watch,” said Abbott.
One of the toughest Henderson cards to track down is his 1977 Chong Modesto A’s minor league single (#5). Released as part of a 23-card team set, this single showcases Henderson’s first name spelled “Ricky.” A 1977 team set that included a PSA MINT 9 (OC) Henderson sold for $1,321 in an American Memorabilia auction in September 2007.
The most renowned Henderson card, however, is his 1980 Topps rookie (#482).
“That’s the Holy Grail of the Rickey Henderson collector,” said Taylor.
Hampered by centering issues and focus problems, this card is one of the toughest modern rookies to uncover in high-grade. Of the 9,186 submitted to PSA (as of press time), just 10 have received the vaunted PSA GEM MINT 10 grade. One PSA 10 example sold for $4,264 in a Mastro Auctions sale in April 2007.
Collectors must also be wary of counterfeit Henderson rookies. Differences between the fakes and real cards can be viewed on Andrews’ website.
Andrews says that counterfeits boast discernible tiny dots in the background on the A’s banner, while this area is a solid color on authentic examples.
Autographed Henderson items are also highly coveted. Larry Studebaker, a longtime autograph seeker and now an authenticator at James Spence Authentication, says Henderson has become a tough in-person autograph.
“Between 1980-90, he was much more obtainable,” said Studebaker. “I’ve never gotten him to sign anything in person. And I’ve asked him like 20 times.
He has the real deep, scratchy voice and he always says, ‘Rickey don’t sign.’ ”
Studebaker has also seen his share of bad Henderson autographs.
“A lot of times on Oakland A’s balls or New York Yankee balls, the whole ball is completely signed by each individual on the team, then you get to the Henderson signature and it’s a clubhouse signature,” he said.
At one point, a New York company named Man of Steal Sports, Inc. seemed to be the primary source of Henderson autographed items. However, this company’s phone number is out of service and their website is no longer functioning, so it appears they have closed.
Mitch Adelstein, president of Mounted Memories, has had Henderson as a guest at a Chicago Sun-Times show. His company boasts a significant inventory of Henderson items. He says signed baseballs have been his best-selling Henderson items, followed by autographed pictures of Henderson hoisting the base after he broke Brock’s stolen base record.
Despite the pending Hall of Fame announcement, however, hobby dealers say there hasn’t been a big rush for Henderson collectibles.
“There’s not much demand for him at all,” said Monty Delong, owner of CJ’s Sports Cards and Memorabilia in San Diego, Calif.
Jim Bernardini, co-owner of Lefty’s Sports Collectibles in Burlingame, Calif., has had a similar experience.
“I don’t think I’ve had anybody ask for one of his items in months,” he said.
Even Ken Brison, owner of Talkin’ Baseball in Danville, Calif., a store that many A’s fans frequent, hasn’t seen an increase in interest.
“With the state of the economy, nothing’s extremely hot, but Rickey is well-received here,” he said.
There’s not much demand for Henderson cards on the East Coast either. Steve Bistany, owner of Steve’s Sports Card, Coin and Stamp Shop in Rutherford, N.J., says no one asks him about Henderson cards.
“There’s not too much activity in his name anymore,” he said.
But most dealers expect a spike in demand after the Jan. 12 announcement.
“There will be requests because we have our standard amount of customers that collect Hall of Famers,” explained Bernardini.
Chris Console, managing director at Steiner Sports & Entertainment Marketing in New York, concurs.
“From a collectibles standpoint, you’re going to see a new wave of collectors after Rickey becomes a Hall of Famer,” he said.
Hobbyists can also expect to see more Henderson cards on eBay.
“Once Rickey is announced as being inducted, you will see a ton of his cards flooded into the market. There will be an uptick in the price of his rookie card, as well as the prices on some of his scarcer cards,” said Abbott.
Adelstein hopes to set up a signing with Henderson in the new year. However, collectors should buy their Rickey autographs prior to the induction announcement if they want to save money.
“If you wait (until after the Hall of Fame announcement), prices are obviously going to go up. It’s just how our business works,” said Adelstein.
Abbott is so confident that Rickey will be enshrined in Cooperstown that he has already reserved a hotel room for the 2009 induction ceremonies.
“My goal is to finally meet Rickey, get him to personalize an autograph, and hopefully introduce him to my site,” he said.
If things go as expected, Abbott will be in a good place to achieve his goal. And for us media types, we can’t help but look forward to Henderson’s induction speech. We love to hear Rickey talk about Rickey. SCM