Jim Rice’s icy glare melted into a wide smile. Brash, flamboyant Rickey Henderson was humbled by it all.
The former left fielders were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday along with the late Joe Gordon, and Henderson, baseball’s all-time leading base stealer, was briefly overcome before evoking some hearty laughs.
“My journey as a player is complete,” Henderson said. “I am now in the class of the greatest players of all time, and at this moment I am very humbled.”
Born in Chicago on Christmas Day 1958, Henderson moved with his family to California when he was 7 years old and became a three-sport star at Oakland Technical High School. Football was his forte and he received numerous scholarships. He was persuaded to turn them down for a shot at baseball.
“My dream was to play football for the Oakland Raiders,” Henderson said. “But my mother thought I would get hurt playing football, so she chose baseball for me. I guess moms do know best.”
Henderson led the AL in steals 12 times and holds the record for steals with 1,406, runs scored with 2,295, unintentional walks with 2,129, and homers leading off a game with 81.
He said he owed much of that to a trick played by his former Babe Ruth coach, Hank Thompson.
“He tricked me into playing by coming to pick me up with a glazed donut and a cup of hot chocolate,” said Henderson, who played for nine teams during his 25-year career. “That was the way he would get me up and out of bed.”
Henderson said a high school counselor who needed players for the baseball team provided even more spark.
“She would pay me a quarter every time I would get a hit, when I would score or stole a base,” he said. “After my first 10 games, I had 30 hits, 25 runs scored and 33 steals. Not bad money for a kid.”
Henderson was drafted by the Oakland Athletics on the fourth round in 1976 and made his major league debut with Oakland in late June 1979. It was a day Henderson said he would never forget.
“That was the most thrilling time of my life,” Henderson said, remembering former As owner Charlie Finley. “Charlie, wherever you’re at, and that donkey, I want to say thank you for that opportunity.”
When Finley hired Billy Martin as manager in 1980, Henderson had the perfect partner in crime. “Billyball” — the aggressive attack Martin relished — helped catapult Henderson to stardom.
Just the thought of that time forced Henderson to halt briefly in his speech when remembering Martin, who was killed in a car crash on Christmas 1989.
“Billy always got the most out of me,” he said. “Billy, I miss you so much and I wish you were here today.”
In 1980, Henderson became the first AL player to steal 100 or more bases in a single season with 100 to break Ty Cobb’s record of 96 steals in 1915. Two years later he set the modern major league record for stolen bases with 130, breaking former Cardinals star Lou Brock’s mark of 118.
While Henderson, now 50, was just the 44th player elected to the Hall in his first year of eligibility, Rice had to wait until his final year of eligibility to be selected.
“It doesn’t matter that the call came 15 years later,” Rice said. “What matters is that I got it.
“It’s hard to comprehend. I am in awe to be in this elite company and humbled to be accepting this honor. I cannot think of anywhere I’d rather be than to be right here, right now, with you and you,” Rice said, pointing at the 50 Hall of Famers on stage behind him and then at the fans. “Thank you.”
Playing at a time when offensive numbers paled in comparison to the past two decades, the so-called steroid era, Rice batted .298 with 382 home runs and 1,451 RBIs from 1974-89. He drove in 100 or more runs eight times, batted over .300 seven times, and topped 200 hits four times. And he’s the only player in major league history with at least 35 homers and 200 hits in three consecutive seasons (1977-79).
And he’s known for a long time the reason he had to wait so long.
“The media often asked me about my players (teammates),” Rice, now 56, said. “I refused to be the media’s mouthpiece. I came to Boston to play professional baseball, and that’s what I did. And I did it well.”
The day’s most poignant moment came at the end of the acceptance speech given by Gordon’s daughter, Judy. Gordon died in 1978 at age 63 and requested that he not have a funeral.
“We consider Cooperstown and the National Baseball Hall of Fame as his final resting place, a place he’ll be honored forever,” Judy Gordon said, tears welling in her eyes. ”
Gordon won the 1942 AL MVP, beating out Triple Crown winner Ted Williams, and was an All-Star nine times in 11 seasons, leading the league in assists four times and in double plays three times. Nicknamed “Flash” because of his quick feet, Gordon was the first AL second baseman to hit 20 home runs in a season — he did it seven times — and still holds the league mark for career homers by a second baseman (246).