Tommy Henrich, a great player and man

FAREWELL, TOMMY HENRICH
One of the great Yankees passed away today. Tommy Henrich, an outfielder and first baseman with the Yankees from 1937 through 1950 (with a break for three years of World War II) has died at the age of 96. Mel Allen named him “Old Reliable” because of his reputation for delivering in the clutch. One of my favorite lines about Henrich was written by sportswriter Tom Meany during the 1949 season when for the first three quarters of the season Henrich was the only Yankee who stayed healthy — then he got hurt too, having run into an outfield wall:

Tommy Henrich hit a home run for the Yankees to win the opening game of the 1949 season. Tommy Henrich hit a home run to win the pennant for the Yankees in the closing game of the season. Tommy Henrich hit a home run for the Yankees to win the opening game of the World Series. What’s the matter with the guy? Is he in a rut?”

henrich360_120109.jpgHenrich (middle) made up one-third of the greatest Yankees outfield with Charlie Keller (second from left) and Joe DiMaggio (second from right). Given frequent injuries, which he either missed time for or ruined his stats playing through, a bit of platooning, the war, and a late start to his career, Henrich’s career numbers don’t really show how good a player he was — he only had a few seasons where he played a full campaign and hit up to his full capabilities. That said, even below-peak Henrich was very good. He had power, hit for good averages, and walked 80 to 90 times a year. I’m trying to think of a contemporary player who is a good match for Henrich. Baseball Reference.com cites J.D. Drew as a comp for Henrich, and statistically it’s right on. Drew, however, provokes a lot of negative reactions while Henrich was not only completely uncontroversial but widely admired for his professionalism. In that sense, the comparison doesn’t fit. Henrich hit like Drew and had Don Mattingly’s attitude — perhaps that does the trick.

Henrich’s career might have been a little different had he not signed with the Indians as an amateur. He got buried in their farm system and it took a direct appeal to the Commissioner to get him out of his contract. Declared a free agent, the Ohio native decided he liked the Yankees best. He was sent to Newark for about three seconds and hit .440. Simultaneously, veteran outfielder Roy Johnson greatly annoyed Yankees manager Joe McCarthy. After the Yankees, who were playing with their usual excellent form of those days, dropped a close game, McCarthy groused in the clubhouse. “Does he expect us to win them all?” Johnson replied flippantly. Actually, that’s exactly what McCarthy expected. Johnson was instantly released and Henrich was recalled.

The two most famous plays of Henrich’s career came in the World Series. The lesser known of the two was the walk-off home run that broke a zero-zero tie and won the first game of the 1949 Series. The other occurred in the top of the ninth of Game 4 of the 1941 Series against the Dodgers at Ebbets Field. The Yankees came to bat in that frame trailing 4-3. Dodgers ace reliever Hugh Casey was in the game. The first two batters of the inning grounded out. Henrich came to bat. The count went to 3-2 and Casey fired off his put-away pitch, a sinker. Henrich swung and missed, but the ball ticked off of catcher Mickey Owens’ glove and rolled behind the plate. Owens got after the ball in fairly good form, but Henrich beat the play at first.

With that, the wheels came off for Casey and the Dodgers. DiMaggio singled. Keller doubled to right, scoring both Henrich and Joe D. Bill Dickey walked. Joe Gordon doubled to left field, scoring Keller and Dickey. By the time Casey finally recorded the final out, the Yankees were up, 7-4. Yankees’ fireman Johnny Murphy got the Dodgers in order in the bottom of the ninth and the World Series, which could have been tied at 2-2, was now 3-1 in favor of the Bombers. The Yankees would close the series out behind pitcher Tiny Bonham the next day. Henrich homered in the fifth.

Henrich had been in ill health for years, but in the early 1990s he would still give the odd interview, talking candidly about the great Yankees teams he played for and his relationships with (each in their own way) outsized and difficult personalities like DiMaggio and Casey Stengel, or Lou Gehrig and McCarthy. I always wished I could have heard more — I would have listened for hours.

It’s one thing to be remembered as a great baseball player. It’s another thing altogether to be recalled as a great professional, a great teammate, and a good man. I’ve never heard or read a word said about Henrich that detracted from the image of a man who was a pleasure to be around, who was always ready to play, who set an example for his colleagues. Tommy Henrich really was Old Reliable in every sense of the name. You can’t ask for a greater legacy than that.

3 Comments

My 82-year-old dad’s favorite player. My dad’s hightest compliments are: “He’s a big family man.” and “He’s a real gentleman.” Henrich must have been some guy.

My dad, a HUGE DiMaggio guy, LOVED Henrich. Three words from a Frank Messer introduction at Old Timers’ Day was all it would take for my Dad to yell out “OLD RELIABLE!” from his seat on the couch. I can still remember watching those goofy Sports Challenge shows in the early ’70s with my him, ’cause he loved seeing DiMaggio, Henrich and Lefty Gomez together again.

I believe he and Keller were Hall of Famers but for WWII. And I think the Yanks should bust out the black arm bands for him.

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