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?”
Henrich (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.
THE A-ROD FILES (DISCOVERED IN A RARELY OPENED BOTTOM DRAWER)
Judging by the comments and email, my reaction to the A-Rod presser didn’t please anyone. The criticism was about evenly split between those who seemed to think I was too hard on the guy and didn’t give him enough credit for being candid, and those that still think that I’m not hard enough on him because I still argue that his usage almost certainly had little effect on his numbers.
Some days you’re better off just staying in bed. Or maybe I could blog recipes. I don’t imagine that those folks get too much hate mail. “You’re calling for too much sugar! Who likes custard, anyway! Obviously you’ve never cooked in a real restaurant.”
Let’s try to deal with both objections, starting with the first. I would very much like to give Rodriguez the benefit of the doubt here, as I have steadfastly defended him over the years from those so-called fans who want to blame every bad bounce of the ball on him, not to mention the declining economy, global warming, and the continued popularity of “American Idol.” Despite this, I think his performance on Tuesday was ludicrous. I can’t sum up his explanations any better than did Joel Sherman in Wednesday’s New York Post:
Lewis Carroll’s White Queen could believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast, and you’d have to be her to buy into this mess. It makes very little sense. Nor does the “youthful indiscretion” thread ring true, given that the guy was 25 when he started. Whatever maturity issues the guy was facing, it’s pretty clear he had a fully developed sense of right and wrong or he wouldn’t have tried to hide what he was doing.
As I said yesterday, this has little to do with my estimation of Alex Rodriguez as a ballplayer. I respect his on-field performances and feel they are legitimate. The same goes for Ty Cobb. Had I been around, I would have paid good money to see Cobb play, but I don’t think I would have wanted to be friends with him or have him over for dinner. Heck, given what I’ve read of Babe Ruth’s table manners, I don’t know that I’d want to have dinner with him either. Ted Williams was not easy to get along with. Mickey Mantle was so good he’s actually underrated, but it seems like his personal character left a lot to be desired. These guys are not my idea of great human beings, but they can play on my all-star team anytime.
As for those on the “steroids corrupt all stats” debate, I remain somewhere between agnostic and outright skeptical. I’d be more willing to believe in a placebo effect than I do in a large-scale impact on home run production. If you feel differently, I’m open to your argument, but we need an argument more solid than, “Look at the home runs, man!” I did a radio spot recently, and the host said — I loosely paraphrase — “You puny stathead, I used to play the game, and I look at how Bongs and Ray-Rod can stay back on the ball and still hit it out — that’s unnatural power that can only come from the juice!” And as I struggled to say something more than, “Wait, what?” he repeated, “I played, I know.” Well, great. Let’s say we accept your argument. These guys hit 50 home runs a year. In how many of them did they “stay back” and still hit it out? What is the recurrence of your little anecdote in a given year? Are there any players who can do that naturally? Is it possible that, given that we’re talking about the top one percent of home run hitters in the game, that they can do some things the average player cannot? That you cannot? We’re talking about people’s lives and good names here. We cannot condemn them based on inference, innuendo, anecdote.
All of this searching for a “natural” production baseline is ridiculous given that there is no such thing. The line drawn between fair and unfair substances is completely arbitrary. No player, in any sport, is competing with only the assets that birth gave him. There’s always something else going into the pot, be it aspirin, absinthe, or amphetamines. During his 56-game hitting streak, Joe DiMaggio chain-smoked cigarettes in the dugout to calm his nerves. That gave him an unfair advantage on Wee Willie Keeler. Heck, genes are unfair and should be banned. Consider Barry Bonds and Jose Cruz, Jr. Bobby Bonds was a very good player. Barry Bonds is better. Jose Cruz was a very good player. Jose Cruz, Jr. is not half the player his old man was. Seems like Barry’s mom brought more to the chromosome hoedown than did Jose Jr.’s mom. Clearly, Barry Bonds is the beneficiary of genetic hypergamy, giving him a competitive advantage unavailable to other players. As such, his records should be stricken from the book. Breeding, intentional or not, makes a mockery of the level playing field.
I’m done. This is over. Let’s move on… at least a couple of yards down the road. At least until the next revelation.