Book excerpt: “Rickey”, about the life of baseball legend Rickey Henderson

The new biography of sports writer Howard Bryant “Rickey: The Life and Legend of an American Original” (Mariner), tells the compelling story of Rickey Henderson, the Hall of Famer who holds the MLB records for runs and stolen bases, and how he helped change the game forever.

Read an excerpt below:


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You could say that Rickey Henderson was destined to be a gift. The surviving details of Christmas 1958, all tangled and swirled in legend, conspired to the simple fact that Rickey, of all people, was born on Christmas Day felt predetermined. One story went that it had snowed so heavily on Chicago’s South Side that Thursday night that getting to the hospital was an ordeal. Another said Rickey was so unexpected, so still and still in Bobbie Earl’s belly and not yet ready to join the world, that neither she nor his father, John Henley, had any reason to expect a Christmas birth. Even if the details weren’t entirely true, the stories were true in their own way; ricky was on his own schedule, and as should be a hallmark of over a quarter century of professional baseball, he was born with the element of surprise capable of turning calm into chaos and always staying one step ahead of an unsuspecting world .

It was true that Bobbie never made it to a hospital bed in time to deliver Rickey, and it was true that it was Christmas — but there was no snowstorm. It didn’t snow at all this week – at the weekend the newspapers reported temperatures of around 50 degrees. Rickey didn’t surprise Bobbie either. She knew her boy was coming. From the start, she knew Rickey better than Rickey knew himself; that was true before she ever gave him a name. The most important detail, of course, was undeniably true: on Christmas night 1958, in an Oldsmobile on the way to the hospital, just 19-year-old Bobbie Earl gave birth to their fourth child, Rickey Nelson Henley, who introduced himself on cue, with irresistible flair.

The chaos myth surrounding Rickey’s birth served everyone –What a debut! It was a good, no-nonsense story, a dramatic opening number befitting the man who was destined to be the greatest opening number in baseball history.

In the subsequent retelling, this evening resembled a wacky sitcom, all the characters got up before everything ended harmlessly in the end. Even his birth certificate contained intrigue — a friend recalled that his name was “Boy Henley,” a routine placeholder that virtually never makes its way into official paperwork. Maybe that was fitting, too, because after all, Bobbie Rickey gave the car-born Christmas baby an extra dash of Hollywood magic by naming him after the clean-cut white kid with the guitar who made all the girls melt, the teenage Heartthrob Ricky from 1950s Nelson.

So Rickey had something special and a story that was a little bit more fantastic, a little bit greater – and he knew it. In later years, he reminded everyone that he had been singled out. Who else could brag about the day of his birth? “You know Rickey was born on Christmas Day!” he would sometimes say when making a grand entrance in the clubhouse — but in the quiet moments, in the right light, he could tell his origin story at ground level, without the grim predetermination, with a sobriety that suggested the story wasn’t sweet , not quite as family friendly.


Excerpt from the book “Rickey: The Life and Legend of an American Original” by Howard Bryant. Copyright © 2022 by Howard Bryant. From Mariner Books, a reprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted with permission.


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