December 3, 2022

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When Rickey passed the Babe

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Although he started his career as an ace pitcher, Ruth is best known for crushing home runs like few ever have in baseball history. The Sultan of Swat is one of three Major Leaguers to hit 700 homers, and he was peerless in that regard for 39 years.

As for Henderson, his game was speed, and lots of it. The Man of Steal recorded more stolen bases (1,406) than any other big leaguer, and it’s not particularly close: Lou Brock is second with 938.

But Henderson has more in common with Ruth than you might think.

In 1930, Ruth passed Eddie Collins for the all-time walk record. When his career ended in 1935, Ruth had 2,062 walks. That mark held up for another six-plus decades, until April 25, 2001, when Henderson drew a base on balls for the Padres in the ninth inning against the Phillies’ Jose Mesa. It marked the 2,063rd walk of Henderson’s career, giving him more than the mighty Ruth.

Henderson recorded 80 or more walks in 19 different seasons, three more than anyone else. He added another 37 walks in 60 postseason games. It was Henderson who got the Blue Jays’ rally started in Game 6 of the 1993 World Series, working a walk against the Phillies’ Mitch Williams to lead off the ninth inning. Three batters later, Joe Carter hit his iconic, title-clinching home run.

Henderson would hold the walk record for only three years, until Barry Bonds passed him when he recorded his 2,191st career walk on July 4, 2004. Still, the fact that Henderson was in the same range as Ruth and Bonds when it came to walks is a testament to what made him so special.

Feared sluggers such as Ruth and Bonds are exactly the type of players you would expect to rank among the leaders in walks. Henderson, meanwhile, was pretty much the last person you’d want to hand a free base to, given the disruption he could create with his legs.

But for 25 seasons, Henderson grinded out plate appearances from the top of the order, setting the table for big bats such as Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Don Mattingly, Ken Caminiti and Mike Piazza. And for Henderson, it truly was a grind, most of the time. Consider this:

Intentional walks
Henderson, career: 61
Bonds, 2004 first half: 71
Bonds, career: 688

Intentional walks weren’t officially tracked until 1955, so we have no way of knowing how many Ruth had during his career, but the number was likely high. SABR member John Tattersall researched Ruth’s 1923 season (170 walks) and credited him with 80 intentional walks.

Ted Williams, the only other player besides Bonds, Henderson and Ruth with at least 2,000 walks, is credited with 243 intentional walks by Baseball-Reference, which has intentional walk numbers going back to 1941. Williams had 86 intentional walks after the stat became official, and he finished his career with 2,021 total walks.

That means Henderson is the only player who officially drew at least 2,000 unintentional walks. In total, he had 2,129 unintentional walks during the regular season, an all-time record that is even referenced on his Hall of Fame plaque.

Henderson’s penchant for working long at-bats, combined with his elite speed and solid power, made him an ideal leadoff man, and his regular place at the top of the order put him in position to frequently bat with the bases empty.

Henderson had 8,728 plate appearances with nobody on, and in 1,344 of those PAs, he walked. He also had 1,420 singles, 362 doubles and 60 hit-by-pitches in those situations, which means that more than 3,100 times, Henderson was on base with an unoccupied bag in front of him. And you can bet he had the green light almost every time.

Henderson swiped 100-plus bases in three of his first five years in the Majors, including 130 in 1982, which set a Modern Era (since 1900) record. He also walked more than 100 times in each of those three 100-steal seasons.

Would Henderson still have set the all-time stolen-base record if he didn’t walk so much? Probably. But it would likely be a lot closer than it is.

Overall, Henderson was on base 5,503 times (including errors) during his career, which ranks fourth in big league history, and he came around to score 2,295 runs, the most ever.

Henderson played the game with an unmatched flair, and his legacy will continue to be his baserunning prowess. But his patience at the plate was at the heart of what made him a record setter.

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