The new biography of sportswriter Howard Bryant, “Rickey: The Life and Legend of an American Original” (Mariner), tells the gripping story of Rickey Henderson, the Hall of Famer who holds MLB records for runs and stolen bases, and how he helped change the game forever.
Read an excerpt below:
You could say that Rickey Henderson was meant to be a gift. Surviving details from Christmas 1958, all tangled and swirling in legend, conspired to make the simple fact that Rickey, of all people, being born on Christmas Day, felt predestined. One story says it snowed so heavily on the South Side that Thursday night in Chicago that even reaching the hospital was an ordeal. Another said Rickey was so unexpected, so calm and quiet in Bobbie Earl’s womb and not yet ready to join the world, that neither she nor her father, John Henley, had reason to expect a birth at Christmas. Even though the details weren’t exactly facts, the stories were true in their own way; Ricky has been on his own schedule, and, as would be a defining characteristic of more than a quarter century of professional baseball, he was born with the element of surprise, able to turn the calm into the chaotic, always 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 blizzard. It didn’t snow at all that week – over the weekend the newspapers reported temperatures in the 50s. Bobbie wasn’t surprised by Rickey either. She knew her boy was coming. From the start, she knew Rickey better than Rickey knew himself; it was true even before she gave him a name. The most important detail was, of course, unquestionably true: on Christmas Eve 1958, in an Oldsmobile on the way to the hospital, Bobbie Earl, just 19, gave birth to her fourth child, Rickey Nelson Henley, who showed up at the right time, with an irresistible flair.
The myth of chaos surrounding Rickey’s birth has served everyone…what a start! It was a good clean story, a dramatic opening act worthy of the man destined to be the greatest opening act in baseball history.
In later tales, that night felt like a goofy sitcom, with all the characters jostling before it was all safe in the end. Even his birth certificate is intriguing – a friend called him back listing his name as “Boy Henley”, a routine placeholder that hardly ever makes it into official records. Maybe it was fitting too, because Bobbie finally gave Rickey, the Christmas baby born in a car, an extra pinch of Hollywood magic, naming him after that well-cut white kid with the guitar that melted all the girls, Ricky, the 1950s idol. Nelson.
That’s how Rickey had a quirk and a story that was a little more fantastic, a little grander – and he knew it. Later, he would remind everyone that he was set apart. Who else could brag about the day they were born? “You know Rickey was born on Christmas Day!” he would say sometimes as he made a grand entrance into the clubhouse – but in quiet moments, in the right light, he could tell his origin story at ground level, without the predestined grit, with a sobriety that suggested that the story wasn’t so cute, not quite so family friendly.
Excerpt from Rickey: The Life and Legend of an American Original by Howard Bryant. Copyright © 2022 by Howard Bryant. From Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted with permission.
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