Past Trade Review: Rickey Henderson

Yanks place four on KLaw's top 100 prospects list
The Yankees' propensity to trade young pitchers
(AP Photo/Ray Stubblebine, File)

The mid-80s Yankees were better teams than they’re generally given credit for, and boy were they star-laden. Don Mattingly was a batting champion and MVP, Dave Winfield was a perennial All-Star and top ten MVP-candidate, Willie Randolph was insanely underrated, Ron Guidry was still fronting the pitching staff, and Dave Righetti was slamming the door in the ninth. All great players in their own right, but none were as big a star as Rickey Henderson in the 1980s.

Henderson had taken the league by storm in 1980, his first full season in the bigs. He hit .303/.420/.399 with a hundred steals on the nose for the Athletics, then improved to .309/.408/.437 the next year, though the work stoppage limited him to 56 steals. From 1982-1984, Henderson hit .284/.404/.420 with 304 steals in 436 games, and by the end of his fifth full season, he had five stolen base titles to his credit. Billy Martin managed Rickey early in his career, and in 1985 he had returned to New York for his fourth of five stints as Yankees manager.

“Billy Martin had been a manager of mine before and he always felt that the type of player I was that I needed to be a Yankee,” said Henderson to The Sacramento Press last year. “The Yankees were the best club, the best organization in baseball, and one of the best players in his eyes was on the Oakland A’s. He told George Steinbrenner that there is a player he wanted him to go get, and George was like, why? Martin said this is the best player in baseball, and I want you to go get this player. So Billy really made the deal for me to get over to the Yankees. He always told me he was going to bring me over to the Yankees.”

The Yankees acquired Henderson — then just 25 years old — from Oakland in December of 1984, a year before he was scheduled to hit free agency. Tim Birtsas, Jay Howell, Stan Javier, Jose Rijo, and Eric Plunk went to the Athletics while Bert Bradley joined Rickey in New York. Henderson signed a five-year, $8.5M contract following the trade. The Yankees had won 178 games in the previous two years and just added the best leadoff man in the game. The impact was immediate.

With Henderson, Randolph, Mattingly, and Winfield batting 1-2-3-4, the Yankees played .500 baseball through their first 58 games of the 1985 season while their leadoff man hit .313/.398/.480 with 21 steals in 22 tries. Rickey got hot after that and so did the Yankees, who went 69-36 in their final 105 games while Henderson hit .315/.429/.533 with 59 steals in 68 tries. He finished the season with a .314/.419/.516 batting line and a league leading 80 steals and 146 runs scored, earning him a third place finish in the MVP voting. Mattingly led the world with 145 RBI that year, 30 more than any other season in his career. It’s not a accident given who getting on base all the time in front of him.

Despite the hot finish, the Yankees closed the 1985 season in second place, two games back of the 99-win Blue Jays. Henderson had a down season by his standards in 1986 — .263/.358/.469 with a league leading 87 steals and 130 runs scored — but the team still won 90 games. They again finished in second place, this time five-and-a-half back of the Red Sox. Hamstring injuries hampered Rickey in 1987, and he insisted he wasn’t going to play until he was 100%. The Boss didn’t like that.

”If he says he can’t play and the doctor and trainer say he can, then he has a right to get his own opinion, and I’m going to demand that he do that,” said Steinbrenner. ”If there’s a disagreement, then we’ll get a third doctor to arbitrate. And if that doctor says he can play, then I will consider a suspension.”


Henderson never was suspended, and he wound up hitting .291/.423/.497 with 41 steals in 95 games while the team finished in fourth in the division. His run of seven consecutive stolen base titles came to end. Rickey’s power output dropped off in 1988, though he still hit .305/.394/.399 with 93 steals, the most in the game and the most of his Yankees career. The team continued to go nowhere though, finishing fifth in the seven-team AL East. Entering the final year of his contract in 1989, Henderson reported to Spring Training a few days late.

”Yeah, it ticks me off one more day,” said new manager Dallas Green. ”I don’t know if he’s smart enough to know what he’s really doing. I don’t know whether it’s being spiteful, whether it’s a lack of understanding or whether he just doesn’t know what’s going on. I want to understand what his thinking is at this time … You’ve got to look at the kids out there watching. Maybe they don’t understand all this. Maybe they have Rickey Henderson as an idol or a role model. Is that the way you raise baseball players?”

It was the latest incident in Henderson’s Yankees career, which was built on greatness and what the team thought was selfishness or a lack of desire. He slumped to .247/.392/.349 with 25 steals through the team’s first 68 games, contributing to a 33-35 record that had them sitting in third place in the AL East. Rickey had worn out his welcome and the team was wary of giving him another big contract after the season, so they traded him. Back to the Athletics went Henderson on June 21st, with three players coming to New York: Luis Polonia, Greg Cadaret, and Plunk, who went from the Yankees to A’s in the original Henderson deal.

During his four-and-a-half years in pinstripes, Rickey hit .288/.395/.455 with 326 steals, and currently ranks tenth on the franchise’s all-time OBP list and second in steals. He was the first man to steal 300 bags in pinstripes, and held the club’s all-time stolen base record until Derek Jeter broke it last season. Jeter needed roughly 2,400 games to steal as many bases as Rickey did in 596. The Yankees never made the playoffs with Henderson, but it was hardly his fault. The pitching let them down, mostly.

The Athletics got five useful pieces in the trade sending Rickey to the Bronx, but none stood out while wearing their uniform. Rijo was the best of the bunch, pitching to a 4.74 ERA in 339.2 IP with Oakland from 1985-1987 before being traded to the Reds for Dave Parker. His career then took off in Cincinnati. Birtsas threw 143.1 innings with a 4.27 ERA while Howell pitched to a 3.68 ERA in 195.2 IP in their three-year stints with the A’s. The former went to Cincy with Rijo in the Parker trade. Javier was a part-time first baseman, hitting .255/.328/.346 in over 2,100 plate appearances across seven years with the Athletics. Plunk was an swingman for the most part, posting a 4.30 ERA in 322 innings before coming back to New York in the second Rickey deal.

I was a little too young to fully appreciate Henderson’s time with the Yankees, but he was clearly one of the best players of his generation and all-time. The trade was an easy win for the Yankees, who acquired Rickey’s prime years for what amounted to Jose Rijo and four spare parts. Yeah, they could have used a pitcher like Rijo later in the decade, but giving up a young pitcher like that (he was just 19 at the time) for an established superstar like Henderson is a trade you make every day of the week.

Yanks place four on KLaw's top 100 prospects list
The Yankees' propensity to trade young pitchers
  • CP

    He slumped to .247/.392/.349

    You know someone’s a hall of famer when they have a .392 OBP during a ‘slump’.

    • Biscuit Pants

      There’s a reason Rickey was an on-base machine, and he said it himself during many at-bats: “Rickey’s not swinging at that.”

  • Rey22

    How long do you think it’ll be before we get another player stealing 100 bases in one year? These days, that number seems unthinkable.

    • JoeyA

      It’s funny you say this. I’m 24 years old and don’t have a great memory of baseball prior to 1998. Looking at steal totals, it is like comparing dead ball vs live ball era for HR’s

      100 steals in a season seems unthinkable nowadays. Then again, a personality like Ricky seems unthinkable nowadays as well.

      • Rickey

        Rickey not sure if he could steal 100 bases today since Rickey be 53 now and haven’t played in nine years, but Rickey pretty sure he could still steal 50…by the All-Star break, if you just give Rickey a chance.

        A more serious answer — My guess is we’ll see another 100 SB season, especially if offense continues to trend downward, causing managers to take a more agressive approach. No surprise that as offense went up in the 90s, SBs went down. The reward of the extra base no longer was worth the risk of being thrown out.

        Jose Reyes was at 78 as recently as 2007. If the player was to come along with the right speed and commitment to steal bases, coupled with the ability to get on base through a combination of hitting and walks, then we’ll probably see it again.

        Yet it is interesting that the two greatest lead-off hitters ever both arrived in MLB at the same time, in 1979. Coincidence, or did the demands of the game at that time create them? If they came up a decade later, would they be different types of players?

    • Rainbow Connection

      As soon as they stop testing for PED’s again.

    • Plank

      Stealing bases fell out of favor when the run environment increased. Risking an out in order to put a runner in scoring position is much more valuable if the average score of games is lower. If runs/game ever get down to the levels they were back then, I bet there will be more base stealing.

  • Joey T

    You guys should do a Danny Tartabull/Ruben Sierra/Cecil Fielder Trade Review next!

  • JohnC

    Rickey always marched to the beat of his own drum.

  • infernoscurse

    rickey put his A game after the influence of Billy Martin , another all time fave

  • JoeyA

    After ricky was inducted, Canseco came out stating there was a PED-user in HOF.

    Whether true or not, just shows how ridiculous all this speculation is re: HOF voting.

    • Rainbow Connection


    • Thomas Cassidy

      You mean when he said someone he played with on the A’s who is in the HOF and took PED’s? That’s Dennis Eckersley.

      • Gonzo

        I just assumed he meant the Rangers and and was talking about Nolan Ryan. Just because I think that would be the most hilarious.

        • Thomas Cassidy

          I’d like it just because I’m sick of hearing about the Rangers shit offseason, but no way Ryan used. He was just awesome.

          • Joe Pawlikowski

            I think that’s a bit naive. Look at Ryan’s numbers after 40. I don’t think he’s above suspicion in the slightest.

            • Joe McCarthy

              No one is above suspicion.

              • Mariano Rivera

                I am.

                • RetroRob

                  You are?

                  Now back to being myself.

                  The downside of all the steroid talk iw any player who has a break-out season will be suspected, and any player who continues to perform well in his 40s will be suspected. There will be whispers. Innocence forever lost.

    • Plank

      Tom House was on the same team as Hank Aaron. He said PED use was pervasive during that time. The idea that steroids in baseball started in the mid 90s is a fallacy propogated by everyone with an interest in making it seem as small as they can get away with.

      *I don’t care about steroids. I think players should be allowed to use them if they are willing to do that. They are grown men who can make their own decisions. Is it unfair to players who don’t want to cut their eyes open, risking sight loss in order to gain better vision? Where do you draw the line?

  • Rockaway Mike

    Not to nitpick, but Stan Javier wasn’t a part-time 1B, but a part-time OF, and was usually considered one of the best fielding OF’s of the late 80’s and 90’s. (Not sure if advanced fielding metrics bear that out or if it’s myth).
    It’s silly to say now that if there was the Wild Card setup in the mid-80’s, the Yanks would’ve made the playoffs 3 or 4 times. But if there was the Wild Card setup in the mid-80’s, the Yanks would’ve made the playoffs 3 or 4 times.

  • PhillyMatt

    Did part of his Yankee contract include that his face be advertised on all the Yankee ads on city buses?

  • Billion$Bullpen

    “but none were as big a star as Rickey Henderson in the 1980s” This narrative is played out and just flat out incorrect, yet I have seen it here multiple times. There is no greater fan of Rickey than I was / am but to say he was a bigger star than Donnie or Winnie is flat out wrong. You can say he was more important (I would disagree with that statement but it could be argued either way) but calling him a bigger star in the 80’s than Winnie or Donnie lacks perspective and proves you were not around during the time period.

    If I were to do a top twenty favorite players of all time (just mine mind you) I would include Rickey, Donnie, Willie, Winnie, Rags and Gator. Rickey was a big star but not a bigger star than either Winnie or Donnie. No dice.

    • Wayne Tolleson

      I take issue with the statement that there was no bigger Rickey fan than you. It was well established that the biggest fan of Rickey Henderson was, in fact, Rickey Henderson.

  • mike

    As a fan who lived thru those years, it was amazing how he was underrated on one hand, yet his attitude and performance always left the fans disappointed.

    You could always tell from how he approached his first at-bat whether he would be unstoppable that day, or whether he would give a pedestrian effort.

    Billy let him freelance at bat and on the bases, and counted on Randolph and Mattingly to adjust their at-bats accordingly. However, as Mattingly became the focus of the offense- unless Mattingly was batting second -Ricky became more disenfranchised and it showed on the field.

    I think thats why he was never a fan favorite, even though he had more talent than anyone in the game

  • JohnC

    I was at the game in 1985 when Rickey hit a ball one hop off the left center field wall and both Bobby Meachum and Dale Berra got tagged out at home plate by Carlton Fisk. Rickey was standing on 2nd base with a look of absolute disbelief. I think Berra was benched for the rest of the season after that play

    • Robinson Tilapia

      Thanks. I had forgotten. Really, thanks. Let me bang my head against the wall again.

  • Robinson Tilapia

    Still get a kick out of the forgotten traded names here such as Tim Birtsas.

    The number may, or many not, disagree, but Cadaret was a guy my teenage self at the time was glad to come in a game following the Chuck Cary All Stars being knocked out of the game.

    And, yes, the “80’s as lost decade” meme really isn’t 100% the truth. Things would have looked mighty different with a WC. Those mid-80’s teams were competitive as hell.

  • Dale Mohorcic

    One last Yankee connection was that Stan Javier was later traded from Oakland for then Dodger Willie Randolph.

  • Steve

    I think what a lot of people don’t realize about the Ricky Henderson years (the first 3 in particular) is that the Yankees would have been the wild card (if it was around) in at least 2 of those years (maybe 3). They had a crazy offense – would they have done anything in the playoffs without the pitching? Probably not, but who knows.

  • pat

    I find it very interesting that one of the fastest guys in all of MLB only averaged 3 triple a game. Very fishy. Almost like he was padding his SB #’s by not legging out a few more 3 baggers.

    • pat


  • Wayne Tolleson

    Here’s a question for all you baseball historians–has there been a major league player at all since Rickey that threw left-handed but batted right-handed?

    • Joe Pawlikowski

      Cody Ross.

  • Russ Cress

    Absolutely zero memory of Stan Javier ever playing 1B.

    He was a 4th OF and part time CF for Oakland. He definitely never played any 1B with us.

  • brent

    yeah Javier was and OFer and a damn good one. I always thought he was under rated. And there was a short period after the disastrous trade back to Oakland where Howell was a real good closer, Stan Javier was an everyday excellent fielding OF, Rickey Henderson was Rickey Henderson, Jose Rijo was about as dominant as a SP can be and we had Luis Polonia, Eric Plunk and Greg Cadaret. That was a very frustrating time. And the Mets were awesome.