Book review: Biographer follows path of baseball great Rickey Henderson | Entertainment

By DREW GALLAGHER FOR THE FREE LANCE–STAR

Rickey Henderson is one of the greatest baseball players of all time. He was also one of the most polarizing baseball players of all time. Journalist Howard Bryant attempts to reconcile those two perceptions of the hall-of-famer in his biography “Rickey.” Bryant succeeds in cementing the fact that Henderson was probably the greatest leadoff hitter in the history of the game, but where he is less successful is in portraying Rickey as a person.

Biographies of the living are always interesting, because a reader often wonders how much access is granted by the subject to the biographer and if that access comes at a price that prohibits certain aspects of the life being discussed. Bryant hints at Henderson as a womanizer with throwaway lines that imply Henderson not only had a good batting eye but also an eye for the ladies, but this plot line is never developed. Similarly, Henderson’s family life is touched upon in a limited manner, and there is no mention of him as father until it is revealed well into his career that he has three daughters.

Truthfully, no one is all that interested in Henderson’s personal life, although Bryant does portray his lifelong girlfriend as the pillar that allowed Rickey to be Rickey. But when a biography touches upon his personal life, then it should be fleshed out to a fuller extent unless, of course, Rickey did not want any mention of his personal life. Much as Rickey controlled a baseball game from the basepaths (his 1,406 career stolen bases are unlikely to be surpassed), one gets the impression that Rickey had a lot of control over this biography.

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Those minor grievances aside, sports biographies are made interesting through anecdotes told from teammates, coaches and opponents, and “Rickey” has plenty of those. Some of the best quotes, unfortunately, cannot be shared in a family newspaper because the former ballplayers are quite unfiltered in their praise and profanity (I’m looking at you, Dennis Eckersley), but many of Rickey’s exploits on a baseball field needed more colorful language. Opposing players and old-school reporters dismissed his theatrics and his penchant for talking about himself in the third person, but his teammates loved him and the playoff appearances that almost always followed Rickey’s arrival with a new club.

Rickey certainly could elevate his game to the moment (he played and continued to steal bases into his 40s), but it was Yankees’ hitting coach Willie Horton who elevated Rickey’s game from one of merely speed into an all-around hitter with power in 1985 All Horton did, 37 years ago, was showing Henderson a slight alteration in his swing. Decades before “launch angle” was a baseball trend, Horton showed it to Henderson and paved his way to Cooperstown.

Drew Gallagher is a freelance writer and video book reviewer in Spotsylvania.

Drew Gallagher is a freelance writer and video book reviewer in Spotsylvania.

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