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Man of steals

Dr. Amy Bass
Courtesy of Dr. Amy Bass

I don’t know a lot about Oakland. I’ve been there, spent a few nights with a cousin many years ago when I traipsed across the country and back with my sister on a grand adventure. But mostly, when I think of Oakland, I think of baseball.

Aside from being a team my beloved Red Sox face from time to time, including Pedro Martinez’s American League debut and some pretty tense playoff ball over the years – thank you Manny Ramirez – most of my knowledge about the Oakland A’s comes from Moneyball – first with Michael Lewis’s tome, and then with Hollywood’s interpretation of it, with Brad Pitt as Billy Beane and Jonah Hill as Peter Brand rendering the 2002 season on the big screen. That team, which Beane and Brand assembled with relatively little money, taught us everything we needed to know about sabermetrics. I rewatch it from time to time, always amazed at how riveting I find a story about, well, on-base percentage stats – not exactly a topic in my wheelhouse.

But while I watched the Sox take on the A’s last week, winning 2 out of 3, I was reading Rickey, Howard Bryant’s expansive new biography about Rickey Henderson. Henderson played for nine teams across his storied career, including at Fenway, (and in 2002, no less), where he beat out Michael Coleman for the last slot in the outfield. Indeed, one of my favorite baseball stats – and I’ve already been clear that I don’t really love math – is that Henderson, at that point the oldest player in the American League at the ripe old age of 43, arrived in Boston having stolen more bases than his new team had...combined.

But in my head, Henderson always is playing for the city of Oakland, perhaps especially as baseball’s days in the Coliseum, the fifth oldest park in America, likely are numbered, with the team casting for new digs, possibly Vegas, and the commissioner dissatisfied.

Bryant’s book vividly demonstrates how a charismatic player – and first ballot Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, the greatest base stealer in the history of the game and one of the early Black celebrities in the sport, absolutely qualifies as fodder for a biography – can be a window into not just the sport writ large, but the community in which it takes place – politics, culture, and the kitchen sink all thrown in. Bryant’s understanding of Oakland – a team and city he covered at the early part of his illustrious career – is a gift to those of us who love sports beyond the scores of games.

Henderson’s family moved to the heavily segregated neighborhoods of Oakland from Arkansas, part of a larger Black migration to California in the 1960s. There, Henderson oscillated between baseball and football. He chose, obviously, baseball, as most everyone in his life wanted him to – his school guidance counselor paid him a quarter for each hit – but also because he rightly predicted that America’s pastime promised a longer career and a more stable paycheck – good foreshadowing from a guy who still clocked the ball in his 40s and who, according to Bryant, played more seasons than any other position player who started a career in the 20th Century.

Those seasons reveal a lot to us about America’s game and, in doing so, about America. Through Henderson, we see the game shift into the era of free agency, with athletes who advocated for themselves as individuals, not just as members of a particular team. Henderson sat down – to much criticism – when he felt he needed to, when he thought it was the best way to avoid injury, but continued to put up the kind of numbers – including some 1,400 stolen bases –that should’ve silenced those who called him lazy or arrogant or ungrateful or any of those words that have a history of following black sports stars around. But the game that Rickey played – and could still play, as Bryant tells us at the end of the book that Rickey never officially retired – simply doesn’t exist anymore.

Case in point: in 2019, 13 teams stole fewer bases than Rickey’s 66 in 1998 – when he was 39 years old.

Bryant recasts Henderson as something other than volatile and egotistic (OK, well, he did like to refer to himself in the third person), rather seeing him as the magician who transformed a walk into a double (and sometimes that double into a triple) when he was well past the age of most any player in any sport, 24 seasons – 14 with his hometown team. In positing Henderson in this light, looking at baseball through the eyes of one of its first real razzle dazzle stars – those who Bryant calls the “great Black talents,” – shows us not just why Henderson matters, but why and how baseball – the people who play it, where it is played – matters, something that feels particularly important in this moment, a moment in which the MLB is facing change in terms of who is playing the game, who runs the game, and what it all stands for.

Amy Bass is professor of sport studies and chair of the division of social science and communication at Manhattanville College. Bass is the author of ONE GOAL: A COACH, A TEAM, AND THE GAME THAT BROUGHT A DIVDED TOWN TOGETHER, among other titles. In 2012, she won an Emmy for her work with NBC Olympic Sports on the London Olympic Games.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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