Book excerpt: “Rickey,” on the life of baseball legend Rickey Henderson


Sports writer Howard Bryant’s new biography, “Rickey: The Life and Legend of an American Original” (Mariner), tells the captivating story of Rickey Henderson, the Hall of Famer who holds the MLB records for runs and stolen bases, and how he helped change the game forever.

Read an excerpt below:


Mariner Books

You could say that Rickey Henderson was destined to be a gift. The surviving details of Christmas 1958, all tangled and swirled in legend, conspired to make the simple fact that Rickey, of all people, being born on Christmas Day felt preordained. One story said it snowed so hard on the South Side that Thursday night in Chicago that just reaching the hospital was an ordeal. Another said Rickey was so unexpected, so calm and quiet in Bobbie Earl’s belly and not yet ready to join the world, that neither she nor his father, John Henley, had any reason to expect a Christmas birth. Even if the details were not exactly fact, the stories were true in their own way; Rickey was on his own schedule, and, as would be a defining characteristic of over a quarter-century of professional baseball, he was born with the element of surprise, capable of transforming the calm into the chaotic, always a 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—by the weekend the papers reported temperatures in the 50s. Bobbie wasn’t taken by surprise by Rickey either. She knew her boy was coming. From the very start she knew Rickey better than Rickey knew himself; this was true even before she ever gave him a name. The most important detail was, of course, indisputably true: on Christmas night 1958, in an Oldsmobile on the way to the hospital, Bobbie Earl, just 19, gave birth to her fourth child, Rickey Nelson Henley, who introduced himself on cue, with an irresistible flair.

The chaos myth surrounding Rickey’s birth served everybody—what a debut! It was a good, clean story, a dramatic opening act fitting for the man destined to be the greatest opening act in baseball history.

In subsequent retellings, that night resembled a wacky sitcom, all the characters scrambling before everything works out harmlessly in the end. Even his birth certificate carried intrigue—a friend recalled it stating his name as “Boy Henley,” a routine placeholder that virtually never finds its way into the official paperwork. Maybe that was fitting too, because Bobbie eventually gave Rickey, the Christmas baby born in a car, an additional sprinkle of Hollywood magic, naming him after that clean-cut white kid with the guitar who made all the girls melt, 1950s teen heartthrob Ricky Nelson.

Thus it was that Rickey had a specialness and a story a little more fantastic, a little grander—and he knew it. In later years he would remind everybody 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 sometimes say when making a grand entrance into the clubhouse—but in the quiet moments, in the right light, he could tell his origin story at ground level, without the gritless predestiny, with a sobriety that suggested the tale wasn’t so cute, not quite so family-friendly.

Excerpted from the book “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 by permission.

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