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'Rickey' documents the life, career and controversies of baseball's 'Man of Steal'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Rickey Henderson blazed. He'd get to first base, waggle his fingers, sprint with the pitch, and became the greatest base stealer of all time over 25 years in baseball with nine different teams. And yet, over his Hall of Fame career, Rickey Henderson was also often derided for sitting out games, for shunning teammates and disdaining the press. He has let one of the great sports journalists in America into his life to tell his story - "Rickey: The Life And Legend Of An American Original," a book by Howard Bryant, who talks sports and society on our program. Howard, thanks so much for being with us.

HOWARD BRYANT: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: He didn't really like baseball? He played just to appease his older brother?

BRYANT: Rickey wanted to be a football player. Rickey wanted to be the next O.J. Simpson. Rickey wanted to play for the Oakland Raiders. He played baseball because everyone begged him to play. His older brother wanted him to play. He needed someone to play catch with. His guidance counselor in the seventh, eighth grade had to bribe him because they didn't have enough players. So she gave him a quarter for every stolen base, and he said, I'm going to make a ton of money doing this. And funny, that seemed to be a harbinger for how Rickey would go about his business. Money was very central to how Rickey valued his worth.

SIMON: So his rookie year, Rickey Henderson steals a hundred bases.

BRYANT: Yeah - in his first full season. And that's the thing. And it's so funny because one of the reasons why I also wanted to do this was because Rickey's baseball doesn't exist anymore. If you're of a certain generation...

SIMON: Yep.

BRYANT: ...You remember the speed and electricity of the game and the way that it wasn't sort of slow-pitch softball where you just sit back and wait, unless you're Earl Weaver in Baltimore Orioles, where you wait for the three-run homer. But they don't play baseball the way Rickey played. They don't do that anymore. And that's one of the things that makes this project so much fun for me, is that you're never going to see what he did again - 3,000 hits, 2,000 runs, 2,000 walks and a thousand-plus stolen bases. They just don't play baseball like that.

SIMON: So, Howard, how is it that somebody who stole all those bases and appeared in more games than all but three other players in history, including Henry Aaron and Pete Rose, was still accused of sitting out sometimes when he had an injury?

BRYANT: Well, Rickey is an incredibly quirky player, and Rickey was one of those guys who was the first generation of player who really advocated for himself. You have to remember that this is the first wave of free agency. We talk about this...

SIMON: Yeah.

BRYANT: ...Quite often about the eras in baseball. You have the immigrant era, the integration era, and Rickey is part of the economic era where the players now have agency. And a lot of it had to do with the fact that Rickey really was not controllable. He was his own guy and understood his body and knew what he could do. And he was very much ahead of his time. Back then - Scott, you know, we're old baseball people - if you're an outfielder, you're supposed to play 155 games a year. And these guys were just being beaten down. And Rickey didn't do that. Rickey averaged 135 games and still put up these legendary numbers, which makes you wonder, how good would Willie Mays and Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle have been if they had gotten a rest once in a while? Today, instead of calling you a malingerer like they did Rickey, today, people talk about load management in baseball.

SIMON: Yeah. It's the manager who comes out and says, sit down, kid. Yeah.

BRYANT: It's a manager who now wants you to take a break. And in Rickey's time, if you took a break, you were lazy, and he took the brunt of that. And I just love, when I asked him that, he said very colorfully, in a way that I will have to bleep out - I'll just say it this way. How on earth can you steal 1,400 bases if you don't want to be out there?

SIMON: Nine different teams - I just want to briefly touch on the fact, he wasn't a very happy Yankee, was he?

BRYANT: And that's also part of your question as to, why did Rickey get this reputation? If you're going to be a great player, at least to New York, to the 212 area code, you have to do it in New York. And Rickey came to New York in the 1980s, and that team did not win. And by the time he left, he had the worst reputation you could possibly have, which is a guy who put up big numbers for himself but wasn't a winning ballplayer.

SIMON: Yeah.

BRYANT: And so when he got to Oakland, when he was traded in 1989, he put on one of the greatest performances in postseason history to prove to everyone that he was not just an excellent player, but a winning ballplayer as well, that he could be a champion. And that was a - that's a huge piece of his career. And I think, Scott, one of the things about this book that I really, really enjoyed was about time - what time does to us, what time does to people. When you go back and look at the day by days or go back into your recollections, if you remember Rickey, people hated Rickey. He was one of the most disliked players in the game. And now people love Rickey. And that was one of the things that made this project so much fun. How does that happen? And this is sort of the story of how time creates that arc.

SIMON: Rickey Henderson is 63. (Laughter) And in theory, he could still come back. Goodness.

BRYANT: He can still come back. Let's put it this way - Rickey's last game was in 2003. Rickey never officially retired. And I said to him when I was working on this book - we were in Mesa at the A's spring training facility. I said, you know, Rickey, you actually never officially retired. And he's shaking his head, and he's completely serious. He's like, nope. I said, you never retired. And he says, well, I still think I could help a team.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh.

BRYANT: I said, you're 61.

SIMON: (Laughter).

BRYANT: But when you look at him, you know, here's a guy who played, and he had 2.7% body fat. You look at him today, and you go, maybe he could.

SIMON: Howard Bryant - his book, "Rickey: The Life And Legend Of An American Original." Thanks so much for being with us, and talk to you soon.

BRYANT: No, my pleasure, Scott. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.