Is Rickey Henderson the Greatest Baseball Player of All Time?

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Rickey breaks the All Time Steals Record May 1, 1991

(Originally Published April 15th, 2009 in the Evergreen Times, Rod Sager)

Baseball season is here again!  As you may very well know, Rickey is headed to the Hall of Fame this summer.  I have spent a lot of time writing about Rickey’s accomplishments over the years.  This man has broken more records than any player in modern history.  He has also dominated several categories, the most notable is the stolen base record.  Rickey’s career mark is better than any three current major league players COMBINED!  Any suggestion that he may be the greatest baseball player of all time is reasonable and certainly quite plausible.

It is hard to quantify a current player against the legends of all time.  We all know that Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, etc. left an indelible legacy of the sport of baseball.  Players like Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds and Rickey Henderson are fresh in our minds.  We can still feel the buzz of their great performances.  But will that “buzz” stand the test of time?  Is it an immortal buzz?  Only time will tell.

Some wonder if the steroids controversy will still hold weight 50 years from now.  Will Barry Bonds use of steroids be overlooked decades down the road?  One cannot  help but wonder what kind of Herculean feats Babe Ruth would have done if he took steroids.  Maybe he would have hit 1,000 home runs.  Maybe he would have blown out his knee and hit only 400.  Who knows?  What we do know is that no matter what, these steroid using greats will probably have an asterisk next to their records and perhaps under their bust in the Hall of Fame.

Let’s take a look at the short list of candidates for greatest player ever.  These are  my top 15 in random order.

  • Rickey Henderson    1979-2003  Bats R, OF
  • Barry Bonds              1986-2007  Bats L, OF
  • Roger Clemens         1984-2007  Bats R, P
  • Alex Rodriguez         1994-Curr   Bats R, SS, 3B
  • Babe Ruth                 1914-1935  Bats L, P, OF
  • Ty Cobb                     1905-1928  Bats L, OF
  • Willie Mays               1951-1973  Bats R, OF
  • Ted Williams             1939-1960  Bats L, OF
  • Walter Johnson        1907-1927  Bats R, P
  • Hank Aaron              1954-1976  Bats R, OF
  • Lou Gehrig                1923-1939  Bats L, 1B
  • Roger’s Hornsby      1915-1937  Bats R, 2B
  • Stan Musial               1941-1963  Bats L, OF
  • Joe DiMaggio            1936-1951, Bats R, OF
  • Jimmie Foxx            1925-1945, Bats R, 1B

I would measure greatness in several ways.  Did the player have a lasting competitive career?  Did the player have a short string of “mega-seasons” mixed with mediocrity or did he actually have solid seasons every year?  How did the player match up with his peers through history and in his own era?  Did the player dominate at his position or at least in several stat categories?

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The Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth

It is safe to say that everyone on the list above meets the criteria for greatness.  To narrow down the field we must consider how the player affected the game of baseball overall.  In this regard, Babe Ruth is the king.  The ‘Sultan of Swat’ changed the way the game of baseball was played.  He also nearly single-handedly brought the game into the mainstream of American sports.  Henderson was not the first great base stealer, he was however the very best.  He really did not change the way the game was played.  What he did do however, is score more often than any player in MLB history.  That my friends is amazing considering Rickey only hit 297 home runs.

Rickey is most comparable in performance to Ty Cobb.  I strongly believe that Rickey is the better athlete.  Over all I think Henderson is the best all round baseball player in the history of the MLB.  Babe Ruth however is the greatest player ever to play the game.  His legacy and impact on baseball are immeasurable.

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About rodsager

Published author, Professional Realtor and Amateur Weather Observer
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8 Responses to Is Rickey Henderson the Greatest Baseball Player of All Time?

  1. jamarcus says:

    I believe Rickey was great? However was he juiced? We’ll probably never know.

    • rodsager says:

      Good question, he began his MLB career in the late seventies before the big rush of steroids. Typically steroid use began early in careers with younger players so Rickey may have not gotten involved. BUT, he was in Oakland during the reign of the Bash Brothers and we all know Canseco was a major league juicer. Did Rickey hook up with the Jose connection and start juicing in the late 80s. I do not know. I am doubtful however. Rickey had an amazing long career which is unusual for athletes that take steroids. Steroids offer strength and reflex enhancements but at the expense of frequent nagging injury. Rickey played until he was nearly 45 years old. I’d like to think that Henderson avoided the steroids.

      • CN says:

        Great points. The reason today’s players don’t steal a large amount of bases is because of Ricky. His ability to steal bases at will caused pitchers to invent the slide step delivery to cut down on the time it takes them to get the ball to the catcher so they have a better chance to gin down base stealers. How many players have had that type of impact to literally change the way the game is played?

      • rodsager says:

        Very few players had that kind of impact, of course Babe Ruth is one of them.

  2. oj the juice says:

    Excellent pick on Rickey Henderson. I’m not sure what legacy the Babe left. His talent was his talent, but he played most of his career against no one. Move him into the negro leagues and he is still doing his thing, but he aint’ the best. Ever heard of Josh Gibson or Satchel Paige? Not too sure Babe wasn’t black himself. Barry Bonds has to be on this list as well, along w/ Pete Rose, Ken Griffey Jr., Roberto Clemente. Oh and Hank Aaron is probably the most under-rated of all-time.

    • rodsager says:

      Hank Aaron played in a difficult pitchers era. His ability to hit 755 home runs against the likes of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Nolan Rylan, etc, etc. is outstanding. He was a player that was durable and consistent and frankly better at all around hitting than just about anyone in his era. He was not just power, Hank could deliver that clutch run scoring single just as well as a base clearing homerun and he was a solid defensive player as well. I definately agree with you that Hank Aaron was underrated. Josh Gibson’s stats are all over the place. Many estimate his homerun total to be near 800 but that is the trouble there is no definitive answer to just how many he hit or what his batting average really was. None-the-less he is one of the greatest players of all time. The same goes for pitching legend Satchel Paige. Barry Bonds is on the list by the way and Pete Rose should be, I don’t know why I blanked on that. Pete got a raw deal as his accomplishments on the field should not be overlooked because of failures after he retired. Honestly I could easily add another 15 names and I bet you could too 🙂

  3. Jim Dennis says:

    I concede that Rickey was the greatest all-around offensive player in baseball history, but I’m curious how measured up defensively. We know he could cover a lot of ground, but how well did he read balls of the bat, how well did he dive and come up with sinking liners, was he one to rob would-be home runs, was his arm strength and accuracy such that runners dared not attemp an extra base? No disrespect to Rickey, but out of respect to Willie I’d love to see that comparison before anointing Rickey the greatest all-around player of all time.

    • rodsager says:

      Willie Mays is awesome and perhaps a better overall player than Henderson. Mays was as good on defense as he was on offense. Statistically Ricky Henderson was an outstanding Left Fielder. This quote from ESPN writer, Tim Kurkijan “Henderson was also one of the best defensive left fielders of his time: Few left fielders went to the line, and got the ball to second base, faster than Henderson. In 1981, he became the first left fielder in the live ball era (1920-on) to lead the majors in outfield putouts.” Sums it up pretty well. Was Henderson even better than Mays? That is a tough call. Rickey was a very versatile player and if I had to choose between Mays and Rickey it would come down to the way the rest of the team was setup. Mays was a better hitter and had more power. Rickey was an OBP master and let’s face it if he gets on base he’s getting to second 😉 If I had Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez or someone like that on my team I’d take Rickey. If I had a weak sauce batting line up I might favor the extra power and batting average that Willie brought to the plate. Either way my team would get a whole lot better with either of these legends of baseball on the roster.

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