For as long as I can remember, I have been the biggest Rickey Henderson fan I know. Albeit, I live in rural southern Illinois, so there has not been a lot of competition. Now, that is not a claim to be the biggest Rickey fan there is. Apparently that title might belong to Kent Corser in Kansas City. We follow each other on the socials now. But, I still reign as the biggest fan I personally know.
See, I was 11 when Rickey came back home to Oakland. From 10-12 years old, the A’s were in the World Series. When you are 10, 11 and 12, that seems like every year. And my favorite player on that team was Rickey. I had the lime green gloves in Pony league, even though our jerseys were teal. I hit leadoff. I was running anytime I could. I tried the crouch. Turns out, I sucked at it. Maybe I just sucked at hitting, but that is another story. But I could run. So, I gravitated to the best runner baseball ever saw.
I have the throwback jersey, the Starting Lineups, the books, as much of it as I could find. I still have School of Rickey on the DVR.
Off Base: Confessions of a Thief, Rickey’s autobiography, came out when I was 13 years old. I read the hardback. I got the paperback, and read it. I got the audiocassettes and listened to those. I still have them all, minus the paperback, loaned out and never returned. I never dared lend out the hardback or cassette tapes.
So, when I saw Howard Bryant had done a biography on Rickey, let’s just say I was excited. I pre-ordered immediately. I haven’t read Off Base in a couple of decades now, so I was looking forward to the trip down memory lane. And let me tell you, this book had lots of Member Berries for me.
With all that said, saying this was my favorite book of the year should not be all that surprising, and your mileage may vary. But, it was great for reasons far beyond the Member Berries addiction we all have at some level.
This was a biography, not an autobiography. As Bryant mentions in the acknowledgements, Rickey was reluctant to even participate in something he could not control. And the book explores a lot of what went into that.
The book has all the typical biographical information–accomplishments, key moments, tracking a myriad of career moves. But it also steps back and explores the racial tones and aspects that largely shaped Rickey, even if Rickey did not seem to ponder it much.
Bryant explores the Great Migration and how it shaped Oakland, how Oakland shaped its athletes, how the press treated Rickey, his lack of education, how they reacted to Rickey Style, and so on. And in that regard, that is where Bryant excels in a way O’Shea could not in Off Base. If you want Rickey’s thoughts on his career and quotes on his moments, explanations of “that speech” and so on, read Off Base. But if you want a better view of the big picture, this biography is much more encompassing and probably better explains Rickey than Rickey could in his own words.
It is not puff piece. It covers the infamous card game, the primadonna stuff, both earned and unearned reputation, as well as hints at the infidelity even if it doesn’t expound, the parts a 12-year-old fan never saw but has to reconcile with as an adult. It does not ignore the dirty. But, it also does service in explaining the circumstances for most.
And it covers a lot of the “Rickey stories”. The true and the untrue. The Reynolds call, the debunked Olerud story, the conversations with his bat. All that fun stuff is in here too. Although I will say after reading this, I will be leary of mocking the third person stuff, seeing it now for what it was.
I enjoyed this enough I will probably circle back to the audio version at some point, although I was a little disappointed to see Andre Braugher was not brought back for that. But let’s me honest, I was always going to enjoy this one. Still, it exceeded even my expectations because of the depth. I rarely recommend sports books to my wife, but I’m trying to get her to read this one.