07/26/09 8:09 PM ET
Rickey wows with brilliant induction speech
Newest Hall of Famer accepts highest honor with eloquence
Oh, his acceptance speech during Sunday's National Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies was far from an oratorical masterpiece. In fact, it might not even be in the top 10 of the 38 inductions I've covered.
But for Henderson, it was brilliant.
The world's greatest leadoff hitter and stolen-base champ wowed the Cooperstown crowd -- estimated at 21,000 -- during a sometimes rainy afternoon when Jim Rice and the late Joe Gordon were also enshrined.
For weeks leading up to the ceremony, the buzz around baseball was predicting what to expect from Henderson.
During his storied career, he often would talk to his bat and speak in the third person. I wouldn't have been a bit surprised had he stood at the podium Sunday and said, "Rickey is very thrilled to be here and Rickey can't thank the Hall of Fame enough."
New York Yankees executive Gene Michael, an hour before the ceremony, said he couldn't wait to hear what Henderson had to say.
"It's worth the price of admission," Michael said, not mentioning there was no charge to attend the ceremony.
In that sense, Henderson disappointed.
There was no third-person jabber, no rambling, little Rickey-speak. He even paused for effect, sprinkled in some hilarious anecdotes and teased the crowd when everybody was waiting for him to call himself "the greatest."
People were braced for that as he came to the end of his talk, certain that's what he was going to say.
It went like this: "My favorite hero was Muhammad Ali. He said at one time -- quote -- I am the greatest -- end of quote. That is something I always wanted to be. And now that the [baseball writers] association has voted me into the baseball Hall of Fame, my journey as a player is complete.
"I am now in the class of the greatest players of all time. At this moment, I am ... very, very humble."
He ended with that, and received a standing ovation.
When Rickey was a youngster and learning how to get a good lead, play cat-and-mouse with the pitcher and steal bases during his first year in the Minor Leagues (1976) his coach was longtime baseball guru Tom Trebelhorn.
When Rickey wanted to polish his admitted speaking deficiencies, he went to school. That might be hard to believe, but that's what he did in the days leading up to the induction.
For the past two weeks, he attended two summer classes at Laney Community College in Oakland.
The courses? Public Speaking and Introduction to Speech, both taught by Earl Robinson, a former Major Leaguer with the Dodgers (1958) and Orioles (1961-63). Robinson even went to Rickey's home some nights to help him polish the speech.
"It was great," Henderson told me in a quiet corner two hours after Sunday's induction. "He kept telling me to slow down. You know, I tend to cut off my words in a sentence and we worked on that. And he kept stressing, 'Slow down. Slow down.' You know I talk very fast, and Earl said I had a habit of talking about something, go off it and not know how to come back."
"It was fun. The students in the class critiqued my speech and then we would reverse our roles."
Henderson said the students were his "live" audience and that he would then critique some of their work. He was even videotaped giving his speech.
So, just like learning to steal bases, he took his newfound lessons to the podium at the Clark Sports Center.
"I really can't tell you how I did," Henderson said later. "I was a little nervous. I was hoping I didn't mess up too much. Most people say I talk faster than I'm thinking. I was trying to slow down, but when you get to flipping those pages and one gets stuck, you think about what that page was all about. Yet, I had to continue."
Henderson entertained the crowd, which had endured 30 minutes of light showers at the beginning of the program, when he explained how he was bribed to play baseball.
"Now let me tell you a story about how I got into playing baseball," he said. "When I was a kid in Oakland, Mr. Hank Thomas tricked me into playing Babe Ruth baseball by coming to pick me up with a glazed doughnut and a cup of hot chocolate. That was how he got me up and out of bed and to the ballpark."
As the audience broke into laughter, Henderson paused for effect before continuing.
"My first year in high school, my favorite sport was football. I didn't like baseball. But my counselor, Mrs. Wilkerson, bribed me into playing baseball. She would pay me a quarter every time I would get a hit, score a run or steal a base. After my first 10 games, I had 30 hits, 25 runs scored and 33 steals. Not bad money for a kid in high school!"
With the crowd now in his hand, Rickey talked about growing up in Oakland and his heroes being Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Reggie Jackson.
"... And what about that Reggie Jackson? I'd stand out in a parking lot at the ballpark and wait for Reggie Jackson to give me an autograph. Reggie used to come out all the time and I'd say, 'Reggie, can I have an autograph?' He'd pass me a pen with his name on it."
Jackson, sitting a few rows behind the podium and listening intently to Rickey, bowed his head and put his hands over his face as Henderson talked.
"Eventually, I got Reggie Jackson's autograph," he said. "I think I had to go out and prove myself for him to give me his autograph. The time I stole 130 bases , the next year he was running to me for an autograph. I told him, 'I can't give you an autograph, because I've never had yours."
Now, they're both members of the most exclusive fraternity in sports.
And Sunday, Rickey Nelson Henley Henderson accepted the honor with grace and poise -- in his eloquent way.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.