Rickey Henderson and the 1980 A’s

In June 1980, Rickey Henderson, a second-year player for the Oakland A’s, said: “I came up here about this time (June 23 to be exact) a year ago [1979], all excited because I’d made it to The Show. A week here and I said, ‘Hey, this is worse than Jersey City and Double A.’ The only people who came to the park came to cheer opposing teams. The manager [Jim Marshall] didn’t care; he had just learned to accept losing. I couldn’t believe it. But after 30 games, I understood. Of those 30 games, we won four.”

The A’s had hired Billy Martin in February 1980, and Rickey said: “It used to be that once the game was over, no one wanted to think about baseball at all. Now, win or lose, we think about it and ask questions now. You have to give Martin credit for instilling that kind of enthusiasm.
“This was a team that was given up for dead a year ago, that was ignored at home and jeered on the road. Now we have some of the loudest, craziest fans anywhere. Even the players can tell you we’ve drawn more people than a team that plays in New York (the Mets).”

At the same time-June 1980-a guy from Massachusetts said: “It’s like the Fenway bleachers were in the early 70s. The bleachers are $2. For afternoon games, you sprawl out in the sun, drink beer and watch this team, and you’re converted. They run, they hustle, they do all kinds of strange things like triple steals and suicide squeezes. It’s about the only place you can go where there’s passion. I came here and heard people tell me the only way baseball could sell would be to put hot tubs in the bleachers and serve granola bars at the concession stands, but the A’s are changing all that. What happened with Wild Bill (Hagy) in Baltimore last year is happening here. All the regulars in the bleachers say they’ve been waiting for something like these guys. Billy Martin just came and lit the spark.”

On July 19, the AP reported: “Rickey Henderson stole home for the second time this season in a three-run eighth inning that gave the Oakland A’s a 3-0 victory over the Cleveland Indians today.

[Rick] Waits (7-9) walked Jeff Cox with one out in the eighth. Henderson followed with a double to left, and Dwayne Murphy walked to load the bases. Essian followed with a sacrifice fly to center that scored Cox and moved Henderson to third.

With Armas at bat, Waits threw to the first baseman, Mike Hargrove, and appeared to have Murphy picked off at first. As soon as Waits threw, Henderson broke for home and beat Hargrove’s throw to Ron Hassey at the plate. The steal of home was the seventh by the A’s this season.”

On May 28, the A’s stole home twice in the same inning: Dwayne Murphy and Wayne Gross did it, in the first inning, apparently. The A’s had seven steals for the game.

An aside: The straight steal of home pretty much never happens anymore, and that’s been true for at least 20 years. But Rickey Henderson said, ”Billy always felt it was an easy base to steal. When a pitcher goes into a windup long enough, you can pick him. But if you’re on third, not many pitchers go into a windup anymore.” And, in 1989, the New York Times said: “Ty Cobb stole home a record 50 times in his career. Max Carey did it 33 times for the National League record. Cobb, Eddie Collins and Joe Jackson were among nine players who stole home twice in the same game. Vic Power, as the Cleveland Indians’ first baseman in 1958, was the last to do it twice in the same game. Lou Gehrig did it 15 times in his Yankee career, Babe Ruth 10 times. Twenty years ago Rod Carew, then with the Minnesota Twins, did it seven times, tying the major league season record that Pete Reiser of the Brooklyn Dodgers established in 1946.”

Then, on September 28, 1980, the New York Times reported: “Rickey Henderson of the Oakland A’s stole four bases today to increase his season total to 96, equaling Ty Cobb’s American League record set in 1915.

Henderson stole second base in the third inning and again in the fifth. He then stole second and third on consecutive pitches in the sixth inning to equal the record. For Henderson, it was the third time he had stolen four bases in a game this season. He has attempted to steal 122 times.”

The two preceding stories give a taste of the aggresiveness with which the A’s played in 1980. Billy Martin is most famous as a Yankee, but in 1980, he came to Oakland as spring training began and guided the A’s to an 83-79 after going 54-108 in 1979. It was a 29-game improvement that set the stage for an even better 1981 season. Overworked A’s pitchers helped prevent anything like a dynasty from developing for the early ’80s A’s, as you can learn about here, but Billy and Rickey perhaps saved the Oakland team from moving to Florida or Denver because of their dynamism.

Published in: on March 30, 2009 at 10:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
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