Despite playing an outstanding center field and hitting about .336, Rickey Henderson didn’t make the 1976 Northwest League All-Star Team. It was his first year in professional baseball, playing for the Boise A’s at age 17. Apparently it was the summer following graduation from high school in Oakland.
The people in Boise didn’t know what they were missing: in his book “Boise Baseball: the First 125 Years” (available here used and here from the publisher), Arthur A. Hart explained that the team drew over a thousand fans just three times all year. For one late August game, the A’s drew only 47. It was their second and last year in Boise.
Mike Manning, operator of the team, said: “In my worst dreams I never imagined we’d draw 200 people. I though 400 would be rock bottom in a town this size.”
Hart wrote: “Because Borah Field was under control of the school board, the sale of beer at games was not allowed. This, in Manning’s mind, made a critical difference between losing money or breaking even.”
Hart’s saying that the A’s were playing on Borah High School’s baseball field, and the school didn’t let them sell alcohol. Here’s a picture of the field from the book:
The A’s finished 1976 below .500, and the Boise A’s became the Medford A’s in 1978 (I don’t know about ’77).
Tom Trebelhorn, Rickey’s manager in Boise, and again in Modesto in 1977, talked with the official minor league baseball site about him: “I was very fortunate in my career to have guys like Paul Molitor, Cecil Cooper, and Ryne Sandberg. But at 17 years of age in Boise. . . Rickey Henderson had a better idea of the strike zone than all those guys did. He was outstanding as far as pitch discrimination was concerned. He was Rickey. He was fearless running, and at the plate.”
And: “He’d take a bad pitch at the plate and he’d say to himself, ‘Oh, no, no, Rickey, don’t swing at that.’
“He had great strike-zone knowledge, especially for a 17-year-old kid. He had great discipline and knew the strike zone. And in the Northwest League then, you could face lot of tough pitchers.”
Trebelhorn, who had his Boise A’s office at Borah High School, also recently talked with the Idaho Statesman about Rickey: “A 17-year-old kid, stole 29 bases, hit .340. He went in the Hall of Fame this year, and he started here in Boise, Idaho.”
This page at Baseball Cube shows Rickey’s minor league stats, but it’s extremely hard to believe he stole 95 bases in 1977 with Modesto without getting caught once, or 29 with Boise without getting caught. Or that he played third base both years.
By the way, Rickey was, in a sense, following the footsteps of Walter Johnson, who played in a semi-pro Idaho league in 1907. You can also read here about the Big Train in Idaho.
In 1979, three years later, Rickey made his A’s debut at 20 by starting in left and leading off both games of a June 24 doubleheader with Texas:
The S.F. Chronicle’s notes on the two games ended by saying Rickey was “fresh up from Ogden [Utah]” and “celebrated his first at-bat in the bigs with a double in the opener, then singled the next time up. He also stole a base.” But, he went 0-4 in the second game: 4,752 people were at the Coliseum for his debut.
The Chronicle added that seven A’s were out of action, including Dwayne Murphy, which probably explains why Rickey was called up at this time. The A’s were 22-52 after losing both games, and attendance after 39 home dates was 138,791, compared to 324,354 through the same point of the 1978 season.