GORDON WHITE: The 'Other' Outfielders: The Late Henrich Left His Mark
The New York Yankees won the first of their 40 American League pennants in 1921 and the first of their 27 World Series championships in 1923. They usually had a slugging outfielder to lead the charge the way Babe Ruth did in the Roarin' Twenties when the Yanks won six pennants and three World Series.
Following Ruth there was Joe DiMaggio, 1936-1951. Then came Mickey Mantle, 1951-1968, Reggie Jackson, 1977-1981, and finally Bernie Williams, 1991-2006.
Each of these great outfielders primed the power pump at Yankee Stadium that resulted in more championships for this franchise than for any other professional sports team in the world.
But baseball is a team sport. Not even these outstanding outfielders could do it all alone. There always were other exceptional Yankee outfielders with Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle, Jackson and Williams. And they contributed a great deal to the Yanks' successes over the last nine decades.
However, as the years have passed many of these superb "other" Yankee outfielders have been all but forgotten.
Among these outfielders were such outstanding performers as Bob Meusel and Earle Combs, who played with Ruth in the 1920s. Then there were such outstanding outfielders as George Selkirk, Charlie Keller, Gene Woodling, Cliff Mapes and Hank Bauer, who were in the outfield with DiMaggio at various times in his Yankee career, 1936-1951.
But one of the two most famous of all the "other" Yankee outfielders was Tommy Henrich, who came up to the Yanks in 1937, a year after DiMaggio's rookie season. The other "most famous" of these outfielders was Roger Maris, who played right field to Mickey Mantle's center field in the 1960s when the Yanks won five consecutive AL pennants and two World Series.
Maris is the one who broke Ruth's 34-year-old season home run record when he hit 61 homers in 1961.
Henrich, who played right field with DiMaggio in center, was noted as a consistent clutch performer. Because he always seemed to come through when it was needed most, Henrich earned the proud moniker of "Old Reliable" while he helped the Yanks win seven World Series until his retirement in 1950.
"Old Reliable" died last Tuesday at age 96.
At his death, Henrich was the oldest living Yankee and the last survivor of the great Bronx Bombers of the 1930s who won four consecutive World Series from 1936 to 1939 while losing only three of 19 WS games in that run. Henrich and Charlie Keller flanked DiMaggio, the center fielder, in the late 1930s to make up one of the most powerful hitting and defensive outfields in major league history.
Henrich was born and raised in a hotbed of football, Massillon, Ohio. He became an icon of sorts as he epitomized the elegance on and off the field that was expected of a Yankee player. Always the gentleman, Henrich was quite humble even though he often played the heroic roll by delivering winning hits.
Nevertheless, the most famous of his heroic efforts came when he struck out in the top of the ninth inning of the fourth game of the 1941 World Series for what appeared to be the Yanks final out when they were trailing the Brooklyn Dodgers, 4-3, at Ebbets Field. All Dodger fans thought their team had tied the series at two victories apiece.
But Mickey Owen, the Dodgers' catcher, could not handle the sharp curve from Hugh Casey that caught Henrich swinging at air. The ball got by Owen and rolled all the way back to the wall. Henrich easily ran to first base to keep the Yanks' hopes alive.
It was one of the most improbable plays in World Series history and it was all those Yankee sluggers needed. DiMaggio then singled and Keller slammed a two-run double to put the Yanks in front, 5-4. Bill Dickey walked and Joe Gordon hit another two-run double so the Yanks won the game, 7-4, and took a 3-1 series lead. They won the series the next day, four games to one, so that Dodger fans reiterated their famous Brooklyn lament, "Wait 'til next year."
A few years prior to that infamous passed ball, Henrich became what amounted to be the first free agent in MLB history.
The Cleveland Indians signed the 20-year-old Henrich to a minor league contract in 1933. He proceeded to hit well over .300 in each of his first three seasons in the minors. But the Indians would not call him up to the majors.
In those days a player was the property of the club he signed with until the major league club decided to get rid of him. This was because of the reserve clause in all baseball contracts.
Henrich, who grew up idolizing Babe Ruth and the Yankees, wanted nothing more to do with the Indians, who would not give him a chance at the big time. So he wrote to the baseball commissioner, Kenisaw Mountain Landis, explaining that the Indians refused to call him up. He asked in that letter that Landis free him of his reserve clause obligations to the Indians and let him sign with another MLB team willing to use him.
Landis granted Henrich's release from the Indians and the Yankees signed him in 1936 and called him up the next year.
Free agency is the right for any MLB player to sign with any MLB team after a number of years with his present squad. This did not come into being until 1976, just 40 years after Henrich got permission to leave his original MLB team.
Through it all, Henrich remained the intelligent gentleman who belied the long and wrong impression that pro athletes were just men of muscle and little brain. Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle and Jackson are in the Baseball Hall of Fame while Bernie Williams is a player in waiting for entry into the Hall.
The long list of Yankee outfielders like Henrich who were the supporting cast for Ruth, DiMaggio et al includes only three men who have made it into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. The first was Earle Combs, who batted a career average of .325 for the Yankees, 1924-1935, playing left and center field as Ruth held forth in right field.
The other Hall of Fame supporting outfielders are Enos Slaughter and Yogi Berra, both of whom played out their MLB careers in the Yankee outfield alongside Mantle during the 1960s. Slaughter spent most of his career with the St. Louis Cardinals. Berra was replaced by Elston Howard as the Yankees' No. 1 catcher in the early 1960s so that Yogi then played with Mantle in the outfield.
Other strong outfielders who played with one of the five mighty Yankee stars include Bobby Murcer, Lou Piniella and Mickey Rivers in the 1960s or 1970s. Then along came Darryl Strawberry in the early 1990s and Paul O'Neill in the late 1990s to play right field while Williams patrolled center field for the Yanks.
Piniella might reach the Hall of Fame because of his successful managing career. Henrich and Maris deserve a place in the Hall and may get there through the Old Timers Committee vote some day. I hope so.
The Yanks won a World Series for the 27th time last month with some good outfielders, but none who compared to the likes of those "supporting cast members" listed above. However, Hideki Matsui, of Japan, a former outfielder who is no longer able to roam the grasslands of left field, became the 2009 World Series Most Valuable Player as the Yanks' designated hitter.
He nailed down that award during the sixth and last game against the Philadelphia Phillies when he drove in six runs with a home run, a single and a double. Matsui hit a home run in the second game and another in the third game of the series. The Yanks won both of those games.
Matsui was sort of the "Old Reliable" of the early 21st century for the Yanks.
But those of us who watched Henrich play with DiMaggio will miss the original "Old Reliable," the only man who ever turned striking out into a truly valiant effort.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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