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Tommy Henrich, Old Reliable

Matt Schudel

The obituary of Tommy Henrich gave me the chance to indulge in perhaps my favorite pastime: the study of baseball history. Henrich, who played for the New York Yankees from 1937 to 1950, was an outfielder on some of the greatest teams in the history of the game. He never made the Hall of Fame, but was a five-time All Star, and the statistical analyst Bill James rates him as the 34th best rightfielder of all time.

There are some baseball historians, in fact, who suggest that the 1939 Yankees, with Joe DiMaggio in his prime, Bill Dickey at catcher, Joe Gordon at second and Red Ruffing and Lefty Gomez on the mound, may have been almost as good as the fabled Ruth-and-Gehrig Yankees of 1927.

Henrich, who batted and threw lefthanded, played rightfield alongside Joe DiMaggio for most of his career. (He also played a little leftfield and first base and sometimes platooned with righthanded-hitting Charlie Keller.) At any rate, no one in baseball knew the skills of DiMaggio better than Henrich did, and he considered the Yankee Clipper the finest all-around player he ever saw. DiMaggio, in turn, said Henrich was the smartest player in baseball.

In the fourth game of the 1941 World Series, Henrich made one of the most heads-up plays in the history of the game. He was batting against the Brooklyn Dodgers' Hugh Casey with two out in top of the ninth, and Brooklyn leading, 4-3. Henrich swung and missed at a curveball that would have ended the game and given the Dodgers the victory. Casey later said was the best pitch he ever threw in his life, but it eluded sure-handed catcher Mickey Owen, allowing Henrich to race to first base.

In Donald Honig's classic book "Baseball Between the Lines," Henrich described what happened: "It looked like a fastball. Then when it broke, it broke so sharply that it was out of the strike zone. So I tried to hold up but I wasn't able to. There's that famous picture you see all the time -- that's the end of my swing. I never finished that swing; I was trying to hold up. . . . There's another picture -- I'm looking for that ball. And I saw that little white jack rabbit bouncing and I said, 'Let's go.' It rolled all the way to the fence. I could have walked down to first."

DiMaggio and Keller followed with hits, and Yankees went on to win the game, 7-4. Instead of having the World Series tied at two games apiece, the Yankees led three games to one. The next day, they went out and beat the Dodgers 3-1 (Henrich hit a home), to clinch the series.

Today's players may be greater all-around athletes than in the past, but if you think they can actually play the game as well as the players in Henrich's generation, consider this story. Hardly a week goes by in today's game when you don't see two outfielders colliding with each other while chasing a fly ball. In the 11 years that Henrich and DiMaggio patrolled the Yankee outfield, they never ran into each other once, Henrich said.

"It was very simple," he said. "If I could catch it, I would call for it. But if I didn't call for it, it was just get out of the way. Because Joe could move. He was like a fox running down a rabbit. I never saw a better base runner than Joe DiMaggio. When he went for a base, he went to make it. Well, that's the way he played the outfield.
"[Detroit's Hank] Greenberg hit a high line drive to deepest center field at Yankee Stadium. The ball Vic Wertz hit that Willie Mays caught was a can of corn by comparison. DiMaggio ran as though he knew where the ball was going to be. At the last minute, maybe a stride from the wall, he looked over his shoulder and got the glove up.

"That's when he made the only mistake I ever saw him make. He thought that was the third out and went trotting in. The runner had gotten way off first and had to get all the way back after the catch. He made it only because DiMaggio realized too late that only two were out. You know why he made the mistake, at least why I think he did? He had to be thinking, 'Hey, that was the best catch I ever made in my life.' "

Henrich retired after the 1950 season, when he was 37, then became a Yankee coach. His first job was to teach a raw 19-year-old rookie named Mickey Mantle how to play the outfield. As a minor-league shortstop, Mantle once made 55 errors in a season. It was Henrich's job to turn him into an outfielder. I'd say he did a pretty good job. Mantle is remembered, of course, as one of the greatest hitters in the history of baseball, but he was also an outstanding centerfielder for most of his career.

Finally, Henrich was a favorite of sportswriters because he was a genuinely nice guy and a terrific storyteller. His roommate on the Yankees was the talented but often zany pitcher Lefty Gomez. Henrich once told this story about Gomez going to bat late in a game against the Cleveland Indians' fireballer Bob Feller.

Shadows were creeping across the field, the Yankees were trailing and hoping to get the umpires to call the game because of darkness.

"When Gomez goes up to the plate, he lights a match," Henrich told Baseball Digest magazine in 1970. "This does a couple of things. It lets everyone know how we feel about playing under those conditions. But that wasn't enough for Lefty.
"The umpre says to him, 'What's the matter with you? Can't you see?' Gomez has the answer. He says, 'Sure I can see. I just want to make sure Feller can see me.' "

By Matt Schudel  |  December 3, 2009; 3:32 PM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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Comments

Beautiful writing here---I'm not a sports fan, but this was gripping and made me interested. Send it to the New Yorker?

Posted by: OldLady1 | December 4, 2009 6:56 AM | Report abuse

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