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August 20, 2004

Blast From The Past....Remembering Tommy Henrich
by Mad Mike

A sweltering afternoon at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, October 5, 1941. It was as tight a World Series as you can hope for. The Brooklyn Dodgers had managed a split at Yankee Stadium yet the Yankees had gotten the advantage back the day before, edging the Dodgers 2-1 as a late Dodger rally fell short. However Brooklyn was about to even the series. They were up 4-3 in the top of the ninth with two outs and right handed spot starter/reliever Hugh Casey was in command. He had come in the fifth inning and had blanked the Yankees in innings six, seven, eight and into the ninth. He completed his stellar relief effort fanning the last Yankee hitter knotting the series at two game apiece. The cheers died in the throats of the almost 34,000 Brooklyn faithful when they saw that strike three had skipped past catcher Mickey Owen and the hustling Yankee bolted down the first base line and reached first safely. Joe DiMaggio followed with a single and Charlie Keller doubled home both Henrich and DiMaggio. After Bill Dickey drew a walk, Joe Gordon doubled home two more runs. Final score 7-4 New York, and barely 24 hours later the New York Yankees would be crowned World Series champions.

The player whose hustle was the key to the comeback win?

Tommy Henrich.

Born Thomas David Henrich in Massillion Ohio on February 20th 1913, Henrich learned early in life that there's three kinds of people: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen and those who wonder what happened. Henrich was one who made things happen. Signed by the Cleveland Indians in 1934, Henrich quickly put together three stellar minor league seasons ...

... and got nowhere.

Henrich decided that the Indians were trying to bury him in the minor league system. The Indians had depth in the outfield with players like Hall of Famer Earl Averill, Canadian slugger Jeff Heath who'd become of the few players in baseball history to have 20+ doubles, triples, and home runs in a single season (1941), .300 hitter and run producer Joe Vosmik and Bruce Campbell who played himself off the St. Louis Browns roster (he played too well and wished to be paid accordingly). So there was no need to promote him but plenty of reasons not to let a rival team get him either.

So Henrich decided to "make something happen."

He wrote then commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis and asked him to investigate. Landis, despised the farm system developed by Branch Rickey. He often liberated large numbers of minor leaguers he felt weren't being given a fair shake.

Landis did likewise with Henrich.

Henrich then signed with the New York Yankees and assigned to the Newark Bears, the Yankees top minor league team. He lasted only a week when Yankee skipper Joe McCarthy, tiring of outfielder Roy Johnson's lackadaisical play and indifferent attitude demanded the front office promote Henrich specifically. Despite not receiving a lot of playing time (logging just 206 at bats) Henrich quickly made a reputation of being a very productive ballplayer. He made excellent contact, batting .320 with an 142 OPS+, walking twice as often as he struck out. He was also a heady intelligent outfielder, Joe DiMaggio said that he was the smartest outfielder he'd ever seen. He was forever looking for an advantage and nothing escaped his notice. On occasion he parlayed an apparent base hit into a double play if the opposition was caught napping. He would take a sharp liner that looked like an out, catch it on a short hop -- while the baserunner was staying between first and second so as not to get doubled up on first -- and fire it in to second. If the hitter was jogging down to first anticipating Henrich would catch the ball he would discover to his chagrin that the keystone fielder would throw to first creating a double play.

Given more playing time in 1938 Henrich continued to prove why the Indians wanted to keep him out off of their rivals rosters. Although he match his earlier production, he still walked almost three times as often as he struck out and flashed a sweet Yankee Stadium swing by depositing 22 balls into the outfield bleachers posting an OPS+ of 119. Although he didn't see any action in the previous season's World Series -- as the Yankees opted to play more experienced Myril Hoag in the outfield -- he did play in the Yankees sweep of the Chicago Cubs homering in the deciding game.

Knee problems began to surface eating into Henrich's playing time. He played less than 100 games in 1939 and 1940, but provided quality play when he was in the lineup. In 640 at bats in those two seasons he hit .291, (111 OPS+) scoring 121 runs, while driving in 110 and walking far more often than he struck out.

In 1941 Henrich broke out with 31 home runs (136 OPS+) however, among the so called "cognoscenti" he was still pretty much unknown, merely being a single star in a galaxy of them. That year, of the top 14 vote getters for the American League Most Valuable Player award, the Yankees had five entries. Although he gained a share of the spotlight in Game Four of the World Series when he reached first base after Hugh Casey's strikeout pitch skipped past Brooklyn Dodger catcher Mickey Owen, he really didn't hit well, garnering just three hits. However among those were a double as well as his second Fall Classic circuit clout off of Dodger right handed ace, All Star and 22 game winner Whitt Wyatt in the decider. It was his second longball in the final game of a World Series.

The distractions of the World War II coupled with his achy -- though otherwise healthy knees -- ate into Henrich's production, having a down season by his standards. However he opened the season well, that taken together with his stellar 1941 campaign, saw his first All Star Game appearance where he hit a first inning double as part of a three run rally that was the difference in the American League's 3-1 victory at the Polo Grounds. He would not appear in the big leagues again until 1946 as he went off to serve his country. He lost what would have likely been his three most productive seasons enlisting at the age of 29 and not returning until he was 33. Henrich would've been the first to say that he did not regret his decision to serve his country.

Like most players returning from the service, Henrich came back a bit rusty. That being said, he was still one of the American League's premiere outfielders and a dangerous hitter in clutch situations. So great was his knack for coming up with the key blow in a game that Yankee broadcaster Mel Allen nicknamed him "Ol' Reliable." Despite the war induced rust, Henrich still blasted 19 home runs, plated 83 runs and crossed home plate 92 times. Although he hit a meager .251 but augmented that with 87 walks giving him a very respectable OBP of .351. Even with the layoff, he remained an above average offensive player (113 OPS+).

Henrich continued his comeback with a fine 1947. Although now 34, he was on the verge of his three finest seasons, campaigns which would make the Charlie Keller, Joe DiMaggio and Tommy Henrich outfield as the consensus pick as the best in the major leagues. For the third time in his career he topped 100 runs, almost drove in a hundred, falling short by just two RBI, and hit for extra bases 64 times including leading the American League in triples (138 OPS+), cranky knees and all. He made his second All Star Game appearance along with outfield mates Keller and DiMaggio. He would cap his season by hitting .323 in the World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers including his third four bagger in the Fall Classic in Game Two at Ebbets Field. The Yankees would go on to win in seven.

1948 would he his finest season (151 OPS+). He'd finish seventh in Most Valuable Player voting but would've finished much higher had the Yankees won the pennant that year. Henrich would hit over .300 for the third and final time in his career (.308), set a career high in doubles (42), triples (with a league leading 14), RBI, with 100 exactly and topped the American League in runs scored with a personal best 138 and had his second highest number of big flies with 25. However his knees continued to worsen with arthritis and he saw considerable time playing first base, appearing there in 46 games. Henrich would finish a career high sixth in Most Valuable Player voting in 1949, however, there's no doubt that he was the most valuable player on the Bronx Bombers. Manager Bucky Harris had been fired and Casey Stengel was tapped to replace him. However much of the Yankees roster was unsettled. First baseman George McQuinn had retired, shortstop Phil Rizzuto was nursing a sore throwing arm coming off a mediocre season where he'd hit .252, third base was a hole that Stengel would try to fill with future American League president Bobby Brown and Billy Johnson while catcher Yogi Berra, despite unusual speed for the position, not to mention an unusually strong bat for a backstop, was unpolished defensively.

Adding to the grief was a rash of early injuries which decimated the offense. The Yankees lost two-thirds of their outfield as Charlie Keller tore muscles in his side and DiMaggio -- who had surgery done on his heel -- was not responding. His heel pained him terribly and would shelve him for much of the season as he required further surgery. However, "Ol' Reliable" would step up and carry the offense (148 OPS+). He'd finish the season with twenty doubles, 24 home runs, 90 runs and 85 RBI in just 115 games played splitting time between first base and the outfield. Although he hit .287, he drew the third highest number of walks in his career (86) boosting his OBP to a lofty .416. He was again named to the All Star game but he didn't play since he was playing through a lot of pain at this point as his back was hurting him terribly--joining his gimpy knees--hence was seeing as much time at first as he was in the outfield. As the 1949 campaign wore on, the Yankees and Red Sox were battling neck and neck for the pennant. With two games to go the Red Sox were up by a game with two to play head to head with the Yankees in New York. The Yankees emerged victorious in the first game behind the stellar relief work of Joe Page. Henrich got things going in the second game as Phil Rizzuto tripled and the Red Sox infield played back. Noticing this, Henrich shortened his swing, hit the ball on the ground, driving in the Yankee shortstop from third. It would ultimately turn out to be the game winning hit. He would also get the game winner in Game One of the World Series as he homered off the Brooklyn Dodgers' Don Newcombe in the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium. The score was knotted 0-0 through eight and a half innings until Henrich landed one in the right field bleachers. The Yankees would go on to win in five games.

When the 1950 opened, Henrich was 37 years old. His arthritic knees were insufferable, his back not much better. He didn't play much that year, although he did appear in the first ever extra inning All Star Game history as the American League fell in fourteen innings to the senior circuit at Comiskey Park. Henrich would play exclusively at first base in the field and had to also been relegated to pinch hitting duties. His swing was as still as sweet as ever (136 OPS+) and his batting eye was still sharp as evidenced by his 27 walks against a paltry six whiffs. Of his 41 base hits, almost half went for extra bases (20) including a remarkable number of triples for an aging ballplayer with gimpy knees (8). However the arthritis was making him miserable. Nonetheless he was an important contributor as the Yankees would win their second consecutive American League pennant followed by a four game dismantling of the National League "Whiz Kids" Philadelphia Phillies. Shortly after the series he announced his retirement.

From a Reliable Source....

  • Despite playing on eight pennant winners, Tommy Henrich only played in four World Series.
  • The Yankees never lost a World Series in which Henrich played.
  • In the 1947 World Series, Henrich got the game winning hit in three of the four games, including Game Seven.
  • Henrich figured in prominently in Joe DiMaggio's 56 game hitting streak. With one out, a man on base and Henrich (with DiMaggio on deck) batting against the St. Louis Browns' Eldon Auker, Henrich got permission from Joe McCarthy to bunt thereby avoiding a double play and assuring the Yankee Clipper of an at bat.
  • DiMaggio had his game bat stolen during a rainout when he was trying to break Wee Willie Keeler's consecutive games hitting streak. DiMaggio beat Keeler with a borrowed bat from Henrich.
  • Bob Feller said on American League hitters: "The big swingers, with two exceptions [Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio], never gave me much trouble as the singles hitters, because they aren't as consistent as those who hit for higher averages. Guys like Doerr, *Tommy Henrich*, Taft Wright, Roy Cullenbine and Stan Spence gave me more trouble than most of the long-ball hitters."
  • On August 17 1948, Tommy Henrich hits his fourth grand slam of the season tying Babe Ruth's record, "the Babe” had died the day before.

You can read more of John Brattain's work at his blog, Synaptic Flatulence. I thank John very much for his contribution. - Larry