december 2009

Crossing Over

(from left) George Selkirk, Tommy Henrich, Babe Dahlgren, Joe Gordon, Joe DiMaggio and Bill Dickey celebrate after hitting 13 home runs in a doubleheader, June 28, 1939, against Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. The Yankees routed the A’s, outscoring their opponents 33-2 in the twin bill. In the first game, Yanks hurler Monte Pearson coasted to an easy 23-2 victory; in the nightcap, Lefty Gomez pitched a 10-0 shutout.

Tommy Henrich, ‘Old Reliable’

February 20, 1913-December 1, 2009

Tommy Henrich, dubbed “Old Reliable” (by sportscaster Mel Allen) for his ability to produce timely hits in clutch situations and for his steady play in right field for the New York Yankees from 1937 to 1950, died on December 1 in Dayton, OH. He was 96 years old, and the last surviving player from the 1938 World Champion Yankees team. As noted by Richard Goldstein in his obituary of Henrich published in the New York Times, Henrich “was a timely hitter, an outstanding defensive player and a leader who epitomized the image of the classy Yankee who nearly always won.” Indeed, in his 11 seasons in the major leagues, all with the Yankees, he played on eight World Series winners, teaming with Joe Dimaggio in center field and Charlie Keller in left in one of the majors’ most formidable hitting and fielding outfield trios. In Yankees lore, right field has long been the province of greats, from Babe Ruth to Roger Maris to Reggie Jackson. Henrich, low-keyed and less flamboyant certainly than Ruth or Jackson, was steady, productive and fearless in the clutch, like Maris and, from more recent Yankees teams, Paul O’Neill. A five-time All-Star, Henrich batted .282 in his career, hit 183 home runs, drive in 795 runs, and led the American League in runs (138) in 1948 and in triples in 1947 (13) and in 1948 (14). His bottom of the ninth home run off Don Newcombe in the opening game of the 1949 World Series gave the Yankees a 1-0 victory and was the first game ending round tripper in Series history.

Tommy Henrich was born on February 20, 1913, in Massillon, OH, a football-crazed town that had so few baseball fields that the young Henrich played softball through high school before joining a town baseball team after graduation. Signing with the Cleveland Indians in 1935, he hit .335 for New Orleans of the Southern Association in his second minor league season, learned that his contract had been sold to Milwaukee of the American Association (the Indians had decided another outfielder, Jeff Heath, was a better prospect), and promptly challenged the baseball system to win his free agency, 33 years before Curt Flood challenged the reserve clause, nearly 40 years before the reserve clause was eventually struck down. Refusing to report to Milwaukee, Henrich and his father wrote to baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Following a hearing with Henrich and the Indians’ chief scout Cy Slapnicka, Landis declared Henrich a free agent. Seven other clubs bid for the outfielder’s services, but the Yankees, with a reported bonus offering of $25,000, won out. In retrospect Henrich indicated the Yankees always had the inside track, owing to his lifelong affection for the team. “I was a Yankee fan since 1921, when I was eight years old,” he said. “I was a Babe Ruth man.” In right field he succeeded George Selkirk, who had followed Ruth.

"I never thought I had a chance," Henrich said of the hearing that led to his free agency. "The old Judge was leaning over backwards to be impartial and he never gave me a word of encouragement or any hint that I had a good case. Facts, facts, facts, is what he wanted. Then, an hour later, he called me with his decision and that was the greatest thrill of my life to that point. I think part of it was that the Judge didn't like Slapnicka and he got a kick out of me writing to him and standing up for my rights."

The 1938 World Series champion New York Yankees’ lineup. From left: Frankie Crosetti (SS), Red Rolfe (3B), Tommy Henrich (RF), Joe DiMaggio (CF), Lou Gehrigh (1B), Bill Dickey (C), George Selkirk (LF), Joe Gordon (2B). The team won 99 games, lost 53 (.651 winning percentage), and won the Series 4-0 over the Chicago Cubs. (Photo:Corbis Images)

Speaking to the Associated Press from his home in Texas, Henrich’s teammate and friend Bobby Brown said Henrich’s game  performance was in direct correlation to the score, with a tighter contest bringing out the best in him. “If we were ahead 10-1 or 10-2, he was just average. If we were behind 10-1 or 10-2, same thing. But get him in a big game and he was terrific. He was extremely good in big games, games that meant something. We didn’t call him ‘Old Reliable.’ We just knew he was ‘Old Reliable.’”

Ironically, Henrich’s most famous at-bat was one in which he didn’t get the bat on the ball in a clutch situation but still came through. In Game 4 of the 1941 Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers, Henrich struck out for the game ending third out. But catcher Mickey Owen let the pitch get by him, and as the ball rolled to the backstop, Henrich raced safely to first base. The Yankees then rallied for four runs and a 7-4 win, to go up 3-1 in the Series.

“Even as I was trying to hold up, I was thinking that the ball had broken so fast that Owen might have trouble with it, too,” Henrich related in writer Donald Honig’s book, Baseball Between The Lines. “I saw that little white jackrabbit bouncing and I said, ‘Let’s go.’ It rolled all the way to the fence. I could have walked down to first.”

henrich“Tommy was a darn good ballplayer and teammate,” Yogi Berra said in a statement released by the Yankees. “He always took being a Yankee to heart.

“When I came up in 1947, he taught me little nuances about playing the outfield.  Being around Tommy made you feel good, whether playing cards or listening to him sing with that great voice. He was a proud man, and if you knew him, he made you proud, too.”

After retiring as a player, Henrich coached with the Yankees for one year (tutoring the rookie Mickey Mantle), then later coached for the New York Giants and Detroit Tigers. He also worked in sports broadcasting. His survivors include a daughter, Patricia.

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