Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Moment of Silence for Tommy Henrich

I'm no Yankee fan, and yet this resonated with me when I woke up this morning and heard the news:

"Old Reliable" Tommy Henrich passed away on Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio.  He was 96.

Henrich was the right fielder for the New York Yankees from 1937-1942 and 1946-1950.  He missed three seasons directly in the prime of his career (from ages 30 to 32) due to World War II, where he was a member of the Coast Guard.  Perhaps missing those seasons deprived him of a potential Hall of Fame career.

He was known as "Old Reliable" or "The Clutch" because of how dangerous he became when the chips were down.  Joe DiMaggio was the star of the Yankees' lineup, but Tommy Henrich was the second-best run-producer and a terror for opposing pitchers.  Those Yanks won four World Series with Hendrich on the field -- 1938, 1941, 1947, 1949.  He played in 99 games for the 1939 squad and 73 games for the 1950 squad, which both also won the World Series.

Speaking of the World Series, Tommy Henrich played a part in two of the most dramatic events on baseball's grand stage.  In Game 4 of the 1941 Fall Classic against Brooklyn, he was the batter who struck on swinging on Hugh Casey's wild spitball that escaped catcher Mickey Owen and kept a dramatic Yankee comeback alive in the bottom of the 9th.  In Game 1 of the 1949 Classic, the day that sabermetrics pioneer Bill James was born, Henrich hit the very first walk-off World Series home run.  It beat Don Newcombe and the Dodgers, 1-0.

After the game, a reporter reminded New York manager Casey Stengel that ol' Case was the last to hit a decisive home run in a 1-0 World Series victory.  Said the reporter to Stengel, "I really think that Tommy's hit was more dramatic than yours, since he hit it in the ninth inning.  You hit yours in the seventh."  "I know," replied Stengel.  "I got nervous and couldn't wait."

There's the story of how Henrich helped keep Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak alive in 1941. As remembered by Daniel Okrent and Steve Wulf in their Baseball Anecdotes, it was game #40 "during a doubleheader in Washington.  DiMaggio tied [George] Sisler's AL record in the first game, but between games a fan jumped on the field near the Yankee dugout, stole DiMaggio's favorite bat and slipped back into the stands.  Fortunately, Tommy Henrich was using another DiMaggio bat, and with that on Joe singled in the seventh inning to extend his streak to 41."  There was also the story, a few days earlier, of Henrich dropping down a bunt to grant DiMaggio the opportunity for a late-game at-bat in order to extend the streak.

If you read about Tommy Henrich the person, you'd find a man utterly well-respected on and off the field for his work ethic, his character, his ability... and, oh yes, his singing voice, too.

For all the fans of the pinstripes and all the fans of baseball, a moment of silence for Old Reliable.


Credit to Bill James' Historical Baseball Abstract for help in this tribute; it's one of the greatest baseball books of all time, bar none.

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