Tommy Henrich is a no-doubt, first ballot inductee in the Yankees’ Hall of Very Good. In 11 career seasons with the Yankees, he was a part of four World Series championship teams, made five All-Star games, and had a career OPS+ of 132. The fact that he didn’t come to the majors until he was 24, and had to spend three seasons in his prime serving in the military, kept him from arguably being an even bigger part of Yankees’ lore.
However, it took a fairly unlikely occurrence to even get him to New York in the first place. Not much would have had to gone different for him to have never played a single game in the Yankees’ pinstripes.
Born in Ohio, Henrich came to prominence playing semi-pro ball in the area. After turning down at least one major league team, he signed with Cleveland in 1933. He debuted the next year in their organization playing across two different levels, doing what he did for most of his MLB career: raking. He hit .325 with a .555 slugging in his first year in organized ball, and put up similar numbers both of the next two years.
His 1936 season was especially impressive, as he hit .346 with a .560 slugging, recording 79 extra-base hits. After that season, Henrich was expecting an invite to spring training at the very least. Cleveland finished above .500 in 1936, but finished a ways back of the Yankees. While he ended up playing a decent amount of first base in his career, Henrich had only played outfield in the minors up to that point. Cleveland had some good outfielders, but with those hitting numbers, you’d figure they should at least take a look at their prospect.
They did not. They ordered Henrich to report the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association. That’s when things got weird. The minor league Brewers were not a minor league affiliate of Cleveland. Henrich took advantage of that murky situation and appealed his case to commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, claiming that he was not getting a fair shot with Cleveland. Turns out, the commissioner agreed and declared Henrich a free agent.
These days, considering the role MLB commissioner has become, it’s hard to imagine Rob Manfred, or whoever else eventually get that job, siding with a player over a team. Years after the event, Henrich offered a hypothesis on why Landis sided with him. Cleveland’s GM was a guy named Cy Slapnicka. Even before Henrich, Slapnicka and Cleveland had been involved in other contractual shenanigans that ended up being ruled on by Landis, including one around future Hall of Famer Bob Feller. Henrich thinks that Landis might’ve ruled him a free agent due to a dislike of Slapnicka. No matter what the reason was, it ended up benefitting Henrich and the Yankees.
Henrich was granted free agency on April 14, 1937. Five days later, he signed with the Yankees, having grown up a fan of the team. Less than a month after that, he debuted in the majors. The rest is history. As mentioned, he went onto a long career with the Yankees, winning multiple championships, and even had a marquee moment with a walk-off home run in Game One of the 1949 World Series.
Henrich very well might’ve had a good case no matter what, but it’s pretty funny to imagine that the Yankees got a key cog on multiple championship teams in part because the commissioner didn’t like a guy.
New York Times, November 3, 1971