First and foremost, happy new year from everyone over here at Pinstripe Alley. We as a group wish you all a better 2022. Let us start off the year and also end the week with the third segment of our series.
The amount of great players who went under the radar or remained underappreciated throughout their pinstripe tenures is an enormous list, but there remain plenty of standouts to choose from. For today’s selection, we’re centering in on another corner outfielder from the early era of the Yankees’ dominance: Tommy Henrich.
Career stats: .282/.382/.491, 183 HR, 795 RBI, 712 BB, 383 SO
Henrich is the embodiment of one of his nicknames, “Old Reliable.” A right fielder for the majority of his career, he was never considered the leading man, never finished in the top five for an MVP award and only made a handful of All-Star Games. Nonetheless, his production and consistency were absolutely terrific.
The Ohio native got a late start to his baseball career because around his hometown of Massillon, there weren’t that many opportunities to play the sport. Instead, it was all about football, but his parents fortunately didn’t let him play. I say fortunately because, after spending some time alternating between semi-pro ball and also a job as a clerk in a steel mill, he signed with Cleveland a couple of months shy of his 21st birthday.
The story of how Henrich got from Cleveland to New York is quite interesting and shows how little things can affect history. Despite great numbers with linear progress during three years in the minors, Henrich never got a chance to play in the big leagues and after being assigned to the Milwaukee Brewers (then a minor league team with no major league affiliation), a frustrated Henrich sent a letter to the commissioner declaring that he was being treated unfairly by the Cleveland organization.
Henrich sent that letter with feelings of injustice and a belief in his case. In a surprising response, the commissioner ruled in his favor and declared him a free agent (as my colleague Matt detailed in an article last month). Henrich would go on to state long after his retirement that he felt that the decision was mainly motivated by commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis’s dislike for Cleveland’s GM, Cy Slapnicka.
Due to a late start, multiple injuries late in his career and also a three-year stint in the military between his age 30-32, Henrich didn’t compile a lot of counting stats, but you can’t argue with his impact. Henrich averaged 5.0 bWAR per 162 played and even for the standards of another era, he had a great approach at the plate. His 7.1 strikeout percentage was under the league average, and his 13.2 walk percentage easily outpaced most of the league. On top of that, his .209 ISO helped him standout at the plate compared to the .111 mark that the everyday player in the ‘40s produced.
Henrich had many big postseason moments throughout his career, but perhaps his most important game came at the end of the 1949 regular season. Old Reliable had a home run and drove in a pair in a 5-3 win over the Red Sox to clinch the AL pennant, and Henrich would go on to hit the first walk-off home run in World Series history, as the Yankees beat the Dodgers 1-0 in the World Series opener.
The Game 1 victory ended up propelling the Yankees to their first of five consecutive championships. Although still productive at the plate, debilitating knee injuries led to Henrich’s retirement at the end of the 1950 season. He ultimately contributed to seven different World Series championship teams.
Known and perhaps rewarded for his incredible joy for the game, Henrich lived to be 96 and died on December 1, 2009, the last year the Yankees won the Fall Classic.
Credit to SABR for help with the research.