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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #37 Tommy Henrich

Nicknamed “Old Reliable,” Tommy Henrich never wavered as a key supporting piece during multiple Yankees dynasties.

Tommy Henrich Photo by Photo File/Getty Images

Full Name: Thomas David Henrich
Position: Right field
Born: February 20, 1913 (Massillon, OH)
Died: December 1, 2009 (Beavercreek, OH)
Yankee Years: 1937-50
Primary number: 15
Yankee statistics: 1,284 G, .282/.382/.491, 269 2B, 73 3B, 183 HR, 131 wRC+, 39.5 rWAR, 38.6 fWAR

Biography

To many, baseball is a game of attrition. A season is played over many months and consists of 162 games, games that are made up of hundreds of pitches and dozens of plate appearances. The grind exacts a toll on every player who picks up a bat, and to record a successful career as a major league baseball player is to weather

In that context, there are few weightier honors the game can bestow on a player than the nickname “Old Reliable.” That is what they called Tommy Henrich, a man who produced as reliably as anyone as a member of eight pennant-winning Yankees clubs. Those teams were stacked with legends, from Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio to Joe Gordon and Spud Chandler, but producing in the background the whole time as those legends came and went was Henrich.

Early Years

Thomas Henrich was born in Massillon, Ohio, a small city 50 miles south of Cleveland, to Edward and Mary Elizabeth Henrich. Massillon was not an auspicious place to be born if your goal was to become a major leaguer. It was a football town through and through; during the New Deal era, the Works Progress Administration program helped facilitate the construction of the Paul Brown Tiger Stadium, the home of the Massillon Tiger Football team with a capacity of nearly 17,000.

St. John’s Catholic High School, from which Henrich graduated in 1933, didn’t even have a baseball team, so Henrich spent most of his childhood playing softball. This led to Henrich claiming his birth year was 1916, three years later than his actual birth year, to compensate for his lack of experience. After graduation, Henrich played semipro ball in Ohio, where he caught the eye of a Detroit Tigers scout. Henrich turned down the Tigers’ advances, but eventually signed with Cleveland in November 1933.

Henrich excelled in Cleveland’s minor league system, showing little ill effect of having played softball for so much of his life. He hit .325 in his first year as a pro, and hit .337 in 1935. By 1936, he looked like one of the best players in the minors, hitting .346/.411/.560 with 15 homers and 100 RBI across 157 games.

Understandably, Henrich expected a shot at making the big league club in 1937, but was instead told to report to the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association, a team that wasn’t even an affiliate of Cleveland’s. With his status unclear, Henrich wrote to commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who ruled in favor of Henrich, making the 23-year-old the first true free agent in MLB history.

In April of 1937, the Yankees signed Henrich, whose favorite ballplayer growing up was Babe Ruth, to a contract that included a $25,000 bonus. Henrich, the Ohio kid, was off to the Big Apple.

Henrich told Arthur Daley, a New York Times journalist, of his time checking into his hotel when he first arrived in Manhattan:

The bellhop took my bag and discovered who I was before we even reached the room. ‘So you’re the new Yankee outfielder,’ he said, sneering at me. ‘How can you break in ahead of—let’s see, who we’ve got—Joe DiMaggio, Jake Powell, Myril Hoag, George Selkirk, and Roy Johnson? Did you ever see them guys hit?’ ‘Not yet,’ I said bravely, ‘but they never saw me hit either.’

Getting the call to the Bronx

Henrich was initially assigned to the Yankees’ top minor league affiliate, but within days, manager Joe McCarthy called for Henrich. He debuted on May 11th at age-24, batting seventh and starting in left field. He doubled in the seventh off of White Sox righty Monty Stratton, but the Yankees lost 7-2. The defending champion Yankees were in an early slump, losing five of six to fall to 9-8 on the season.

But Henrich’s promotion coincided exactly with the Yankees’ resurgence. New York led the American League by the end of May and never let go of first place, storming to a 102-52 record and the pennant.

Tom Heinrich in Baseball Uniform Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Henrich dealt with a knee injury over the summer and never became a full-time player, with a 22-year-old DiMaggio patrolling center, and veterans Selkirk and Hoag still at the top of the pecking order in the corners. When on the field, though, Henrich immediately fit in. The rookie shook off a midseason slump to turn in a stellar stretch run, hitting .363 from July onward. He finished 1937 with a .972 OPS, totaling 2.0 rWAR despite appearing in just 67 games.

Henrich didn’t appear in the 1937 World Series, which the Yankees won in five games over the New York Giants. Of course, he wouldn’t have to wait long for another chance to play in a Fall Classic, as Henrich cemented himself as a key supporting cog on a star-laden 1938 Yankees team. Though he was overshadowed by a declining Gehrig, an ascendant DiMaggio, and a dominant rotation led by Red Ruffing and Lefty Gomez, Henrich was, well, reliable. Typically hitting third between Red Rolfe and DiMaggio, Henrich swatted 22 homers and 24 doubles in 131 games, slashing .270/.391/.490.

The Yankees ran away with the AL again and faced the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. Now an established player, Henrich got his first shot in the playoffs and didn’t disappoint, hitting a double in Game 1 and a home run in the deciding Game 4. The Yankees swept the Cubs for their third straight title.

Henrich continued to produce over the next two seasons, though continued knee problems ate into his playing time. He hit .291/.388/.480 across 1939 and 1940, but appeared in just 90 and 99 games in those two seasons respectively. The Yankees won the ‘39 World Series, but Henrich sat on the sidelines, and New York’s dynasty was finally slowed in 1940 with a third-place finish in the American League.

Breakout cut short by war

After missing the final weeks of the 1940 season, Henrich started fresh in 1941, batting third and starting in right on Opening Day. He’d go on to have his finest season yet, smashing 31 homers and 27 doubles with a .277/.377/.519. He earned down-ballot MVP votes for the first time in his career, and played a crucial role in the Yankees’ World Series victory over the Dodgers. With the series tied 1-1, and Game 3 tied 0-0, Henrich singled and scored what was ultimately the winning run in the Yankees’ 2-1 win.

Then, with the Yankees down to their final strike trailing 4-3 in Game 4, Henrich swung over a curveball from Hugh Casey for strike three. But catcher Mickey Owen dropped the ball, and Henrich alertly took off for first:

Yankees/Dodgers World Series

After a DiMaggio single, Charlie Keller doubled both runners home as the Yankees went on to win. Even while striking out, Henrich proved his baseball smarts to make himself essential to the rally. He would also provide a solo homer in a 3-1 Yankees victory in Game 5 that delivered the Yankees another title.

Henrich didn’t miss a beat in 1942, earning the first All-Star nod of his career, but his breakout would be cut short by World War II. In August 1942, Henrich joined the US Coast Guard, and was stationed in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan for the rest of the war. He returned to the Yankees ahead of the 1946 season upon the completion of his Coast Guard duty.

Continued excellence post-war

Henrich lost the end of his age-29 season and the entirety of his age-30 to age-32 seasons due to military service, just as he had earned All-Star recognition for the first time. Yet the three-year break hardly even registered as a blip for Henrich, whose dependable production continued upon his return to New York.

Henrich was perhaps just a little slow during his first season back, with his wRC+ falling to 115 in 1946. Still, Henrich was steady as ever in right field and also started showing his versatility, making 40 starts at first base. He played 150 games on the year, totaling 3.6 rWAR.

He fully hit his stride starting with the 1947 season, posting a 135 wRC+ and hitting 16 homers with 98 RBI, making his second All-Star team. Healthy and able to participate in the World Series for the first time in six years, Henrich didn’t waste the opportunity as the Yankees advanced to face the Dodgers. He had one of his finest Fall Classics, hitting .323 with a homer and five RBI as the Yankees prevailed in seven games.

No longer was Henrich in the background as Yankees greats took the headlines; Henrich was as valued and venerated as most any player. He finished among the Yankees’ top three players by rWAR every year from 1947 to 1949. He made four consecutive All-Star teams and was renowned by his contemporaries for his all-around skill, and his decency. Casey Stengel, speaking to The New Yorker for a profile on Henrich, said in 1949:

He’s a fine judge of a fly ball. He fields grounders like an infielder. He never makes a wrong throw, and if he comes back to the hotel at 3 in the morning when we’re on the road and says he’s been sitting up with a sick friend, he’s been sitting up with a sick friend.

In 1948, Henrich set a career high with a 145 wRC+, with 25 homers and 100 RBI. He ran another career-high wRC+ in 1949 with a 149 figure, to go with 24 homers and 85 RBI. From ‘47 to ‘49, Henrich’s combined wRC+ tied for sixth among all qualified players. His 15.0 fWAR was fifth among outfielders, just behind his teammate DiMaggio. While he was never a true contender for an MVP award, gone were the days when Henrich would only pick up a stray down-ballot vote. He finished sixth in AL MVP voting in both 1948 and 1949, leading the league in runs scored in the former year.

In 1949, Henrich would burnish his reputation for reliability in the clutch. With the Yankees tied with the rival Red Sox on the final day of the regular season and needing a win to grab the AL pennant, Henrich homered in the first inning and drove in two in a 5-3 win. Just three days later, Henrich came through again in Game 1 of the World Series. Facing the Dodgers, neither team could solve the other’s starter. Allie Reynolds tossed nine shutout frames, but Don Newcombe blanked the Yankees through eight with 11 strikeouts. Henrich led off the bottom of the ninth, and sent an offering from Newcombe deep into the right-field seats at Yankee Stadium:

Henrich’s home run was the first walk-off homer in the history of the World Series. It was the fourth and final time Henrich would go deep in a Fall Classic. Henrich scored twice in the Yankees’ series-clinching Game 5 win, the last World Series game in a career packed with clutch postseason highlights.

Retirement from baseball

Henrich appeared to be at the top of his game in 1949, but time finally caught up to him in 1950. Though his knee had held up in the previous few years, Henrich broke down and succumbed to various injuries which limited him to a part-time role. Of course, Old Reliable still produced when able, posting a robust 131 wRC+ in 178 plate appearances for the 1950 Yankees. New York won their second straight World Series, on their way to five in a row, though Henrich didn’t appear in the four-game sweep of the Phillies.

After an injury-riddled year, Henrich hung up his spikes. He spent 1951 as a member of the Yankees coaching staff, but departed after just one season; he also published a book that year, The Way to Better Baseball. Henrich coached for the Giants and Tigers from 1957 to 1959, though neither term lasted long. He seemed more content to stay on the sidelines, and speak of his times playing alongside many of baseball’s greatest players.

It’s easy to wonder what Henrich’s career would have looked like had he not lost nearly three and a half prime seasons to World War II. Had Henrich played his typical consistent brand of baseball through those years, he likely would have approached the Yankee franchise top ten in WAR, and perhaps even could have generated a fringe Hall of Fame case. But if Henrich was bitter about the lost opportunities, he did not show it.

Henrich would become a fixture at Yankees Old-Timers’ Days, and the club presented him with the Pride of the Yankees Award in 1987. In the ‘90s, he wrote a second book, Five O’Clock Lightning: Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle and the Glory Years of the NY Yankees, written along with Bill Gilbert.

Henrich lived his final years in his home state, and passed away at the age of 96 in December 2009, survived by his five children. He was more than just one of the last links to the iconic DiMaggio-led Yankees teams — he was an outstanding outfielder who was a deserving fan favorite for decades.

DiMaggio and Henrich
DiMaggio and Henrich
Photo by American Stock/Getty Images

Staff rank: 41
Community rank: 36
Stats rank: 31
2013 rank: 28

References

Baseball Reference

Edelman, Rob. SABR Bio.

FanGraphs

Goldstein, Richard. “Tommy Henrich, Yankees Clutch Hitter, Dies at 96,” New York Times, December 1, 2009.

Griffin, Jim. The New York Yankees All-Time All-Stars. New York: Lyons Press, 2019.

“Massillon Paul Brown Tiger Stadium”, MassillonTigers.com, November 30, 2012.

Previously on the Top 100

38. Bob Shawkey
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