The position of Yankees rightfielder was made famous by Babe Ruth, a larger-than-life carouser known almost as much for his partying as his hitting. Funny, then, that the man who filled Ruth's beer-soaked spikes during New York's 1940s dynasty was Tommy Henrich, a man so understated that the best nickname anyone could think up for him was Old Reliable.
Henrich, who died last week at age 96, earned the moniker mainly for his clutch batting—he hit the first walk-off homer in World Series history in 1949—but it fit his personality perfectly. He was hardworking and thoughtful and wanted nothing more than to be left alone to his chaste hobbies. (He is quite likely the only big league player who ever boasted of membership in the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America.) Of course, that made him the kind of man the Yankees wanted to advertise as the face of the franchise, so they sent him to countless banquets and breakfasts where Henrich dutifully slogged his way through speech after speech.
According to a 1949 New Yorker profile, one of Henrich's friends summed him up by saying he was "strictly Massillon, Ohio." It was on the ball fields of that sleepy town that Henrich's path to Yankee Stadium began. Oddly, they were softball fields. Massillon was as much a football hotbed then as it is now, and baseball diamonds were scarce, so a teenage Henrich caught scouts' eyes playing for the Hoffman Drugs Company softball team.
By 24 he was a regular in the Yankees' outfield, where he was part of six World Series winners and made five All-Star teams. Henrich had his best season in 1948, when he hit .308 with 25 home runs and led the AL in runs (138) and triples (14). "He came pretty close in character and performance," columnist Arthur Daley of The New York Times once wrote, "to being the ideal Yankee."
December 14, 2009
SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE
Former NBA center Luc Longley paid $2,900 for the right to name a newly discovered species of shrimp after his daughter.