Friday, August 3, 2012

Into the Sunset, Pt. 2: Rickey Henderson

Baseball triggers more debate than any other sport in history.

Which pitcher had the best curveball in history? Who was the best hitter the game has ever seen? All are topics that have seen their share of arguments over the years.

If there is one question that leaves almost no room for debate, it's this.

"Who was the best base-stealer in baseball history?"

Without batting an eye, most would say Rickey Henderson. Frankly, I don't know how you could make a case for anyone but "Rickey".

His 1,406 career swipes is a record that will likely never be broken, as is his single-season mark of 130 steals in 1982.

In that regard, I guess it's fitting that Henderson's "peak year" in terms of cardboard also comes from '82.

I only have a couple of his earlier issues, but it would be hard to believe that any of the ones that have eluded me could beat out this amazing card.

I've often heard the term "iconic" thrown around when it comes to his 1980 Topps rookie card, as it should. (It's the main reason I bought it for an extremely reasonable price in the first place.)

However, I think that word could easily be applied to this one as well. While 1982 might not have been the finest year for Topps in terms of design, they knocked it out of the park with "Rickey", card number 610 in the set.

I have to believe that Henderson went on to steal a base seconds after this shot was taken. That intense glare at the pitcher from first base is one that I'm sure is burned in a lot of pitcher's memories. (And many catchers, for that matter.)

More or less, this chard characterizes what Rickey Henderson was all about.

If there is a blemish on his career, it's that he simply played too long. He didn't put up great numbers during his last four years in the bigs, during which he donned five different uniforms.

His final year in the bigs came during a 30-game stint with the Dodgers in '03.

Although he's currently in the Hall of Fame, he still hasn't officially retired from baseball. Even at the age of 53, I get the feeling that "Rickey" could still play if he wanted to.

This "sunset" theme can get a bit tricky with guys who retired after the mid '90s. The amount of different sets that were released after the card "boom" is just absurd in most cases.

So for guys like Henderson, I'm just going to go with whatever "final cards" I have of his. Although I'm certain there's more out there, I easily have enough to fill a post.

Besides, I don't know if it's humanly possible to track down cards from all those different sets.

I've managed to obtain six different "final cards" of Mr. Henderson during my collecting career.

The rarest of them all is this issue from the 2003 UD Finite set, in which the base cards limited to just 1,599 copies. (I don't think it was much of a "low-end" set.)

Ironically, it's the worst of Henderson's "sunset" cards, at least in my view.

With exceptions going to tobacco-style sets like A&G and T206, I'm not a huge fan of any releases that completely omit the natural backgrounds of the photos.

Not to mention that I have no idea what that futuristic-looking thing in the backdrop is supposed to be.

Judging from the look on his face, "Rickey" isn't too pleased about this send-off.

I'm sure there's a Donruss issue of Henderson in a Dodger uniform floating out there, but I don't have one.

In order to incorporate Donruss into this post, I'm using this '03 Donruss Champions issue, which features him during his brief stay in Boston.

This is probably the best design in the brief history of Donruss Champions, although that isn't saying very much.

Half of the card is cut off in order to display that unnecessarily large American League logo and the "1990 Most Valuable Player" icon.


While this set is called "Upper Deck Vintage", I'm not sure what the "vintage" part is supposed to imply.

To my knowledge, this isn't a knock-off design of any older sets. That's looking past the obvious fact that UD never really had a "vintage" set, since they made their debut in 1989.

For a guy's final card, they should at least get a shot of him doing something baseball-related.

In that regard, Upper Deck failed with this one.

Now we're starting to get into the good stuff.

Fleer's entry into this "sunset" post comes with their '03 Fleer Tradition Update release.

Unlike Upper Deck, Fleer did actually have some past "traditional" designs they mimicked for this set. This design comes from Fleer's often-overlooked 1963 release.

While "Rickey" may have made a name for himself on the basepaths, his hitting ability was nothing to sneeze at. He's still the all-time leader in leadoff homers.

His patient style at the plate enabled him to steal so many bases, as his .401 career on-base percentage enabled him to wreck havoc on the basepaths a lot more than if he were a free-swinging type of player.

Fleer snapped a great photo of him at the plate for this particular card, giving him a terrific "cardboard send-off".

Still, it ranks third on my list.

Before I go in depth on this one, I should note that Topps granted him a pretty awesome photo for his base 2003 card, but this Traded issue of his is ultimately the one that Topps used for Henderson's send-off, so it's the one that gains access into the countdown.

In terms of design, the blue border Topps used in 2003 works perfectly with the "Dodger blue" that Henderson wore during his final year in the bigs.

It was tough deciding between this one and the Fleer Tradition issue for the #2 slot in the countdown.

While it could've gone either way, I decided on this one because it shows the game's greatest base-stealer on the basepaths. 

It's as simple as that.

Still, it doesn't beat this one.

Any one of the final three cards on this list had a good shot of taking the top slot.

Ultimately, I decided that Henderson's 2004 Upper Deck issue did the best job of sending him "into the sunset".

While his '03 Topps Traded issue does show him on the basepaths, it's more of a lax moment of action, probably taken moments after a home run that either "Rickey" or one of his teammates hit.

This one, however, shows the game's greatest base-stealer at work. (It's a shame that there were so few people at the ballpark that day to witness it.)

From the looks of it, Henderson was attempting to "deke" the pitcher and catcher into thinking he was about to steal a base. While his speed may have dwindled in his later years, you'd never know it judging from the looks of him on this card.

He still looks like the prolific base-stealer from twenty years prior.

In that regard, maybe the Rickey Henderson of 2004 wasn't so different from the Rickey Henderson of 1982.


1972 Topps #437 Maury Wills

Since most pre-1981 players only had one true final card, I can't really do any sort of "countdown" with them.

Still, they deserved to be recognized somewhere in this theme. I've already run through a short list of a few of my "pre-'81 favorites", but that didn't even come close to putting a dent in all the great final cards from the pre-Donruss/Fleer era.

Every so often, I'll add a pre-'81 "sunset" issue to a post as sort of an addendum. I'll try my best to link the particular card to the main player featured in the post.

In this case, it was pretty easy to come up with a link to Mr. Henderson. Why not fellow speedster Maury Wills?

Heck, they even finished their careers on the same team.

As many baseball fans know, Wills held the modern single-season stolen base record before Henderson came along, stealing 104 bases in 1962. That had to have been one of the first baseball facts I knew, simply because it gets a mention in The Sandlot, my all-time favorite movie.

Wills is best remembered as a Dodger, although he did spend a couple years of his career with the Pirates and Expos in between two separate stints in Los Angeles.

It's odd seeing such a big figure in baseball history end up with a Topps baseball card that doesn't end in a "5" or "0". (What kind of number is 437?)

Granted, Wills was a far cry from his former base-stealing self by the time his career ended in 1972. He stole just one base in 71 games that year.

While I've never sat down and ranked my favorite Topps sets (one of the few things I haven't made a list of), there's no doubt in my mind that 1972 Topps would be in the top five.

Even though his final card doesn't show him on the basepaths, he still received a decent send-off. Then again, 1972 Topps could've used a shot of Maury Wills doing pretty much anything.

I still would've loved it.

1 comment:

hiflew said...

The 1982 Henderson is definitely his most iconic card, but his 1981 card is rather memorable too. As a kid of the mid-80s, I have to mention both Tim Raines and Vince Coleman as well. Sure Rickey lasted longer, but they were a very close 2nd and 3rd to him in the 80s.

I really miss the stolen base as a primary weapon, baseball in the 80s was awesome.