Hall of Famers Henderson, Rice got a push toward baseball
by Phil Rogers, Chicago Tribune
Twenty years ago, Los Angeles-based scout John Young persuaded Major League Baseball to fund a program to reintroduce youth baseball programs to inner cities.
Three years ago, MLB’s Urban Youth Academy opened in Compton, Calif., in response to the continuing decline of African-American players in the big leagues, and already it has been credited with a can’t-miss prospect: outfielder Aaron Hicks in the Minnesota Twins’ system.
While applauding the corporate endeavors, it’s worth remembering what a difference well-meaning individuals can make.
On a cloudy Sunday in the picturesque countryside, Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice — along with Veterans Committee pick Joe Gordon — were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
They are African-Americans with differing backgrounds — Henderson from Oakland, Calif., Rice from semi-rural South Carolina. Both were multi-sport standouts as teenagers, with football careers within their reach. Along the way, someone took the time to sell them on baseball, and you know the rest of the story.
“No regrets,” said Rice, who never has left the Boston Red Sox organization after the team drafted him in 1971.
Both credited their parents with ultimately steering them toward baseball.
“Moms do know best,” Henderson, the all-time leader in runs scored (2,295) and stolen bases (1,406), said during his speech before an estimated crowd of 21,000.
Bobbie Henderson smiled broadly as her son spoke about how she didn’t want him to get hurt playing football. He said he quit the football team at Oakland Technical High School after scoring “13 or 14 touchdowns” as a sophomore running back and was enticed into playing baseball by one of the school’s guidance counselors, Tommie Wilkerson.
Henderson said she loved baseball and would essentially bribe students to go out for the team, which needed bodies.
“I was a football player, played a little hoops,” Henderson said. “I wanted to play for the Oakland Raiders. … I did not like baseball. My counselor bribed me into playing baseball.
“She would pay me a quarter every time I got a hit, a run scored or a stolen base. After my first 10 games, I had 30 hits, 25 runs scored and 33 stolen bases. That’s not bad money for a kid in high school.”
Henderson also recalled how his Babe Ruth League coach, Hank Thompson, would get him on the field in the summers.
“He tricked me into playing by coming to pick me up with a glazed doughnut and a cup of hot chocolate,” said Henderson, who played for nine teams during his 25-year career. “That was the way he would get me out of bed.”
Rice, a two-way football player in high school, was good enough to be offered a scholarship at Nebraska. He told similar stories about a youth baseball coach.
Olin Saylors was his Hank Thompson. Saylors drove to the Rice house to get Jim when he decided he didn’t want to play American Legion ball the summer before his senior year.
“I wanted to get a job so I could buy some nice khakis,” Rice said. “He came to the house to pick me up the first day, and I told him I didn’t want to play. I talked to my parents about it, and they said it was up to me. Then he came to my house the next day anyway, and my mom said, ‘You’re going with him, you’re going to play.’ ”
Saylors told the Boston Globe last week that Rice’s talent was so immense, he broke his own rule about never recruiting a player who wasn’t motivated. He said Rice told him he wanted to work so he could buy some clothes, and he responded, “Son, if you continue playing the game, one day you’ll be wearing silk underwear.”
In the end, it was Rice’s father who steered him toward a baseball career instead of the football scholarship. It turned out to be the right decision because of the coaching he had received from John Moore, who had taught him the game from 7th through 11th grade at Westside High School in Anderson, S.C.
“He had played college ball, and he was the type of instructor that you had to do the fundamentals,” Rice said. “It was only one way, and it was the right way. The things he taught me — how to inside-out the ball, hit the cutoff man, elevate the ball when there’s a runner on third — those were the things I did in the big leagues.”
You never know when some coaching — like a well-timed bribe to a precocious speedster — is going to change the direction of a life.