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Rickey at the Mic

When Rickey Henderson took the mic for his Cooperstown induction, the world expected fireworks. Instead, thanks to a remarkable speech professor, they got something even better.
September 5, 2014, 2:10pm
Photo by Dennis Heller -- flickr creative commons

This story appears in The Classical Baseball Magazine, which is available now for $3.99 via theiOS App, or in non-apple formats in the Classical's Plasso store. The magazine also features great stories on race, dingers, baseball-watching marathon quests, the confluence of October baseball and Presidential politics, the hidden ball trick, and more. The Classical is America's Favorite Weird Sports Magazine. 

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It shouldn't have been a surprise that Rickey Henderson, baseball's most prolific base stealer, stole the show at his 2009 Hall of Fame induction, but the way he did it was. In the months leading up to the ceremony, almost every baseball junkie—myself included—salivated at the prospect of Rickey taking the mic in Cooperstown, unfettered by team publicists.

Yes, the Man of Steal owns the career records for most runs, stolen bases and leadoff home runs, but he's also the owner of a reputation for delivering bonkers public speeches. In 1991, after breaking Lou Brock's career stolen base record, he proclaimed on the field, with his arms in the air, "Today, I am the greatest of all time!" with Lou Brock standing right next to him.

Rickey was also renowned for his creative mangling of the English language in post-game interviews, but he's above all a self-proclaimed entertainer. His 1992 autobiography, Off-Base: Confessions of a Thief, begins with the sentence: "Yes, I am a hot dog." Rickey's potent cocktail of showmanship and cockiness, mixed with a knack for dishing out Yogi Berra-style malapropisms, set the stage in Cooperstown for oratory fireworks.

I stood on the field by the Hall that July afternoon, surrounded by diehard A's yahoos who had made the trip from Oakland. Rickey stepped up to the podium, resplendent in a white suit, with dozens of Hall of Famers seated behind him. "Hey, hey!" he said. "I hope everyone's having a great time." He was off to a promising start. But as his speech unfurled, there was a conspicuous lack of crazy. The anecdotes he told were eloquent and funny. The gratitude he expressed was heartfelt and gracious. He told a story about a motivational high school teacher who paid him a quarter for every hit he made, run he scored or base he stole. He poked fun at Reggie Jackson, who was seated on the stage, for refusing to give him an autograph outside when he was a boy, and instead handed him a Reggie Jackson pen. I felt like someone who'd bought a ticket to see Fast & Furious, but accidentally walked into a screening of the latest Pixar movie.

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The speech was winding down and there hadn't been a YouTube-worthy moment yet. "In closing," Rickey said, "I would like to say my favorite hero was Muhammad Ali. He said at one time, 'I am the greatest.' That is something I always wanted to be. And now that the Association has voted me into the Baseball Hall of Fame, my journey as a player is complete. I am now in the class of the greatest players of all time. And at this moment, I am very, very … humble. Thank you."

Rickey hit us with a textbook fake-out, a rhetorical rope-a-dope. The audience cheered, but one A's fan turned to me and said, "That's it?"

***

Hall of Fame speeches can be tricky to navigate for an alpha male. Just ask Michael Jordan, who was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame two months after Rickey's induction in 2009, and delivered a now-infamous diatribe against anyone who ever doubted his talent. Or ask Mike Love of the Beach Boys, who lashed out at the Beatles and Billy Joel in his 1988 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech, and added, "[Mick Jagger's] always been too chickenshit to get onstage with the Beach Boys." By comparison, Rickey's speech was a Sunday sermon.

But how did he pull it off? I found the unlikely answer in a San Jose Mercury News article one month after the ceremony: Leading up to his induction, Rickey had enrolled in an Intro to Speech class at Laney College in Oakland.

Earlier this year, I reached out to the teacher of that class, Earl Robinson, to interview him on the occasion of the speech's fifth anniversary. After a few phone calls trying to track Robinson down, I learned that he was suffering from congestive heart failure, and was recuperating in a Southern California hospital. A friend of Robinson's said I should give him a call.

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Our first phone conversation was brief. Robinson said that Rickey was a fast learner, and a joy to teach. "I viewed the speech on television," Robinson said. "I thought it was outstanding. He was able to improvise. That part about Reggie Jackson? He pulled that out on the spot. He didn't have any dead time. And he showed he has the ability to be a fine speaker when he's prepared himself."

I wanted to visit Robinson, to talk to him in depth about the experience of teaching Rickey. "I'd like that," he said. "I'm a bit tired now. Call back next week, and we'll set up a time." When I called the following week, his cell phone had been disconnected.

I asked Robinson to tell me about himself in our first phone call. "I've always been a teacher," he said. "I love to be in the classroom, with the students." I researched Robinson's life after we talked. He was being modest. Here are some biographical details he neglected to mention:

In the late '50s, Robinson was a two-sport superstar at Berkeley, winning three conference basketball titles, leading Cal to a baseball national championship in 1957 as an All-American shortstop.

In 1958, he signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers. In his first spring training, Robinson competed in a legendary 60-yard dash against Maury Wills, Willie Davis and Tommy Davis. Thousands of dollars were wagered, with Robinson as the favorite. "We had a guy in camp that year named Earl Robinson," Wills writes in his 1991 autobiography, On the Run: The Never Dull and Often Shocking Life of Maury Wills. "Earl was from Berkeley, Calif. He looked like Jackie Robinson." Wills won the race, but only after (supposedly) getting a jump start.

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In 1961, Robinson was traded to the Orioles. He batted .271 with 44 home runs in 162 games over three seasons for the O's. In his first season with Baltimore, onSeptember 26, Robinson was in right field when Roger Maris hit the ball over his head to tie Babe Ruth's home run record. In 2001, Billy Crystal called Robinson before shooting his HBO movie, 61*, to ask him about that day.

Robinson's MLB career was cut short by injuries. He went on to become a teacher at Laney College and Castlemont High School, both in Oakland.

Weeks passed and I didn't hear anything about Robinson. Then in April, the UC Berkeley alumni website ran an article about his condition. Robinson had been moved into hospice care, and didn't have much longer to live. Baseball Assistance Team (B.A.T.), an MLB-affiliated charity, was paying his medical bills. Robinson's hospice center wasn't far from where I live in Los Angeles. I called a friend of his and asked if Robinson was taking visitors. He was.

***

Robinson was resting in bed with the covers pulled up to his chin when I walked in. He had a room to himself in an Orange County hospice center. The TV was on, the lights were off. He was wearing a red beanie and had a neatly trimmed gray mustache. "So you want to talk about Rickey?" he said and smiled. I turned down the volume on Rizzoli & Isles and pulled up a chair.

As much as I wanted to talk about Rickey, I'd become more intrigued about Robinson. After reading about his baseball career and subsequent life as a teacher, He seemed like a modern-day version of Moonlight Graham: a player who eschewed baseball for a life of serving others. "I read that you were in right field when Roger Maris tied Babe Ruth's home run record," I said. "I watched the video on YouTube. The ball ricochets off the second deck at Yankee Stadium and back onto the field, right at your feet."

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"I was in right field for Maris' 59th and 60th," Robinson said. "When the ball came back on the field I said, 'I'm gonna keep this sucker.' The umpire said, 'Robinson, give me the damn ball before I toss you from the game.' So I did."

Before our meeting, I had snapped up two of Robinson's baseball cards on eBay for a total of $5.65 - his 1961 Topps rookie card, and his 1962 Topps card. I pulled them from my jacket pocket, hoping to jog memories of his playing days.

"You put up good numbers on the Orioles," I said, showing him the back of the cards. He cut me off.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," he said, dismissing the baseball cards with a wave. "My stats were crap." I put them back in my pocket. Robinson seemed uneasy talking himself. So I switched the topic to education, and he opened up.

"So when your playing career ended, when did you start teaching?" I asked.

"Let's correct that," he said. "I was teaching all along. We didn't make the kind of money that these guys make today. As a result, in the off-season, I had to come home and look for a job. I came in as a guest speaker in the classroom of one of my old teachers, and he said, 'Why don't you come back and teach some more?' I said, 'Sure. Will they pay me?' He laughed. 'Oh yeah, they'll pay you.' As soon as the season ended, I'd come home to the Bay Area and go to the substitute teacher office. They'd hire me for the winter. I enjoyed teaching, and I enjoyed the money. I had a 50-year career as a teacher."

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When I asked Robinson about Rickey, his eyes opened wide, and he sat up in bed. "I first met Rickey when he was at Oakland Tech," Robinson said. "He was a fine football player back then. A friend of mine, J.J. Guinn [the scout who discovered Rickey] said, 'Earl, I've got a guy who's really, really talented.' So Guinn introduced us. Rickey was shy, but that boy could fly. I'd watch him run down fly balls, swing the bat. I thought, Damn, this kid has a shot at going places."

Robinson crossed paths with Rickey many times over the years. In the early 1980s, when Rickey was stealing bases with reckless abandon, Robinson occasionally worked in the A's front office, helping with public relations projects. It wasn't until the spring of 2009 that Rickey came back to Robinson, seeking his help.

"Gwunn was the one who sent Rickey to see me at Laney to work on his speech—he asked me to massage it a bit," Robinson said. "Rickey was in the class probably for six to seven weeks. During that time, he did every assignment every other student had to do. He'd stay an hour to an hour and a half after every class. One week, he had an event to attend in Arizona. He came and asked for my permission to miss class, and he turned in his makeup assignments a week early. That impressed me."

The students in Robinson's Intro to Speech class were typical college-age kids, mostly between the ages of 18 and 21. At the time, Rickey was 50 years old.

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"The students didn't know who he was," Robinson said. "When it began to filter out, in terms of who he was, then it was a blessing to them. They all felt really good about it. That somebody like Rickey would take the time to get better, and that he'd do everything they had to do. It was quite an experience for them."

Being arguably the greatest baseball player of his generation didn't exempt Rickey from any of Robinson's assignments. "One exercise I had him do with the whole class was to go out to the mall on campus," he said. "The mall is the center of campus, in between the gymnasium, the library and the student union. I had Rickey give his presentation to the class two or three times out there. It exposed him to things like planes flying overhead, birds flying around, students walking from class to class or eating lunch. Being exposed to those elements helped take away Rickey's anxiety."

Hall of Fame induction speeches are often the last time an athlete has a platform to say whatever he or she wants. Robinson said Rickey was aware that his Cooperstown speech—potentially his last time holding the conch—gave him the opportunity to clear up his most controversial moment: That 1991 "I am the greatest of all time" speech.

"The students and myself asked him, 'When you said you were the greatest, what did you mean?'" Robinson said. "He explained how he felt about that situation, and what he actually meant. Talking it out with the class, I believe, helped clear things up for him. In the presentation, he was able to explain himself. He used his sense of humor to explain it. It allowed people to see that he's not a bad guy, he's a wonderful guy. And he can laugh at that situation now."

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After talking for 30 minutes, Robinson was tiring. The last question I asked him was, after he watched Rickey in Cooperstown, how he did he think the class impacted the speech?

"He didn't know that he could pull it off, that he could somehow accommodate this kind of pressure and demand for elocution," Robinson said. "Through the class, he found out, 'I can do this.' Rickey had an excellent rapport with the other students. When he gave his final class presentation, they gave him a standing ovation. Because of where he started, and how much he improved over the course of the class, those students were truly impressed. And the students were proud to have him in the class."

Two weeks after our conversation, Earl Robinson died on the Fourth of July. He was 77.

Photo by Alex Scordelis

Robinson's depiction of Rickey as a humble student was a starkly different image from the brash base stealer I knew as a fan. To get a better understanding of post-baseball Rickey, I reached out to David Grann, a staff writer at The New Yorker. In 2005, Grann wrote "Stealing Time," a heartbreaking and funny profile of Rickey as he struggled to get back to the majors as a member of the San Diego Surf Dawgs. Grann spent time with Rickey and saw him stare down baseball mortality.

I asked Grann to review footage of Rickey's Hall of Fame speech, and we talked about it on the phone.

"What came across in Rickey's Hall of Fame speech," Grann said, "was a profound love of the game. He wouldn't have given that speech at the time I spent with him, but it didn't surprise me when he did. That he would invest a great deal in preparing for his speech doesn't surprise me, either. That he would treat it with that seriousness is very moving. Baseball meant an enormous amount to him. As he watched it fade—and that's when I was spending time with him—that was something tragic. But there was something about his speech, and his moment at the Hall of Fame, that was triumph. He got the recognition he deserved."

***

On the weekend after the 2014 All-Star break, the Oakland A's celebrated the 25th anniversary of their 1989 championship team. Before a Saturday night game against the Orioles, members of the '89 team walked down a red carpet, from center field to second base, in a pregame reunion. The sold-out crowd roared as the players were introduced.

I watched from the A's dugout. "Rickey's mercurial," the A's public relations director told me before the ceremony. "He might not want to be interviewed. But wait in the dugout, and he might talk to you."

I knew I'd probably only have time for one question. After the on-field celebration, Rickey mingled with Jose Canseco and Dennis Eckersley. For a moment, I saw him standing alone by home plate. I walked out on the field, and told him I had a question about Earl Robinson. I was shouting. The din of the fans, who were still cheering for the old-timers, was near deafening. Rickey nodded, so I asked: "What was the most valuable lesson Earl Robinson taught you in his speech class at Laney College?"

"Never pause," Rickey said. "If you make a mistake, think of something else you can relate to the audience until you get back on the right track. During my speech, I went off track a little bit. But I thought of Reggie Jackson, and when I first started coming to the ballpark here [in Oakland], and the experience I had as a kid. I related that to the audience. It kept things moving. Earl said, 'Never pause, think of something to say, and always keep the speech moving.'"

Of all the lessons he learned in Robinson's class, it's only fitting that Rickey, a player who blazed around the base paths and switched teams 12 times on a quixotic quest to play forever, aimed to never pause.