This article was written by Rob Edelman
“What do [you] think of Tommy Henrich?”
“I don’t know, he’s dependable, I guess.”
This bit of repartee, from Philip Roth’s novella Goodbye Columbus, just about sums up Henrich’s career with the New York Yankees during the late 1930s and 1940s. If Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Gordon, Bill Dickey, Phil Rizzuto, and Yogi Berra were the luminaries of the pre and post-war Bronx Bombers, Henrich was a rock-solid supporting player. He was celebrated for his dedication to the game, his ability to deliver a timely hit, and his prowess on defense. It was for good reason Henrich was nicknamed “Old Reliable,” and he was sincere when he declared, “I get a thrill every time I put on my Yankee uniform. It sounds corny, but it’s the gospel truth.”[fn]Peter Golenbock, Dynasty: The New York Yankees, 1949-1964.[/fn]
Thomas David Henrich was born on February 20, 1913, in Massillon, Ohio. His parents were Edward M. Henrich, a plastering contractor, and Mary Elizabeth (Dressler) Henrich; he had four brothers and a sister. The Henrichs were active in St. Mary’s Catholic Church, and young Tommy attended the parish school.
Massillon was strictly football country, but Henrich’s parents refused to allow him to play what they considered a violent sport. So instead, the youngster became enamored of baseball. However, there were no baseball teams in Massillon; throughout his childhood and high school years—he graduated from St. John’s Catholic High School in nearby Canton in 1933—he could play only softball. In fact, for much of his big league career, he claimed his birth year was 1916, to compensate for his lack of baseball playing in his youth.
After graduation from high school, Henrich played baseball for the semipro Prince Horn and Acme Dairy teams and drew the attention of Billy Doyle, a Detroit Tigers scout. The Tigers offered him a contract, but he chose to continue playing semipro ball while earning a paycheck as a clerk in a steel mill.
In November 1933, Henrich was signed by the Cleveland Indians after catching the attention of scout Bill Bradley. He spent the following summer with the Monessen Indians in the Class D Pennsylvania State Association, where he hit .326 in 104 games; he also played in four games with the Zanesville (Ohio) Greys in the Class C Middle Atlantic League. He returned to Zanesville in 1935 and hit .337 in 115 games; he finished that campaign playing seventeen games for the New Orleans Pelicans in the Class A Southern Association. Henrich, a left-handed batter and thrower, spent the entire 1936 campaign in New Orleans, and his progress as a ballplayer is reflected in the numbers he compiled: a .346 batting average with fifteen home runs, 100 RBIs, and 117 runs scored.
The twenty-three-year-old Henrich believed his stellar Southern Association season would earn him a spring training invite with the 1937 Indians. Instead, he was ordered to report to the Minor League Milwaukee Brewers in the American Association. Henrich was baffled by this exclusion. Furthermore, as the Brewers had no Major League affiliation, he was unsure who exactly owned his contract. Instead of suffering quietly, he wrote a letter to Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the baseball commissioner, in which he wondered if he was being justly treated by the Indians. The commissioner responded by pronouncing that Cleveland was not offering Henrich a fair shot at making the big league club. Furthermore, Landis declared Henrich a free agent who could sign with any Major League organization of his choosing. “I had a strong case [against the Indians],” Henrich recalled in 1971, “but I always had the feeling that Landis ruled in my favor because he disliked [Cleveland general manager Cy] Slapnicka so much.”[fn]Arthur Daley, “Sports of the Times: The Rediscovery of Tommy Henrich.” New York Times, November 3, 1971.[/fn]
On April 14, 1937, Henrich was freed of his obligation to Cleveland. Though the Indians were the closest thing to a hometown big league club, Henrich had long been a New York Yankees fan. He was won over in the early 1920s after the Yankees acquired Babe Ruth; Henrich readily admitted the Babe was his favorite ballplayer. After his liberation from Cleveland, over half the big league organizations expressed an interest in him. The New York Giants’ Bill Terry told the press he would pay $15,000 for Henrich’s services. But less than a week after becoming a free agent, Henrich signed with the Yankees, earning a bonus that was reported to be in the $20,000 to $25,000 range.[fn]Red Smith, “Sports of the Times: Tommy Henrich Gives His View.” New York Times, February 18, 1981.[/fn]
“I still have a vivid memory of coming to town for the first time and checking into the Hotel New Yorker,” he remembered. “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.’”[fn]Arthur Daley, “Sports of the Times: The Rediscovery of Tommy Henrich.” New York Times, November 3, 1971.[/fn]
The Yankees assigned the six-foot, 180-pound Henrich to the International League Newark Bears, their top farm club. A week later, Yankees manager Joe McCarthy overheard Roy Johnson rationalizing a defeat with a “you-can’t-win-them-all” mindset. McCarthy, who loathed losing, asked general manager Ed Barrow to replace the veteran outfielder with “the kid.” Johnson was sold to the Boston Bees—and “the kid” had played his final Minor League game.
Henrich made his big league debut on May 11, 1937. Batting seventh in the Yankees lineup, he doubled in four at-bats against Chicago White Sox hurler Monty Stratton. The Yanks then were mired in a slump, and McCarthy shuffled his batting order. With Henrich now hitting third, the Yanks scored a 4–2 victory on May 13 against the St. Louis Browns. The rookie—described in the New York Times as “our latest freshman sensation”—contributed two singles.[fn]John Drebinger, “Revised Line-Up Shakes Slump And Yankees Down Browns, 4-2. New York Times, May 14, 1937.[/fn] Then on May 16, playing against the Philadelphia Athletics, he belted his first home run, along with a triple and single. The four-bagger came in the sixth inning off A’s starter George Caster.
Overall, Henrich appeared in sixty-seven games, completing the 1937 season with a .320 batting average, fourteen doubles, five triples, eight home runs and forty-two RBIs. The only downside to his freshman campaign was an injury to his left knee. Before 1938 spring training, he included a note, addressed to Barrow, along with his signed Yankee contract, in which he declared, “I am feeling fine, have no complaints, and am prepared to give everybody a fight for an outfield berth. My knees have not troubled me lately and I intend to report with the first squad in St. Petersburg, Fla., to round into shape.”[fn]“Yankees Report Henrich In Fold.” New York Times, February 22, 1938.[/fn]
Henrich did indeed stick with the Yankees in 1938. In fact, that spring and the next, he even worked out at first base. Rumor had it he might eventually replace Lou Gehrig as the team’s first baseman. “For what is believed to be the first time in his fourteen year association with the Yankees, as a player under contract,” reported James Dawson of the New York Times on March 23, 1939, “Lou Gehrig didn’t play today when the world champions met their Kansas City farm club at Yale Field in Haines City, Florida.”[fn]James P. Dawson, “Henrich in Game at Gehrig’s Post; Barrow Observes Work Closely.” New York Times, March 23, 1939.[/fn] Substituting for him was Henrich. When the Iron Horse finally benched himself during the regular season, ending his streak of 2,130 consecutive games, he was replaced by Babe Dahlgren, and not Henrich. It was decided the “baby-faced guardian of right field” was too valuable to the Yankees as an outfielder.[fn]James P. Dawson, “Henrich Set To Try New Yankee Post.” New York Times, March 3, 1941.[/fn]
In his sophomore season and those that followed, Henrich occasionally lost playing time because of his knee injury, but his steady play won him respect among his teammates and coaches. He also earned positive press. As the 1938 campaigned neared its conclusion, sportswriter John Kieran observed, “Tommy Henrich is a nice lad and a good ball player who should and probably will get better.”[fn]John Kieran, “Sports of the Times: The Yankees: The Best Ever in Baseball.” New York Times, September 20, 1938.[/fn]
In 1941 Henrich played a significant role in keeping alive Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. On June 26, the 38th game of the streak, the Yankee Clipper was still hitless as the team came to bat in the last of the eighth inning holding the lead against the St. Louis Browns. DiMaggio was due up fourth in the inning, with Henrich scheduled right before him. With one out and Red Rolfe on first, McCarthy ordered Henrich to bunt to avoid a possible ground-ball double play—and not allowing his teammate a final at-bat. Henrich was thrown out, but Rolfe took second. DiMaggio slammed Elden Auker’s first pitch for a double, and the streak remained intact.
Yankees broadcaster Mel Allen began calling Henrich “Old Reliable”—the name of a train that ran from Ohio to Alabama and was celebrated for always being on time—because of his propensity for hitting in the clutch. As Bobby Brown, who became his teammate in 1946, noted, “If we were ahead 10–1 or 10–2, he was just average. If we were behind 10–1 or 10–2, same thing. But get him in a big game and he was terrific.”[fn]“Tommy Henrich dies at 96; New York Yankees star.” Los Angeles Times, December 2, 2009.[/fn] Henrich, who practiced his fielding endlessly, once famously observed, “Catching a fly ball is a pleasure. But knowing what to do with it after you catch it is a business.”[fn]George Will, Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball.[/fn] It was for good reason Joe DiMaggio called him “the smartest player in the big leagues.”[fn]Arthur Daley, “Sports of the Times: The Rediscovery of Tommy Henrich.” New York Times, November 3, 1971.[/fn]
Upon the United States’ entry into World War II, Henrich was one of the scores of big leaguers who went into the military. On August 30, 1942, the year in which he made his first American League All-Star team, he joined the U.S. Coast Guard. He was assigned the rating of specialist first class and spent the war years attached to a training station in Michigan, where he played baseball for military teams. He also volunteered to coach the girls’ basketball team at Loretto Catholic High School in Sault Ste Marie.
On September 29, 1945, Henrich completed his Coast Guard duty and rejoined the Yankees the following season. His batting average in 1946 sank to .251, but the slump was temporary as he raised his average to .287 and .308 in 1947 and 1948. Additionally, he was an American League All-Star each season from 1947 to 1950. During this time, he displayed his versatility and athleticism by occasionally manning first base. By the end of the decade, he was a respected, hard-nosed veteran who readily criticized teammates who were not playing as hard as they could or were making thoughtless errors. By his standards, such actions led to losing games and diminished opportunities for the Yankees to make the World Series.
Casey Stengel, who took over as the team’s manager in 1949, complimented Henrich for his on-field prowess and added, “If he comes back to the hotel at three 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.”[fn]Richard Goldstein, “Tommy Henrich, Yankees Clutch Hitter, Dies at 96.” New York Times, December 2, 2009.[/fn] New York Times columnist Arthur Daley observed, “Henrich has never been the captain of the Yankees. But the other players just gravitated to him as their natural leader. He was the captain in fact, if not in name.”[fn]Arthur Daley, “Sports of the Times: End of a Career.” New York Times, December 20, 1950.[/fn]
By the late 1940s, however, injuries were starting to debilitate Henrich. In 1949 he fractured the transverse vertebrae in his back, broke his toe, and played in just 115 games. In April 1950 he flew to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore to seek treatment for the left knee that had been bothering him since his rookie year. His physician, Dr. George Bennett, informed him he needed knee surgery, but could not promise the operation would allow him to continue playing ball. Henrich refused to have the surgery and, after playing in only seventy-three games in 1950, he announced his retirement as a player on December 18.
In the eleven seasons he spent with the Yankees, Henrich appeared in 1,284 games, compiling a .282 batting average and 183 home runs. His highest home run total was thirty-one, in 1941, third best in the American League. In 1948 he tied a league record by belting four grand slams, led the league in triples, runs scored, and extra-base hits, and was second in doubles and total bases. In 1949 he was third in the American League in slugging percentage and tied for third in home runs. He finished sixth in the Most Valuable Player race in both 1948 and 1949. In January 1950 Sport Magazine honored him as its Athlete of the Year.
Henrich appeared in four World Series, in 1938, 1941, 1947, and 1949. On three occasions, he played significant roles in deciding final scores. In each, the Yankees were pitted against the Brooklyn Dodgers. In the fourth game of the 1941 fall classic, played at Ebbets Field—which the Dodgers needed to win to tie the series—Brooklyn’s Hugh Casey nursed a one-run lead in the ninth inning. After retiring the first two Yankees, he faced Henrich. With the count at 3-and-2, Henrich swung and missed. The game would have been over, but Dodgers catcher Mickey Owen failed to catch the ball.
Henrich’s baseball instincts had him heading toward first base as he watched the movement of the ball; when he realized that it had gotten past Owen, he began running at full speed and arrived safely at first base. “I saw that little white jackrabbit bouncing,” Henrich recalled, “and I said, ‘Let’s go.’ It rolled all the way to the fence. I could have walked down to first.”[fn]Richard Goldstein, “Tommy Henrich, Yankees Clutch Hitter, Dies at 96.” New York Times, December 2, 2009.[/fn] The Yankees rallied to win, 7–4, and then won the Series the next day. In the 1947 Series, another win against Brooklyn, Henrich paced the team with ten hits in thirty-one at-bats.
Henrich was at his most clutch at the close of the 1949 regular season and in the first World Series game. On the final day of the campaign, he belted a home run and drove in two runs in the Yankees’ 5–3 pennant-winning victory over the Boston Red Sox. Three days later, in Game One of the World Series against the Dodgers, he led off the bottom of the ninth with a home run off Don Newcombe to give Allie Reynolds and the Yankees a 1–0 victory. It was the first walk-off home run in World Series history.
After retiring as an active player, Henrich turned down an offer by George Weiss, the Yankees’ general manager, to manage in the team’s Minor League system. Stories circulated that he would join Mel Allen in the team broadcast booth, but instead he served as a Yankees coach during the 1951 season. His duties included mentoring nineteen-year-old rookie Mickey Mantle. Henrich also published a book that season: The Way to Better Baseball: A Guide for Young Ball Players and Their Coaches, written in collaboration with A.L. Plaut.
The Yankees dropped Henrich from their coaching staff after the 1951 campaign. He immediately signed a contract to broadcast sports reports on WJZ, ABC’s flagship New York City television station; he also hosted sports programs on WJZ radio and appeared on other networks. In April 1953 he emceed and was the chief instructor on Little League Baseball School, broadcast by CBS-TV in New York.
In 1954, Henrich left broadcasting to become president of the Red Top Brewery in Cincinnati; by that time, he also owned beer distributorships in two New Jersey counties. He resigned from Red Top in February 1956 and returned to the New York area. He was a commentator on New York (football) Giants broadcasts when, that November, he became the New York (baseball) Giants’ third-base coach. At the conclusion of the 1957 season, with the Giants moving to San Francisco, Henrich joined the Detroit Tigers as a batting instructor and first-base coach. He spent the 1958 and 1959 seasons with the Tigers and then was released from his contract.
In 1968 Henrich had one last fling in professional baseball as the Kansas City Royals’ Minor League hitting instructor; he also scouted for the team and worked in public relations for Deibold, an Ohio-based manufacturer of bank and security equipment. His outside business interests included his beer distributorships and the ownership of the Diamond Room, a Columbus, Ohio, night club.
In his retirement, Henrich enjoyed regaling listeners with stories about his time with the Yankees and, in particular, anecdotes relating to Joe DiMaggio, whom he regarded as the greatest player he had ever seen. He also was a regular presence at Yankees Old-Timers games. In 1987 the team honored him with its annual Pride of The Yankees Award, handed out to a celebrated figure from the organization’s history. In 1992, he published a second book, Five O’Clock Lightning: Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle and the Glory Years of the NY Yankees, written with Bill Gilbert.
Henrich played the piano, regularly attended church, and sang in his church choir. He was active in the Massillon chapter of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America and in 1946 sang with Ohio’s state championship barbershop foursome.
Henrich lived in Arizona during the 1980s and 1990s, and then returned to his home state. In his later years, he suffered a series of strokes. He died at the age of ninety-six on December 1, 2009, at his home in Beavercreek, Ohio, just outside Dayton; at the time, he was the oldest living Yankee. Henrich’s wife had died the previous March. She was the former Eileen Patricia O’Reilly, a nurse whom he met in September 1940 while hospitalized because of his knee injury; the pair were married on July 7, 1941. The Henrichs had five children—three daughters (Patricia, Ann, and Mary Louise) and two sons (Tom and Paul)—as well as three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He was eulogized in a private memorial service and was cremated, with his remains returned to his survivors.
Years before his passing, Henrich’s career and love of baseball were summed up by New York Times columnist Red Smith, who observed. “[Henrich] got more pure joy out of baseball than any player I ever knew.”[fn]Mark Gallagher, The Yankee Encyclopedia.[/fn] In his Times obituary, he was described as “a timely hitter, an outstanding defensive player and a leader who epitomized the image of the classy Yankee who nearly always won.”[fn]Richard Goldstein, “Tommy Henrich, Yankees Clutch Hitter, Dies at 96.” New York Times, December 2, 2009.[/fn]
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