Monday, December 21, 2009

Tommy Henrich, The First Free Agent?

On December 1st Tommy Henrich - the oldest living Yankee - passed away at the age of 96. Henrich was christened"Old Reliable" by Yankee announcer Mel Allen for his performance in key situations, but it is the unusual way he became a Yankee that we wanted to talk about here.

Thomas David Henrich was born on February 20th, 1913 in Massillon, Ohio, football country. Despite his proximity to Cleveland, young Tom became a Yankee fan. The Cleveland Indians signed him in 1934 and sent him to Class D Monessen, the lowest level of the minors at that time. In those days when minor league clubs acted independently it was common practice for major league teams to hide promising players in the minor leagues until they were ready to be brought up, with the hope that they would not be drafted by another club. This practice - known as "covering up" - was strictly illegal, and enforced py the powerful Commissioner, Kennesaw Mountain Landis. An individual player, however, had very little say in the matter, as they were considered bound to the team that signed them.

Henrich thrived in the minors, moving quickly up the ladder, first to the Class-C Zanesville Greys, and then in 1935 to the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association. In 1936 - his second season with the club - he drove in 100 runs and batted .346, but a major league promotion was still not in the offing.

In 1937 Henrich and his father wrote to Commissioner Landis and complained that the Indians were unfairly denying Tommy a chance to advance to the big leagues. In April of 1937 Landis ruled in Henrich's favor, instantly making him a free agent. (Many thought Landis' ruling was payback for allowing Cleveland to keep Bob feller in a similar dispute a year earlier). He was signed by his boyhood favorite team - the Yankees - four days later. After a 7-game stint at Newark, Henrich was in the Bronx.

Henrich in the home version of the Pelicans jersey in 1936.

Henrich took over the right field spot for the Bombers from George Selkirk, who had succeeded Babe Ruth. His eleven seasons with the Yankees was interrupted for three years by military service. Although not in the top tier of Yankee performers statistically, Henrich was involved in many key plays, including in two World Series. Henrich hit baseball's first World Series walk-off home run in 1949, but it was a play in the 1941 Series for which he became famous (and infamous to Brooklyn Dodger fans).

To set the scene, it's Game 4 at Ebbets Field. The Yanks lead the Bums, two games to one, but Brooklyn has a 4-3 lead with two outs in the ninth. One more out ties the Series at two. Henrich is at the plate with two strikes. He tries to hold up his swing but can't, missing the pitch for strike three. Game over...or is it? Dodger catcher Mickey Owen can't handle the sharp curveball from Hugh Casey. The ball scoots away and an alert Henrich dashes to first base, safe. Instead of three outs and a Dodger win the Yanks score four runs to win the game and take the Series the next day on Henrich's homer. "Old Reliable" indeed.

About the jersey: The 1936 New Orleans Pelicans road jersey features block felt lettering in a slightly compressed style. The sleeve has a felt star with an "NO" superimposed - the "O" encircling the "N". Research indicates that Henrich likely wore #6 in New Orleans. The jersey is featured for $99 through January 2010.

We here at EFF wish all of our friends and customers and their families a joyous holiday season, and offer our best wishes for the new year.