What he did: Henderson might be the greatest lead-off hitter ever. The first ballot Hall of Famer and career stolen base champ could be relied on in his prime for 20 home runs, a .300 batting average and 60-80 stolen bases, minimum. Henderson is an all-time great ballplayer and certainly one of my favorite athletes in any sport, a legendary competitor and character. I love that he started playing independent ball in his 40s when no big league team would sign him and that he went on ESPN in 2003 to ask for another shot in the majors. I love that it worked.
Some might say Henderson played in the perfect era for his skill set, as he debuted in 1979, less than 20 years after speedsters like Maury Wills and Lou Brock helped bring the steal back. I wonder, though, how Henderson might have fared in an era before steals were valued, when he could have hit in the middle of the order. If he did this, he could have showed off a facet of his game that may have been underutilized in the lead-off spot: His power.
Era he might have thrived in: With the Boys of Summer Brooklyn Dodgers in the early 1950s.
Why: The Dodgers of those years were stacked, perennial contenders who had taken advantage of Major League Baseball’s slowness to integrate by pilfering the Negro Leagues in the late 1940s. Interestingly, though, despite scoring Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and others, Brooklyn never had a Willie Mays-type five tool superstar. Henderson might have been Brooklyn’s answer to the Say Hey Kid.
Running Henderson’s career numbers through the stat converter on Baseball-Reference.com, he finishes with 350 home runs and a .936 OPS if he’d played every season on a team like the 1953 Dodgers. The converter has him hitting above .350 six times and smacking at least 30 home runs twice, something he never did in a season. I think the power numbers are conservative, and I question if the converter can account for the difference Henderson would experience hitting in the middle of the lineup. Henderson was a master of the lead-off home run. Imagine what he could do on a team that hit well and put men on-base.
Those Dodgers hit .285 as a team, went 105-49, and lost to the Yankees in the World Series, as they did often in those years. Adding Henderson might well have been mutually beneficial. Despite having Carl Furillo in right field and Duke Snider in center, the Dodgers were perpetually getting new left fielders in those years. A regular reader pointed out to me that Robinson and Jim Gilliam even spent time at the position. With Henderson, there would be no more stopgaps and perhaps a few more championships.
My guess is that Henderson would hit 35-40 home runs regularly for Brooklyn and also be good for at least 30-40 steals and a .330 batting average every season. Since he’d be playing in a time where a man only needed 30 steals to lead the league, I think Henderson could probably still be a regular stolen base champ. Would he have supplanted Brock or Ty Cobb in the record books? Possibly not. But he might have a greater legacy today.
Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.