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Rickey, Mattingly, And Racism In The Eighties

Illustration for article titled Rickey, Mattingly, And Racism In The Eighties

Have You Seen Your Brother, Baby, Standing In The Shadows?

On Rickey Henderson, Don Mattingly and racism in New York back in the 1980s. From Mike Lupica and William Goldman's book, Wait Til Next Year:

In New York, it has been historically more useful to be a white star than a black star; the opportunities for endorsements and commercials and billboards and all the rest that comes with being a celeb are more readily available to you. With the Mets, Gary Carter and Ron Darling were infinitely more appealing to Madison Avenue than Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden, even before Gooden's difficulty getting the passing grade on the urine test.

This sort of racism is not specific to New York, or baseball; it is part of professional sports now. There was just more conversation about it around the Yankees in early 1987 because Henderson was having such an electrifying start, the Yankees were in first place, the Mets were in trouble, and Henderson still wasn't the toast of the town. A lot of people thought it was a combination of the normal racism of sports, and perception—-the way players were presented to the world in the newspapers. Henderson had the image of being cocky. Lenny Dykstra, the white center fielder for the Mets, strutted and swaggered just as much at Shea Stadium as Henderson did at Yankee Stadium. But Dykstra, who had traded mightily on the Mets' World Series championship during the off-season, had a reputation as being tough.

Henderson was a hot dog.

Dykstra was his nickname: "Nails."

It was a subtle distinction, but a distinction nonetheless. Henderson, the black man, was cocky. Dykstra, the white man, was tough.

Henderson had an image problem. Dykstra didn't. That day at Yankee Stadium, the crowd at kept cheering after Mattingly's grand slam, wanting Mattingly to come out and take a curtain call. Mattingly, a shy man who thinks curtain calls are silly displays, didn't want to go. Henderson, laughing, ran up the dugout steps, waved, got Mattingly's cheer.

In the clubhouse, Willie Randolph said, "It's the only way Rickey can get one."

And more:

Henderson simply refused to sell himself to the writers; he simply was not one of the kings of clubhouse schmooze. He would not, or could not, make himself available to writers before games. Rickey had his own way of doing things, and his reluctance to promote himself in any way just seemed to fit into the tapestry of being Rickey. He was a game player. He did not enjoy the running and drills of spring training; did not like rules of any kind; he would hide in a corner of the dugout in Fort Lauderdale when the Yankees ran laps early in spring training, then jump out when [manager Lou] Pinella and the coaches weren't looking, join his mates for the final lap. He did not like getting to the ball park any earlier than he had to; it was obvious to teammates and writers covering the team that he had terrible work habits. The slightest injury sent him to the bench; it was a problem that would become more and more acute for Henderson, and his team, and his image, and Yankee fans.

And there was "Don't need no press now, man."

The writers had never forgotten those first words Henderson spoke in the Yankee clubhouse, in April of 1985. Henderson had injured an ankle in Florida, had needed extra time to recuperate, and the regular season had started without him. When he did show up, the writers were waiting for him.
Henderson shooed them away from his locker, saying, "Don't need no press now, man."

He hadn't gotten a lot of press since...

One day a writer said to Dave Winfield, "Why isn't Rickey bigger around here than he is?"

And Winfield, voice dripping with sarcasm, said, "You mean like I am?"

Claudell Washington was more vocal and belligerent about the issue, especially at the end of May , when Dennis Rodman and Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons would create a national sensation with some remarks about Larry Bird, and the fact that he might not be as big a star as he was if he wasn't white. Thomas, when given the chance to explain himself by columnist Ira Berkow in the Times, said, "Magic (Johnson) and Michael Jordan and me, we're playing on God-given talent, like we're animals, lions and tigers who run wild in the jungle, while Larry's success is due to intelligence and hard work."...

Washington: "You think Rickey Henderson doesn't understand what we're talking about with this whole black-white deal? You think he doesn't know? That man Rickey is a legend. He should be on every billboard in town, on every commercial. Rickey Henderson is the best."

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