Every Friday, we will be taking a look back at the career of a critical player in New York Yankees history that doesn’t quite get the recognition they deserve. When looking at the storied history of the Yankees names like BabeRuth, Mickey Mantle and Derek Jeter quickly come to mind. Today, we will be looking at those players who played a critical role. Simply put, without these individuals, the Yankees wouldn’t have been the Yankees.
Today we are moving to our last spot in the outfield. Right field has been a strong position in Yankees history from Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson to Paul O’Neill and now Aaron Judge. Meanwhile, there have been some great underrated Yankees at the position, including Hank Bauer and George Selkirk. However, today we are looking for the man who was known for always being in the right place at the right time who was nicknamed “Old Reliable”, and that’s Tommy Henrich.
Henrich was born on Feb. 20, 1913 in Massillon, Ohio, the middle of football country. However, his life was shaped by his mother refusing to allow him to play what she considered to be a violent sport. Unfortunately, there were no local baseball leagues, so Henrich turned to playing softball at the local Catholic high school. Upon graduation, he worked in a steel mill while playing semi-pro teams and turned down a contract to join the Detroit Tigers.
His Major League journey would officially start in November of 1933 when he signed with the Cleveland Indians. Henrich spent the next few seasons dominating in the Minor Leagues. After batting .346 with 15 home runs and 100 RBIs, Henrich believed his Major League debut would happen the next season. Instead, Cleveland sent him to the unaffiliated Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association. Henrich believed that Cleveland was treating him unfairly and penned a letter to Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis explaining his frustrations. At the time, Landis was in the midst of a fight with the owner of the Indians and ruled in Henrich’s favor and made him a free agent.
Despite drawing interest from the majority of teams in MLB, Henrich had his sights set on the Bronx. Henrich was enamored with Babe Ruth and in 1937 he joined the New York Yankees.
Early Yankees Career
Initially, Henrich was assigned to the Yankees top Minor League team in Newark. But after manager Joe McCarthy heard everyday right fielder Roy Johnson rationalize a loss by saying “you can’t win them all,” McCarthy was ready to make a change. Henrich would play in 67 games his rookie season and compiled a .320 batting average but was hobbled by a knee injury. The following season, Henrich became a regular in the Yankees outfield. That season, his average slumped to .270 but he added 22 home runs and helped the Yankees win the final World Series of Lou Gehrig’s career.
Henrich would sadly become a trivia fact in Yankees history as the man who replaced Lou Gehrig at first in 1939. However, Henrich was sent back to right for the majority of his career. His best season would come in 1941 when he crushed 31 home runs and became known for his timely hitting. At the time, he was nicknamed Old Reliable, after a train that ran from Ohio to Alabama and was seemingly never late. In 1941, he won his second World Series as the Yankees topped the Dodgers.
After a World Series loss in 1942, it looked like Henrich would continue down the path of Yankees legends. However, the world was at war and Henrich, who was 30 at the time, joined the US Coast Guard. He would spend three years in service to the country before returning for the 1946 season. Unfortunately, having missed his prime years, Henrich slumped and saw his average drop to a career-low .251.
Henrich and the Yankees bounced back the following season. He hit .287 while the Yankees returned to the top of the baseball world. Henrich would remain a core piece of the team but by the late 1940s, his body was starting to break down. Fracturing his back and toes, Henrich was no longer able to play every day and was moved to a platoon role. Still, he was a valuable member of the Yankees as they won another World Series in 1949.
Henrich would retire after the 1950 season but stay one additional season as a coach for the Yankees. For his career, Henrich hit .282 while averaging 23 home runs, 90 walks, 48 strikeouts and 100 RBIs a season.
In 1951, his only season coaching for the Yankees, Henrich won another World Series, giving him five for his career.
For the next few years, Henrich would serve as an MLB analyst on multiple baseball programs around New York City. He would leave television in 1954 and become president of a Cincinnati Brewery before returning to New York in 1957 to resume his television career.
Eventually, Henrich returned to Ohio for good where he remained active both in his community and with the Yankees. Henrich spent time traveling with a barbershop quartet and was a frequent attendee of Yankees Old Timers Days. Meanwhile, he wrote a couple of books detailing his time with the Bombers and the history of the franchise.