Touring The Bases With…Ken Henderson
“The press started to build me up pretty heavily, and the thing that they used to write quite often was that I was the next Willie Mays, which I donâ€™t think was the right thing to do. I donâ€™t care if a player is black or white, it doesnâ€™t make any difference, there was nobody that could replace Willie Mays. He was just one player in our generation that nobody could replace.”
-Ken Henderson, as told to Mike Mandel for SF GIANTS An Oral History (1979)
Itâ€™s safe to say Ken Henderson is having a different experience as a rookie in San Francisco this time around.
Once the anointed successor to Mays, Henderson rejoined the Giants in March as a sales manager. It had been almost 40 years since he left San Francisco, departing in a 1972 trade to the Chicago White Sox. Now, the man who patrolled the same outfield as Mays and Bobby Bonds sells luxury box suites for AT&T Park, hawking tickets to many of the same clients heâ€™s worked with in 30 years of sales and marketing since his playing career ended. He said itâ€™s good to be back working for the Giants.
â€œI feel a lot of emotion coming back to the organization that really gave me my first shot at professional baseball,â€ said Henderson, 64, who’s married with four children and five grandchildren. â€œHad it not been for the Giants, Iâ€™m not sure that I would have had the success that I had. Just as importantly, my two brothers played for the Giants organization, I had a son that played in the Giants organization, I had a father who scouted for the Giants organization for awhile. So, this may sound unusual, but I feel all this has given me an opportunity to give back to the organization what they gave to our family.â€
Signed out of high school in 1964, Henderson came up the following spring when Mays turned 34 and was thought to be slowing down, which led to the comparisons in the media between the two players. But Mays proceeded to hit 52 home runs in 1965 and win National League Most Valuable Player honors while Henderson spent most of the season as a backup. For the next three years, Henderson alternated between the Giants bench and Triple-A, while Mays continued to make All Star appearances, win Gold Glove awards and garner MVP votes.
Henderson finally stuck with San Francisco in 1969 and was a Giant regular the next few years. He had perhaps his best season in 1970 when he hit 17 home runs, with 88 runs batted in and a .294 batting average. Henderson said he, Bonds and Mays might have comprised the best outfield in baseball with their ability to close gaps. â€œYou werenâ€™t going to hit a ball past us,â€ Henderson said.
He said as much to Mandel, noting of his 1970 season in SF GIANTS, â€œThatâ€™s when Willie didnâ€™t feel me as a threat anymore. I think that once he saw that they werenâ€™t going to push him out of centerfield, that I was going to play left and Bonds was going to play right, I sensed that he really started to open up to everybody. And thatâ€™s when I felt that I made the most progress in learning from him.â€
Henderson reiterated to me that the Mays comparisons were unfair. But he also said Mays was the best player he ever saw and a great clubhouse presence. Neither man was long for San Francisco beyond their 1971 playoff team. The following spring, Mays was dealt to the New York Mets and six months later, the Giants packaged Henderson with Steve Stone in a trade for a two-time 15-game winner named Tom Bradley. The trade came not long after Henderson was named MLB Player of the Month for August 1972, when he hit .440.
Men like Garry Maddox, Gary Matthews, and others got their futile shots at assuming Maysâ€™ spot in the San Francisco outfield, while Henderson became a journeyman, playing for seven teams in all. He finished 19th in MVP voting in 1974, when he hit .292 with a career-high 20 home runs for the White Sox. But his last few seasons were like his first, mostly confined to various benches. He retired in 1980 at 33 with 1,168 hits, 122 home runs and a .257 lifetime batting average in 16 seasons.
â€œI donâ€™t lose much sleep over it but I think about it from time to time, you know, could I have played longer,â€ Henderson said.
For some players, baseball is all they ever know. Not Henderson, who’s built a life away from the game, working many years in the private sector. He sold office furniture for a stretch and more recently was an executive for Staples.
He wishes heâ€™d kept closer ties with Bobby Bonds, who died of cancer in 2003. Henderson said he still carries a Bobby Bonds baseball card with him, and he has stories about a young Barry Bonds in the Giants clubhouse (â€œBarry never lacked for confidence,â€ Henderson told me.) But he drifted from Bobby Bonds after their playing days, even as Bonds lived just south of San Francisco in San Carlos, less than an hour from Henderson in Los Gatos.
â€œI wish Iâ€™d spent more time and gotten to know him better before he died,â€ Henderson said.
Hendersonâ€™s done a better job keeping up with former Giants like Vida Blue, Jim Davenport, and Mike McCormick. And on Thursday evening, heâ€™ll be assisting Mays, serving as one of the hosts for the Giants immortal at a corporate event at AT&T Park.
â€œIâ€™m very much looking forward to it,â€ Henderson said. â€œI know that his eyesight is not that good anymore, so heâ€™ll need some help, and Iâ€™m glad to be there for him. Very special night.â€
Graham Womack writes the blog, Baseball: Past and Present