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My Great Baseball Memory

by Alan J. Denman, Jr
May 11, 2017

His name was Thomas David Henrich #15, a star outfielder/1st baseman for the New York Yankees during the 30’s, 40’s and into the 1950’.  His nickname was “Old Reliable”.  To me he represented everything that was good about baseball.

I grew up in Maplewood, New Jersey – A suburban town in Essex County.  I was a young Yankee fan during the days Henrich roamed the outfield and occasionally played 1st base!.  I loved baseball from a very early age.

My dad was a shortstop at Rutgers University, and he had been a great high-school pitcher.  But Rutgers had two really good pitchers.  My dad once struck out 22 batters in a high-school game, which may still be the record. He took me to Yankee Stadium when I was five. I remember Red Ruffing pitched. I think he won 273 games. He was a tough guy and a Hall of Famer too.

I would listen to Red Barber broadcast games on the radio at night.  My dad used to come up the stairs and check on us in our rooms before he went to bed.  I’d quickly turn the radio off, and my dad would walk over and put his hand on it and say “I wonder what the score is?”

When it came to picking baseball favorites, I chose a different route than most of my classmates:  All the kids at my school were [Hall of Famer Joe] DiMaggio fans, and I was too, but not as big as I was for Henrich.

Though no DiMaggio, Henrich was certainly worthy of my admiration. A native of Massillon, OH, Henrich was given his nickname “Old Reliable” by legendary Yankee announcer Mel Allen.

Old Reliable was a train that went through Massillon on its way to Cincinnati. The whistle would blow in Massillon and people would look at their watches and it was always at the same time.  So that’s why they called him ‘Old Reliable’.  He was a clutch hitter and played the outfield and first base.

Henrich retired as an active player following the 1950 season.  My wife Janet and I were married in 1956, and with young son Jeff in tow, moved to the area in 1961, before settling in HoIIiston, Massachusetts 2 years later.

Around this time, I wrote Henrich, who had settled in Prescott, Arizona. Henrich wrote back, and soon, we were corresponding regularly with each other.

In 1997, Citibank sponsored a tribute to Jackie Robinson’s 50th anniversary entry into baseball.  I read this in the newspaper and Tommy Henrich was on the list of players invited to New York.  This affair was to be held at the downtown Athletic Club, home of the Heisman Trophy.

I wrote Tom a letter, and upon returning from my son’s home after a family Easter dinner, there was a message on the telephone – it was from Tom Henrich in Arizona.  “Hello Alan, this is Tom Henrich.  I wil be at the ‘Robinson Shindig’ and would enjoy your company for breakfast on Saturday April 7, 1997.  Look forward to meeting you after all those years.”  I immediately responded by letter.

I was ready.  I got up at three o’clock in the morning and put on my best suit and drove to New York. I got there about 6:30 a.m., parked the car and walked over to the Downtown Athletic Club. I went up to the desk and asked the man where Mr. Henrich was and was told he was in the dining room.  I went up and walked in and saw these Dodger players: Johnny Podres, Clem Labine, and Joe Black. I saw [St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Famers] Stan Musial and Lou Brock, but I couldn’t find Tom Henrich. I looked all over, then went back out to the elevator bank and sat in a chair. The elevator door opened and it was [Cleveland Indians Hall of Famer] Bob Feller.

I said “Good morning, Mr. Feller, how are you?” He said “I’m good, what are you doing here?” I said “I’m supposed to meet Tom Henrich for breakfast.” He said “He’s around the corner in the dining room. You didn’t go far enough.” He said he had to go back up for his glasses, he couldn’t see much anymore. So I walked in with him and there was Tom.

“Tom got up at the table and I said “This is a long time coming.”  He agreed, saying “I know you know this fella sitting with me.” He was sitting with [Hall of Famer] Enos Slaughter.  I said “Mr. Slaughter. How are you.  Good to see you.”

Tom invited me to sit down, where I enjoyed a cup of coffee and an English muffin. They reminisced about Henrich’s career, and chided Slaughter on his successful North Carolina tobacco farm.

I did ask Tom “Why did you play hurt so many times.”  He said “Because that guy Hank Bauer would have taken my job and I would never have gotten it back.”

The day was over all too quick.  Tom and I continued our correspondence for years. Henrich’s wife, Eileen, died in March of 2009. They had a very good marriage and four kids. Eileen had once helped nurse Henrich to recovery following serious knee surgery.  Henrich’s own health began to decline and he died the following December.

I went to the shrine and got a Mass card and sent it to his daughter with a letter.  Within three days, I received a beautiful letter back from his daughter Patricia, and for me that ended an era.

I was very sad, but his daughter said his last two months were not very good at all.  I got 25 to 30 phone calls from people back home when he passed away. They knew I was a Henrich fan and it made me feel good.

To me, the morning we spent together is a day you remember like your wedding day or the day your children were born. My dad was my hero, but so was Tom Henrich.

 

 

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Comments (1)

Mr. Denman, I bet you enriched the life of Mr. Henrich as much as he enriched yours, not by being a fan, but by becoming a friend. I think it is great that you reached out and wrote that first letter. Thanks for sharing what is more than just a great baseball memory.

- Mary Curran | 5/14/17 4:38 PM

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