- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 13, 2009

Mel Allen, the longtime Yankees broadcaster, was the one who dubbed Tommy Henrich for all baseball eternity.

“The score was tied in the late innings, and we had to catch a train,” Henrich told the Chicago Sun-Times decades later. “I got a hit that won the game, and Mel said, ‘Good old reliable Henrich. Looks like we’ll catch that train after all.’ ”

Right fielder Henrich batted just .282 and hit 183 home runs for the Yankees in an 11-year career (1937 to 1950) interrupted by three seasons in the Coast Guard during World War II, but never was a nickname more appropriate. Tommy, who died at 96 of undisclosed causes Dec. 1 at his home in Dayton, Ohio, was indeed Old Reliable - a guy who got his biggest hits when they counted most.

Examples abound, starting with two of the eight World Series he played in pinstripes. Even when he struck out, things happened.

In Game 4 of the 1941 Fall Classic, with two outs in the ninth and the Dodgers leading 4-3 and about to even the Series, Henrich swung and missed at a sharp-breaking curve from pitcher Hugh Casey. But catcher Mickey Owen historically missed the ball, too, and Henrich alertly scooted to first base. Given that reprieve, the Yankees scored four runs to win the game and a day later the Series (with guess who hitting a home run).

“Even as I tried to hold up [the swing], I was thinking the ball had broken so fast that Owen might have trouble with it,” Henrich later recalled. “I saw that little white jackrabbit bouncing, and I said, ‘Let’s go!’ I could have walked to first.”

Eight Octobers later, Henrich struck the Dodgers again. His leadoff home run against Don Newcombe in the bottom of the ninth of Game 1 at Yankee Stadium broke a scoreless tie and started the Yankees to a five-game triumph. It also was the first walk-off tater in Series history.

Henrich, whose death made Virgil Trucks the oldest living ex-Yankee at 92, played on five All-Star teams and for two Hall of Fame managers, Joe McCarthy and Casey Stengel. Despite his rather ordinary offensive statistics, his managers and teammates appreciated more than anyone else his habit of delivering in the clutch both offensively and defensively.

“He’s a fine judge of a fly ball, fields grounders like an infielder and never makes a wrong throw,” Stengel said in 1949. “And if he comes back to the hotel at 3 in the morning when we’re on the road and says he’s been sitting up with a sick friend, he’s been sitting up with a sick friend.”

New York Times sports columnist Arthur Daley once described Henrich this way: “He comes pretty close in character and performance to being the ideal Yankee.” Nobody disagreed.

Ironically perhaps, native Ohioan Henrich originally was signed by the Indians in 1934 but was ruled a free agent three years later when he and his father wrote baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, claiming Cleveland had illegally concealed him in its farm system.

After Landis agreed, Henrich joined the Yankees - long his favorite team - in 1937. He would become part of a marvelous outfield including Joe DiMaggio in center and Charlie Keller in left. He replaced George “Twinkletoes” Selkirk - later the general manager of the expansion Washington Senators - who had taken over for Babe Ruth.

In 1938, Tommy had 22 home runs and 91 RBI for a Yankees team that won the third of four straight World Series. Until the war intervened, he was a key player with the only club to win five World Series in six years.

In 1941, Henrich hit a career-high 31 home runs but got little attention during the season of DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. In game No. 38, however, Tommy’s safe bunt enabled the hitless Yankee Clipper to keep the streak alive.

Old Reliable indeed.

“If we were ahead 10-1 or 10-2, he was just average, but get him in a big game and he was terrific,” said former teammate and American League president Bobby Brown. “We didn’t just call him Old Reliable. We knew he was Old Reliable.”

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