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Yankees' 'Old Reliable' delivered when it counted

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 3, 2009

Tommy Henrich, 96, a clutch-hitting outfielder for the New York Yankees who played on eight American League championship teams during his 11 big league seasons, died Dec. 1 in Dayton, Ohio. The cause of death was not announced.

Mr. Henrich, who was the oldest living former Yankee, joined the team in 1937. Although overshadowed by 10 teammates who were elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Mr. Henrich was known as "Old Reliable" for his steady play and his ability to deliver hits when they mattered most.

Besides his contributions on the field, he was considered a model citizen when many ballplayers led rough-and-tumble lives.

"He came pretty close in character and performance to being the ideal Yankee," New York Times columnist Arthur Daley once wrote of Mr. Henrich (pronounced HEN-rick).

He played for two Hall of Fame managers, Joe McCarthy and Casey Stengel, and his teammates included Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra, Lefty Gomez and Whitey Ford.

Mr. Henrich spent most of his career in right field, alongside one of baseball's all-time greats, Joe DiMaggio, who once called Mr. Henrich the smartest player in the game.

In 1941, during the 38th game of DiMaggio's unmatched 56-game hitting streak, the Yankee star entered the eighth inning without a base hit. Mr. Henrich, who often batted directly ahead of DiMaggio in the lineup, dropped a bunt against the St. Louis Browns, allowing DiMaggio to come to the plate. DiMaggio lined a solid single to left-centerfield to keep his streak alive.

Seven of Mr. Henrich's Yankee teams won the World Series, and his quick thinking and quick bat led to several of his team's most dramatic victories in the 1940s.

In the ninth inning of the fourth game of the 1941 series against the Brooklyn Dodgers, Mr. Henrich appeared to strike out on a play that would have ended the game and tied the series at two victories apiece. But Hugh Casey's sharp-breaking curveball spun away from Dodger catcher Mickey Owen, and Mr. Henrich dashed to first base on the passed ball. The Yankees rallied to win the game and clinched the series the next day.

Mr. Henrich had several crucial hits in the 1947 World Series against Brooklyn and drove in the go-ahead run in the decisive seventh game. In the first game of the 1949 World Series, also against the Dodgers, he stepped to the plate in the ninth inning of a scoreless game and lined a home run over the right field fence off pitcher Don Newcombe, securing a 1-0 victory. The Yankees went on to win the series in five games.

Mr. Henrich had a career batting average of .283, including three seasons at .300 or more, and he led the American League in runs scored in 1948, with 138. He was named to five All Star teams. After he retired in 1950, he tutored DiMaggio's successor in center field, the 19-year-old Mickey Mantle, who had been an erratic minor league shortstop before his Hall of Fame career in the outfield.

"Catching a fly ball is a pleasure," Mr. Henrich once said. "But knowing what to do with it after you catch it is a business."

Thomas David Henrich was born Feb. 20, 1913, in Massillon, Ohio. He threw and batted left-handed and played softball throughout most of his youth.

He compiled three excellent seasons with minor league teams in the Cleveland Indians system, but the Indians made no move to bring Mr. Henrich to their major league club.

In frustration, he wrote to the baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who ruled that Mr. Henrich was free to join another team. The Yankees signed him and put him in the outfield next to DiMaggio.

After his playing career, he coached for several teams and became a noted baseball raconteur and a link to the Yankees' storied past. He often said DiMaggio was the finest all-around ballplayer he had ever seen.

Mr. Henrich missed three years of baseball during World War II while serving in the Coast Guard. He suffered several injuries during his career and had knee surgery in 1940. He married one of the nurses who cared for him, Eileen O'Reilly. She died in March.

Survivors include five children and three grandchildren.

In addition to his baseball talent, Mr. Henrich was an excellent singer and was a member of the 1947 Ohio state champion barbershop quartet.

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