In truth, Henderson has stolen when games have seemingly been out of hand. On July 2, against Texas, he stole in the ninth inning with his team behind 7-0, and on June 4 he stole against Milwaukee when his team trailed 9-0 in the third inning. In only one game, though, when he stole two bases in the ninth inning against Cleveland on May 1, had he stolen with his team ahead by more than four runs. That's why Martin was insulted on Aug. 21 in Oakland when Boston Pitcher Luis Aponte, presumably under Manager Ralph Houk's orders, threw three consecutive pitchouts to Gross with Henderson—still six steals away from the record—on first in the eighth inning and the A's leading 11-5. Henderson doesn't run on his own, and Martin says he wasn't sending him in a game so one-sided. "Then they did that, made it so obvious they didn't want him to get the record," said Martin. With the count 3-0 on Gross, Henderson stole second and subsequently scored the 12th run. The Red Sox railed against this violation of baseball etiquette. Martin countered that it was they who provoked it. A far worse controversy lay ahead.
Henderson needed four steals to tie Brock's record and five to break it, with only two games against Detroit remaining in the August home stand before a 10-game road trip. Despite the A's deplorable record, Oakland fans had turned out in record numbers all year—1,535,784 for 66 dates—and Martin and Henderson desperately wanted the record to be set at home. But Tiger Manager Sparky Anderson, although an admirer of Henderson, is of the old school on base-stealing. "I'd just like to go back over the box scores and see how many of those steals meant something," he said before the series began on Aug. 23. "All I know is that Joe Morgan never stole a base when it didn't mean anything and never when we [the old Cincinnati Reds] were either ahead or behind by four runs. If you're losing 7-0 and steal a base, what's that got to do with the game? I wouldn't count those."
In the first game against the Tigers, Henderson stole his 115th base in the third inning with his team trailing 2-0. But Tiger Catcher Lance Parrish threw him out attempting to steal third in the same inning. Thus Henderson tied the record for times caught stealing, 38, set by Ty Cobb in 1915 when he stole 96 bases. Actually, Henderson has a remarkable 32-for-43 record on attempts to steal third, and of his total "caught-stealings," 13 have come from pickoff plays. This was the third time Parrish had thrown him out this season. Only the Angels' Bob Boone, who has caught him six times in 13 attempts, has done better, and many of the A's believe Boone has been aided by the quick-pitch "balk" moves employed by Angel pitchers.
Henderson needed three steals to tie the record in the last game of the home stand, Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 24. Against the strong-armed Parrish that seemed unlikely, but providence then played a hand. Parrish was called to Detroit that morning to be with his pregnant wife, who had gone into labor. His replacement was Bill Fahey, a 32-year-old third-stringer playing only his 18th game of the season. Martin had managed Fahey at Texas and felt his arm wasn't strong enough to nail Henderson. The prospects of a record suddenly began to look good. Indeed, in the first inning, Henderson walked and stole second and third, Nos. 116 and 117. The crowd of 17,098 was now alive with anticipation. Unfortunately, the Tiger pitcher, Jerry Ujdur, kept Henderson off base in the second and fifth innings. With the A's ahead 3-0 Henderson was due up again in the eighth for what would undoubtedly be his last chance to tie or break the record at home. Enter Fred Stanley.
Stanley, the A's shortstop and a Martin pal from their days together with the Yankees, led off the inning. No one in the ball park, presumably including Stanley himself, wanted to see him get on base ahead of Henderson, and because his batting average was .186, there seemed little chance of it. But Ujdur, who hadn't walked a batter since the third inning, walked Stanley on four pitches, none of them, said Stanley, "even close to the plate." Were the Tigers deliberately depriving Henderson of a record at home by putting a man on base ahead of him?
Henderson followed by driving a sharp single to left on Ujdur's first pitch, a pitch on which, Stanley claimed later, he was attempting to steal second. Despite his big jump, Stanley held at second when Tiger Leftfielder Larry Herndon came up throwing. Henderson on first, Stanley on second—now what to do? Before the first pitch to Gross, Stanley, who had taken an inordinately long lead, was easily picked off second by Ujdur, succumbing to Second Baseman Lou Whitaker's tag after a dispirited rundown. Did Stanley get picked off on purpose to clear a path for Henderson? In a 14-year major league career, Stanley had stolen exactly 11 bases. Now, on the first pitch to Gross, Henderson took off for the suddenly—and conveniently—open second base. But the Tigers had called a pitchout, and Fahey, the supposed pigeon, threw Henderson out at second—at least in the opinion of second base umpire Durwood Merrill. The A's thought differently, and Murphy, Martin and Coach Charlie Metro were all ejected after a wild argument.
Accusations and counter-accusations issued from the two clubhouses and the umpires' dressing room afterward. Martin charged Merrill with wanting to "get into the act" by becoming the umpire who deprived Henderson of his record. Murphy said that Merrill was wrongly retaliating for what he considered to be Stanley's deliberate out. Stanley said that if he wanted to "make a joke of this," he would've gotten himself thrown out at third on Henderson's hit instead of holding up. In fact, he said, he'd been given the steal sign and had just taken too big a lead. Martin said he had called for a double steal. But Anderson was the most outraged of all. Stanley, he said, had "discredited the game" by, in Anderson's opinion, allowing himself to get picked off. "This has to stand with the Black Sox scandal," said Anderson. "Stanley should have to pay for it. The commissioner should give him the biggest fine ever. I don't see how that guy can live with himself."
It was an ugly scene, and the only record set that day was a negative one. Henderson had broken Cobb's record for times thrown out, and Fahey helped him do it. The A's had intended to distribute "119" T shirts if Henderson broke Brock's record that day. "They should make a T shirt for me," said Fahey.
Martin, bitterly disappointed, took his team on to Milwaukee, where Henderson appeared, as if nothing unusual had happened, at a series of comically sober press conferences. Unperturbed, Rickey tied the record Thursday night, eluding a pickoff play by Mike Caldwell, and smashed it to smithereens on Friday. On Saturday and Sunday he rested.
Not since Henry Aaron chased and caught the Babe's career home run record in 1974 had there been such a fuss. Henderson had succeeded in making compelling drama of this sometimes despised facet of the game. It remained for Murphy to sum it up: "You know, every day now for the past two weeks when I've seen Rickey take off, I've felt chills run through me. It's been that exciting."