Yankees outfielder Tommy Henrich was known as Old Reliable, which in my book is about as good a nickname as one could be given. Henrich wasn’t a megastar of the Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle or Joe Dimaggio level, but he was quite good, and he was quite good when it mattered.
I connect with Henrich for a couple of reasons. For one, he’s one of the first old-time ballplayers whose autographs I can remember getting in the late 1980s at baseball card shows held in airport hotels in New York. I’m pretty sure the Kodak photo of him that’s somewhere in my parent’s apartment featured him smoking a pipe (I should note – he lived to 96). And he hit the first World Series walk-off home run, beating the Dodgers in Game 1 in 1949.
The 1949 season is a significant one in Yankees history, because it marks the start of one of their great dynasties. The Yankees won five straight World Series from 1949 to 1953.
How did that run begin? With a walk-off, of course.
The Yankees opened on April 19 of that season against the Senators. Opening Day was the first opener for the Yankees since Ruth died and he was paid proper tribute both before the game and by how it ended. The Yankees were also without Joe DiMaggio, who was battling a heel injury.
The Senators were the opposite of the Yankees. They won on their opening day in Washington D.C. (by walk-off, actually) but didn’t win much else. They finished 50-104. Thus what I tell you probably won’t surprise.
The Senators hung gamely with the Yankees, taking a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the seventh inning. But with two on and two outs, Yogi Berra’s pinch-hit single scored Phil Rizzuto to tie the game (Berra didn’t start because he had the flu).
The Senators went six up and six down in the eighth and ninth innings, giving the Yankees a shot to pull the game out in the ninth. Phil Rizzuto grounded out and Gene Woodling popped out. That brought up Henrich, who was 0-for-4. What was great about Henrich that season was that though he was 36 years old, he could still hit like he was in his 20s. He’d hit .287/.416/.526 and place sixth in the AL MVP voting.
That wasn’t known at the time. What was known was that Henrich was both old and reliable. He hit seven home runs in 63 at-bats in what Baseball-Reference.com deems “late and close” situations (this qualified). This would be the first. He set the tone for the Yankees season with a long game-winning home run to right center field.
”It was a perfect ending, one that must have drawn a booming roar from the Babe, away up there in the heavens.”
— Joe Trimble, New York Daily News