“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”
“Pinch hit hero mobbed by rabid Red Sox enthusiasts” was a sub-headline of the October 17, 1912, edition of the Boston Globe reporting on young Olaf Henriksen’s game-tying base hit in the eighth and deciding game of the 1912 World Series, against a dominant Christy Mathewson. It was a crucial blow off the great Mathewson, who pitched his heart out that day in a memorable performance, opening the door for the Boston team to win the game and World Series, Boston’s second Series triumph, in extra innings.
Henriksen, a seldom-used reserve outfielder in his first full season with the Red Sox, deflated Mathewson with that hit and suddenly became a Boston hero.
Olaf Henriksen was born on April 26, 1888, in Kirkerup, Denmark, which is now part of the town of Roskilde. He was the third of nine children born to Jens Peter and Anna S. (Olsen) Henriksen, who emigrated from Denmark to the United States in 1888. They landed in New York, moved to Wareham, Massachusetts, near Cape Cod, where the family initially resided, and then to Canton, Massachusetts, a town south of Boston, where young Olaf and his siblings were raised.
Little is known about Olaf Henriksen’s formative years in Wareham. Henriksen was of small stature, standing 5-feet-7½ inches tall with an average weight of 158 pounds. He threw and batted from the left side. Described as a slashing-type batsman, Henriksen was a contact hitter, spraying the ball to all fields. He had a good batting eye with a knack for getting on base, whether by base hits or bases on balls making him a specialty-type hitter, an ability that served him well when he reached the major leagues. Adding to that, he had great speed.
Henriksen, who emerged as pro baseball’s consummate “pinch-man,” first appears in organized ball in June of 1904, when he had turned 16, playing for a local town team, the Eliot Athletic Association of Canton. This arrangement continued into 1906 when at the age of 18 Olaf played for the Canton Athletic Association ballclub, occasionally also appearing for other athletic clubs and semipro teams of surrounding towns.
His breakout year was 1907, when Henriksen, 19, caught on late in the season with the semipro Stoughton team of the newly-formed Old Colony League. Olaf began the year with a local club, the Norwoods of Norwood, Massachusetts, playing with them through the first week in July. He then hooked up briefly with Hyde Park, also of the Old Colony League, and went on to play for the Stoughton team, first appearing for them on August 3 in a game against South Weymouth for the much-heralded Southeastern Massachusetts Championship. Olaf managed a base hit, but more than that convinced his manager that he was deserving of a permanent roster spot by making a perfect game-ending peg to home plate nailing the runner and securing a regional championship for Stoughton. He started the rest of the way for the Stoughtons, who eventually lost the Old Colony League championship to Taunton in the final game of the season. Henriksen was credited with a .304 batting average.
Henriksen’s solid performance at the end of the 1907 season earned him a starting berth with the 1908 Stoughton team, playing center field.
John Blake, a scout for the minor-league Brocktons of the New England League, a Class B league, spotted Henriksen playing for the Stoughtons and quickly signed him to his first professional baseball contract at the conclusion of the 1908 Old Colony League season. Brockton finished the 1909 season in second place behind repeat champion Worcester. Henriksen had raised his batting average to a modest .254. He tied for the league lead in runs scored with 88.
On August 10,1910 Olaf Henriksen was purchased by the Boston Red Sox in a five-player deal. The Red Sox, not playing well and struggling with injuries, wasted no time calling on the recruit as a replacement for an injured Harry Hooper in a series against Connie Mack’s world champion Athletics, in Philadelphia’s Shibe Park. Olaf had taken a train from Boston to Philadelphia the night before, and with no time for rest was immediately pressed into action, making his major-league debut on August 11 playing both ends of a doubleheader.
His debut was a stunning success. He went 4-for-9 in the doubleheader and made a sensational catch off Jack Coombs to end the second game and save a win for the Red Sox. By August 21 he was leading the club in hitting with a .433 average (with a very small sample). But on August 27 in Chicago, Henriksen and Tris Speaker collided in the outfield chasing a fly ball, which went for a triple. Olaf fractured a rib and had an ankle injury, while Speaker had bruises. Henriksen returned to action briefly on September 5, filling in for Duffy Lewis, but the Red Sox regulars were now recovered from their injuries, and Henriksen was quickly relegated to pinch-hitting duties and backing up Speaker, Hooper, and Lewis, foreshadowing his future role with the Red Sox. Henriksen finished his rookie year with a .366 batting average (34-for-93).
Henriksen had the misfortune to be playing at the same time as the Million Dollar Outfield of Speaker, Hooper, and Lewis, arguably the finest outfield combination ever to play the game. When the 1912 season started, on the road, Olaf found himself in a familiar role of sub behind the famous outfield trio. He played in his first game of the season on Opening Day, April 20, at the new Fenway Park before a packed house of 24,000 spectators against the New York Highlanders. He pinch-hit for pitcher O’Brien with the bases full, and he did so magnificently by drawing a walk, forcing in a run. The Red Sox went on to beat New York, 7-6.
Henriksen was being used sparingly, playing in just 19 games by the first week in July with a .250 batting average; a total of 28 games by the end of August, batting .239; and 41 games by September 30 at .296. On September 18 the Red Sox officially won the AL pennant. At season’s end Henriksen had played in only 44 games with a respectable .321 batting average, and a .457 on-base percentage. Little did he realize at the time, however, what a significant part he would play in the 1912 World Series, about to take place between John McGraw’s Giants and Jake Stahl’s Red Sox.
The Series, considered one of the great baseball spectacles of all time, went to eight games (the second game having ended in a 6-6 tie, called due to darkness after 11 innings), with the Red Sox winning, four games to three. In the deciding eighth game, Christy “Big Six” Mathewson, a 23-game winner in 1912 and one of the great moundsmen known to the game, was pitching magnificently, shutting down the Red Sox without a run and only four hits through six innings. It appeared unlikely he was going to crack. The Giants managed a run in the third inning against a tough Hugh Bedient, winner of 20 for the Red Sox against nine defeats.
In the bottom of the seventh, though, with one out, player-manager Stahl got a Texas League single. Heinie Wagner walked. Catcher Hick Cady popped to short. Stahl motioned to 24-year old sub Olaf Henriksen to grab a bat.
“Then Matty stood for an instant, and I knew he was undecided what to feed me. None of them knew what I liked, and right then and there I decided to take a good look at the first one, no matter what it was,” said a determined Olaf. He took a curveball for a strike and then another that he waved at, for strike two. Then, expecting Mathewson to waste a few, Olaf waited on two more pitches that didn’t miss by much. Matty threw another curveball. Henriksen was waiting for it, reached out, and smacked it toward third base just inside the foul line. “I saw the ball strike the bag and go bounding out into the field,” said Henriksen. “I knew I was safe, knew I had done what was expected of me and I was glad.” Stahl scored and Henriksen dashed to second with a game-tying double, keeping Red Sox hopes alive. The Giants scored a run in the 10th to regain the lead, setting the stage for one of the great finishes in World Series history, as the Red Sox came back with two runs, abetted by the famous error by outfielder Fred Snodgrass.
The Red Sox were a disappointment in 1913, finishing in fourth place. Once more Henriksen was used sparingly, but he was playing well in key roles assigned him by manager Stahl. Through May 29 he had played in 16 games and was batting .310. But on that day after a game in Washington, in which he started, Henriksen had a severe attack of appendicitis. Immediate surgery was recommended, but Olaf declined, saying he felt better the next day. On June 5 the scrappy little outfielder appeared back in uniform. Then on July 12 Olaf was stricken again with appendicitis and was operated on in Chicago. He was out of action for nine weeks, returning gallantly on September 11 in a pinch-hit role. He played little after that, and finished the season batting .375.
In 1914, the year that marked the arrival in Boston of the new kid, “Babe” Ruth, Henriksen played in 63 games, batting .263, and hit his only major-league home run, on October 6, against Washington’s Harry Harper. The Red Sox finished in second place. In 1915 and 1916 the Red Sox once again rose to the top, playing in the World Series each year, and winning each four games to one both times. Henriksen, who had batted only .196 in 73 games, a career high, during the ’15 season, was 0-for-2 in the Series. He appeared once as a pinch-hitter, walked, and scored in the ’16 Series. He batted only .202 during the 1916 season in a career-high 99 at-bats. Despite his anemic hitting in 1915-16, Henriksen still managed to get on base one-third of the time, drawing 18 walks to go with his 18 hits in 1915 and 19 walks with 20 hits in 1916.
On March 17, 1916, in a team practice game, an occasion on which Henriksen became a thorn in the Babe’s side, he caught up to a certain home-run ball hit by Ruth, crashing against the fence and ripping out a couple of boards in the process. Ruth was disgruntled and “cracked him in the side with an inshoot” when Olaf later came to bat.
On July 7, 1916, in a game at Fenway Park, Henriksen established himself as one of the few men to pinch-hit for Babe Ruth, a further annoyance to the Bambino. Ruth had been pitching a fabulous game against Cleveland, but was behind 1-0. In the seventh inning the Red Sox filled the bases with one out. Ruth was the next batter. Manager Bill Carrigan gave the Babe instructions when he went to the plate, but Ruth ignored him, whereupon he was immediately pulled by the manager, who replaced him with Henriksen. Olaf worked a pass, forcing in the tying run. Boston went on to win, 2-1.
Because of financial wars that occurred between players and teams after the upstart Federal League collapsed in 1915, owners were looking to cut player salaries. A Baseball Players’ Fraternity was soon formed, and among the original 10 or 12 members of the group who met with their president, Dave Fultz, in a meeting on January 18, 1917, were Red Sox players Larry Gardner, Hal Janvrin, Babe Ruth, and Olaf Henriksen. It did not set well with major-league ownership.
Whether the Red Sox and their owner, Harry Frazee, became disenchanted with Henriksen because of his involvement with the Fraternity, and thus the reason he was released by the team, cannot be reconciled. He had played in a scant 15 games with one base hit and a .083 batting average that year. On June 30, 1917, he was let go, sold outright to Roger Bresnahan’s Toledo Mud Hens of the American Association. Olaf refused to report to Toledo and on July 5 was given his unconditional release by the Red Sox.
Henriksen went to work for Willard Battery, a Massachusetts-based company/ He also played and coached for the Fore River semipro team of the Bethlehem Steel League, in Boston’s South Shore area, in 1918, along with such other former major-league notables as Eddie Plank and Dutch Leonard.
In 1921 news accounts of local baseball activity found Henriksen playing for and coaching a team called Olaf Henriksen’s Canton team, which played other local teams, including teams of the Cape Cod League. In 1922 Boston College hired him to coach its baseball team. In his three seasons there, through 1924, he had winning teams each year, including in 1923 a remarkable 30-3 record, an intercollegiate record of 22 victories in a row, and an intercollegiate championship.
Semipro baseball was thriving in the New England area in the 1920s. Henriksen latched onto one such team, the Grow Tire Company of Boston, playing for it in 1922 at the age of 34. Henriksen became self-employed sometime in the middle to late 1920s, working as a painting contractor in and around the Canton area.
On May 2, 1962, Olaf attended a reunion at Fenway Park with remaining members of the 1912 team celebrating the 50th anniversary of their World Series championship. Six months later, on October 17, Henriksen died of lung cancer at the age of 74.