December 12, 1994: Tom Henke signs deal to play his final season in St. Louis

Just a couple weeks shy of his 37th birthday, baseball had taken Tom Henke from Texas to Toronto and back again. Now the 6-foot-5 right-hander was ready to return to his roots.

On December 12, 1994, Henke signed a one-year, $2-million contract to serve as the Cardinals’ closer in 1995. The 13-year major-league veteran had been born in Kansas City and lived on a farm outside of Jefferson City.[1]

“I’ll be honest with you, if it hadn’t been with St. Louis, I probably would have retired,” Henke said.[2]

“I was always a Cardinals fan growing up,” he continued. “It’s going to be a lot of fun and a privilege to play here. I tried to get over here in 1992 when I was a free agent but they had Lee Smith at the time. I know a lot of people around back home were wanting me to come here this time and it worked out. From a family standpoint, it’s wonderful.”[3]

Henke told the Belleville News-Democrat that several teams were vying for his services.

“It had to be the right situation,” he said. “I wanted to play in Texas, St. Louis, Kansas City, or maybe Cleveland, and St. Louis and Cleveland were the most interested.”[4]

Drafted by the Rangers in the fourth round of the 1980 June draft, Henke pitched in 41 games for the Rangers between 1982 and 1984, but he was erratic, walking 32 batters in 60 innings, including 20 in 28 1/3 innings in 1984.

In January 1985, the Blue Jays selected him as a free agent compensation pick. After winning the International League Most Valuable Player Award with a 0.88 ERA and 18 saves in 51 1/3 innings, Henke was called up to Toronto for the stretch run. In 40 innings, he posted a 2.03 ERA and 42 saves in 40 innings.

From 1986 through 1993, Henke saved at least 20 games each season. In 1987, he led the league with 34 saves and made the first all-star appearance of his career. He saved 34 games in 1992, then saved three games in the ALCS and two more in the World Series to help the Blue Jays win the world championship.

After returning to the Rangers in 1993, Henke enjoyed another strong year, saving a career-high 40 games with a 2.91 ERA. In 1994, however, a stint on the disabled list limited him to just 15 saves in 21 opportunities. His ERA climbed to 3.79 and he clashed with Rangers manager Kevin Kennedy regarding his use.

“Last (season) wasn’t a lot of fun for me,” Henke said. “I had some conflicts with the manager. It was a case where, all of a sudden, he was using me in situations for three or four innings, and that’s something I hadn’t experienced in a long time.”[5]

The man nicknamed “Terminator” came to the Cardinals ranked seventh on the all-time major-league list with 275.

“He’s going to be our closer, the guy who pitches the ninth inning,” Cardinals manager Joe Torre said. “He’s a guy who has done it, he’s used to doing it, and he’s been successful doing it. The difference of pitching that ninth inning is one of the big things in baseball. Not everyone can do it. You saw what happened with Mike Perez. Even when he was being successful, he was a little hesitant.”[6]

Perez opened the 1994 season as the Cardinals’ closer, but struggled in the role and ended the season with an 8.71 ERA. Rene Arocha claimed the job and saved 11 games, but required elbow surgery following the season.

Signing Henke “gives us more flexibility with Arocha,” Torre said. “Now he could work into our starting rotation or be a setup guy.”[7]

Henke was part of new general manager Walt Jocketty’s plan to improve a pitching staff that posted a 5.14 ERA in 1994. On the same day the Cardinals signed Henke, they also signed left-handed pitcher Danny Jackson to a three-year contract.

“It’s a major change in direction for this organization and I think it should be an indication to all of the fans that we’re doing whatever is needed – and whatever is possible – to try and put a winning and competitive team on the field for next year,” Jocketty said. “I’m excited about it.”[8]

So was Torre.

“Last year we had a ballclub that showed you how tough things can be if you can’t rely on pitchers getting you six or seven innings and having somebody close the door,” Torre said. “When Walt came aboard, he said he was going to address the pitching and he certainly has done that.”[9]

Although Jackson went just 2-12 with a 5.90 ERA and the Cardinals went just 62-81 during the strike-shortened 1995 season, Henke was all the Cardinals could have hoped for. In 54 1/3 innings, he posted a 1.82 ERA and saved 36 games in 38 opportunities. Along the way, he represented the Cardinals in the all-star game and placed 22nd in the National League Most Valuable Player voting. On August 18, 1995, he earned the 300th save of his career

After the season, he was named the Rolaids Relief Man of the Year. The St. Louis Chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America presented him with its J.G. Taylor Spink Award as the St. Louis Baseball Man of the Year.

That December, Henke declined the Cardinals’ offer of salary arbitration and indicated that he didn’t plan to return in time for the start of the season.

“I’m not officially retiring yet,” Henke said. “The chances of me coming back are pretty slim, but I would like to leave this open. I’m going to wait to see how I feel this spring, but I told the Cardinals to go ahead and play without me. If I do play, it will be with the Cardinals, but right now I don’t think I want to play.”[10]

Henke did not return in the spring, opting instead to spend time with his family. He retired with 311 saves and a 2.67 career ERA. In 789 2/3 innings, he struck out 861 batters for an average of 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings.


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[1] Dan O’Neill, “On Second Try, Henke Makes A Deal With Cards,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 13, 1994.

[2] Dan O’Neill, “On Second Try, Henke Makes A Deal With Cards,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 13, 1994.

[3] Dan O’Neill, “On Second Try, Henke Makes A Deal With Cards,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 13, 1994.

[4] Simon Gonzalez, “Rangers lose Henke to Cards,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, December 13, 1994.

[5] Dan O’Neill, “On Second Try, Henke Makes A Deal With Cards,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 13, 1994.

[6] Dan O’Neill, “On Second Try, Henke Makes A Deal With Cards,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 13, 1994.

[7] Dan O’Neill, “On Second Try, Henke Makes A Deal With Cards,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 13, 1994.

[8] Joe Ostermeier, “Cards move to beef up pitching,” Belleville News-Democrat, December 13, 1994.

[9] Joe Ostermeier, “Cards move to beef up pitching,” Belleville News-Democrat, December 13, 1994.

[10] Rick Hummel, “Still Unofficial, But Chances Slim Henke Will Pitch,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 20, 1995.

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