SABR

Elrod Hendricks

This article was written by Rory Costello.

Perhaps no Virgin Islander made a greater lifetime contribution to baseball than Elrod Hendricks (1940-2005). The native of St. Thomas also embodied Baltimore Orioles tradition; only Brooks Robinson wore the orange and black for even half as many games. Ellie’s major-league career spanned 12 seasons from 1968 to 1979, but he also spent a remarkable 28 years as the Orioles’ bullpen coach from 1978 through 2005. In addition, he played in 16 Puerto Rican winter seasons and earned the nickname The Babe Ruth of Mexico while playing there.

Yet one must look beyond the field to get the full measure of this giving man. He was warm-hearted, always beaming, with a rumbling (often colorfully profane) voice and laugh. Ellie made a personal connection with thousands of fans – especially the young.

Elrod Jerome Hendricks was born in Charlotte Amalie on December 22, 1940. His parents were Arthur Hendricks and Berecia Callendar. He had three brothers, Volmie, Arthur, and Morse. A childhood accident slowed the youth’s athletic development – his father’s car rolled over his feet, crushing his insteps, which had to be rebuilt.1 Thus he did not come to baseball until he was 13.

“I was introduced [to the game] by my uncle, Wilburn Smith, who at the time was one of the star players, shortstop, second base. He was well established in the islands.” Ellie played in the local men’s league, thanks to his uncle and a mainstay of St. Thomas baseball, Lealdo Victoria. “Lealdo and I became very, very close friends – he was more of a father figure to me. The Texaco Stars were a club, you had to be a member. They ushered me in and nurtured me. It was probably the best thing that happened, because I matured fast and I learned the game playing with those guys.”

About five years later, on March 1, 1959, the 18-year-old Hendricks signed to play pro ball. No less a figure than Hank Aaron was instrumental.2 “Hank came down on a tour after the 1958 World Series, a hitting exhibition. Bill Steinecke, who was then a scout/manager in the Braves minor-league system, him and Luis Olmo, they all came with Hank. On Friday afternoon, I was asked by my principal, would I be willing to go catch the exhibition? I said, ‘When!?’”

“There was supposed to be a clinic that Saturday, and I didn’t go because I had my chores to do around the house. That Sunday, I knew there were two games, it was in all the papers. But since I did not go to the clinic, I decided I was not going to go to the games. But I went to church that morning, and after church I went out to the ballgame, just to see it, because it was against St. Croix, sort of an all-star thing. And while I was there, Hank saw me sitting in the stands.”

“Everyone in the stands was asking ‘Why aren’t you down there?’ because Hank was a big name. We were not used to seeing major leaguers, professionals for that matter, spending time with us. So he saw me and said ‘Why aren’t you out here?’ and I told him ‘I didn’t go to the workout yesterday, so it’s not fair to the guys who went and were chosen.’ He said ‘Well, I want you. So go and get your uniform. It’s across the street [with Ellie’s grandmother, who lived right by Lionel Roberts Stadium]. I read about that!’”

“So I put on my uniform, and still sat in the stands. In the seventh inning, we had the bases loaded, and Mr. Steinecke called me in to pinch-hit for my cousin, Gene Francis, and he was leading the league in hitting! But as fate would have it, I hit a double and drove in three runs. After the game, they asked me to sign a contract. I said, ‘I couldn’t, my mom’ll kill me,’ but my uncle said, ‘Go ahead, I’ll sign for you.’”

At Class D McCook (Nebraska State League) in 1959, Ellie had a dismaying early experience – his first exposure to the knuckleball, courtesy of 20-year-old Phil Niekro. “Oh God, yes. Poor Knucksie, he held his heart, he was more worried about me than I was about myself. I had a brand-new catcher’s mitt, the first one I ever owned, and I was there trying to break it in. I just tried to keep the ball in front of me, but it was bouncing off every part of my body.” Manager Bill Steinecke had to come for him in the sixth inning.

Also on that squad was future author Pat Jordan (A False Spring). Bonus boy Jordan had a brief punch-up with the “very black, very limber” Elrod, who “spoke a rhythmic calypso English that amused most of the American players.” Still, the smile never left Ellie’s face.

The Braves released Hendricks in December 1960, but the Puerto Rican Winter League became his safety valve during his career’s bleakest period. Ellie did not play summer ball in 1961, working at a car rental in St. Thomas instead. However, help came from Luis Olmo, a teammate of Alfonso Gerard, a St. Croix native who played in the Negro Leagues and with a very young Roberto Clemente for the Santurce Cangrejeros (Crabbers). Olmo, the Crabbers’ manager when Ellie first turned pro, offered an invitation. His successor, Vern Benson, wanted to get a longer look. Benson was also a coach with the Cardinals’ farm club at Tulsa, and the organization needed catchers.

In Santurce Hendricks backed up Valmy Thomas, another St. Croix ballplayer, and then shared the job with him during the next two seasons before the veteran retired. “When I joined Santurce, it was good to see someone from home,” said Ellie. “Valmy may not know how much he helped me as a player. I would ask him certain things about catching, and he would never answer me, but I watched him and I learned from him. At first I thought, maybe it’s that St. Croix-St. Thomas rivalry, maybe you don’t want to talk to me! But invariably, he would do something and he would look over my way, as if to say, ‘I hope you got that.’”

Ellie roomed for a couple of winters with still another Virgin Islands player, Horace Clarke.3 “There was that rivalry with St. Croix, I even had people asking me, ‘How can you room with him, you’re a traitor!’ I said, ‘Hey, he’s a nice guy, I played against him in high school.’” Although they were rarely around at the same time, owing to the schedule, they still became close. Hendricks remembered that musically inclined Horace, “who hardly said anything,” played vibraphone and xylophone.

He also recalled the generosity of Sandy Alomar Sr.’s brother, Tony, and Juan “Terín” Pizarro. “They took me under their wings, drove me anywhere I wanted to go, wouldn’t let me spend my money.” Ellie remained lifelong friends with Pizarro and also learned more craft from catching him and Rubén Gómez. Other cagey vets like Canena Márquez and Ozzie Virgil Sr. taught him a further trick or two. “They would look terrible swinging at a breaking ball early in the game and then look back at me. When I got in a tight situation, I’d call for that breaking ball and they would rifle it to right-center, and when they got to second, they would look back at me again. Pizarro would say, ‘You big dummy, don’t you know they’re good breaking-ball hitters who can’t catch up to the fastball anymore?’ I learned after being burned a couple of times!”

The Crabbers connection again kept Ellie’s career alive at a low point, as the Cardinals cut him in 1963. However, his closest friend with the Crabbers, pitcher William de Jesús, was playing with Jalisco of the Mexican League. De Jesús recommended Hendricks to Jalisco’s manager, major-league and Puerto Rico veteran Jungle Jim Rivera.4 From 1964 through 1967, Ellie put up very potent if not quite Ruthian numbers for the Charros, including 41 home runs, 112 runs batted in, and a .316 batting average his last year.

Hendricks caught the eye of Earl Weaver, who was managing Santurce. When Baltimore prospect Larry Haney got hurt, Ellie also became a regular in Puerto Rico, and Weaver insisted that the Orioles should draft him in 1966. The Angels had a working agreement with Jalisco at that time, so they had his rights. After the extra endorsement of Orioles’ scout Trader Frank Lane, Baltimore selected Hendricks in the Rule 5 draft in 1967. He finally made the majors in 1968.

“Hank Bauer was the manager at that time. And naturally anything that Earl brought to the table he was against, because he knew Earl [then the first-base coach] was there to take his job! No matter what I did, I was wrong; he even changed my stance. Charlie Lau, who was our hitting coach, just closed his eyes. He said, ‘Hank, I saw this kid hit in Puerto Rico that way, and he hit against major-league pitching.’ Earl was cringing, and he finally just said, ‘I know you hate doing it, but just do it for me, please.’ By then I knew exactly what was going on, because I’d heard some stories.” Earl’s epoch began halfway through the 1968 season.

Hendricks – the lefty-swinging half of a catching platoon with Andy Etchebarren – was a lesser but still vital cog in Weaver’s superb Orioles teams of 1969-71. He was involved in some memorable World Series moments, including two in 1969: Tommie Agee robbed him of a likely triple in Game Three, and Pete Richert ran him off J.C. Martin’s bunt in Game Four. Game One in 1970 featured the pileup at home plate with Bernie Carbo and umpire Ken Burkhart; Hendricks also hit a homer to back Brooks Robinson’s fielding.

Ellie’s outstanding attribute as a player was handling the Orioles’ first-rate pitching staffs – especially Jim Palmer, a cerebral power pitcher, and Mike Cuellar, a most crafty junk-baller who had to outthink hitters after hurting his arm.

“They had a mental toughness. Palmer was probably the toughest of all to catch because he knew so much about the game. He knew himself, he knew every hitter, he knew every pitch that he threw. He knew what got hit and what didn’t get hit. Basically he was going to throw 85 to 90 percent fastballs, you knew that as a catcher. But he would battle you the whole game, so that’s why he was tough to catch, because mentally you’d be exhausted when the game was over. But the days that he had great stuff, it was so easy.”

In 2001 Jim Palmer reciprocated: “He was the perfect receiver. If I told him to sit on the corner, he sat on the corner. If I got the ball there on time, he could throw the runner out. And between him and Andy Etchebarren, we’d get 20 homers. He caught my no-hitter [on August 13, 1969 vs. Oakland]. I had the utmost confidence in him.”

“Ellie paid his dues -- after nine years in the minors, coming out of the Mexican League, he was in a position to subjugate his ego and do what was good for the club and the staff. He was and is a good communicator. Here he is 33 years later still doing the same thing.”

“Sure, we’d battle mentally. But he would come out there to the mound with that smile on his face, and he’d know where to give. Some catchers would think they know better – and maybe they do – but there was that special knowledge with Ellie. He knows the game of baseball.”

Although Ellie’s arm was not very strong, it was highly accurate. He nailed 38 percent of opposing base stealers during his career – 42 percent if one includes runners he picked off. While Hendricks batted only .220 lifetime in the majors, never climbing above .250, he did have some power. He exemplified the “Oriole Way” of smarts, sound fundamentals, and a roster full of useful role players.

In The Umpire Strikes Back, the late Ron Luciano told how much he liked having Ellie behind the plate. He was a buffer between the perennially feuding Luciano and Weaver, he had “the nicest way of arguing of anyone in baseball,” and was even trusted to call balls and strikes if the ump was “having a bad day.”

Except for the Orioles’ post-season trip to Japan in 1972, Ellie always wintered in Puerto Rico, his secure place.5 There they called him El Madamo, a reference to his African-Caribbean origin. His peak there was 1968-69, when he won the MVP award.

Hendricks spent two stretches away from Baltimore, which he regarded as the low points of his career. In 1972 he suffered partial paralysis in his right hand and arm, owing to a calcium deposit at the base of his neck.6 That August he was traded to the Chicago Cubs while his second wife, Merle, was recovering from childbirth complications. Ellie later said, “It’s a funny thing, not even being able to button your shirt. ... I couldn’t even hold my car keys to open the door last summer. I couldn’t hold a cigarette to my mouth. I had numbness in all my fingers. Last year was a complete waste.”7

What was the real cause? In 2001, Hendricks said “there’s some validity” to the belief that his career-threatening injury arose when he got hit by a backswing after defying superstition by knocking a cross made of sticks (or, in the tale’s embroidered version, chicken bones) off second base in a winter-league game against Caguas in 1968-69.8

However, fellow Virgin Islander Joe Christopher (a great believer in numerology) said, “Elrod was born lucky because of his birthdate!” Indeed, things turned up. With the encouragement of Frank Robinson, Ellie decided to keep playing at Santurce. Crabbers trainer Nick Acosta, a masseur “who was a magician with those fingers,” brought back the lost sensation. In 1972-73 he tied his Puerto Rico Winter League personal best with 12 homers and was the All-Star catcher once again.

Even when Ellie left the Orioles he paid dividends. The 1972 waiver deal with the Cubs brought Tommy Davis, who gave Baltimore three productive years as a designated hitter. That October the club got Hendricks back for Francisco Estrada, a one-game major leaguer.

Then in June 1976, Hendricks was part of the big 10-player deal with the Yankees that brought Baltimore Scott McGregor, Rick Dempsey, and Tippy Martínez. Under Billy Martin, he appeared in his fourth World Series but wound up going to Triple-A in 1977. Still, Hendricks thought highly of the other scrappy little bastard ex-second baseman for whom he played.

“Billy was so much like Earl. Anyone that wanted to win, I wanted to play for, because you learn an awful lot. Even though I had been on successful teams in the minors, I didn’t know how to play until I got under Weaver’s tutelage. And then when I left Baltimore to come to New York, it was like looking at the same guy in the mirror. Billy wanted to win more than anything else. You sit and listen to them, they rant and rave, but you pick up an awful lot about the game.”

“They hated each other’s guts, but they were so much alike, and I think that was one of the reasons.” If anything, Ellie thought Billy wanted to beat Earl even more because Earl had the upper hand more often. But he stressed how both were masters of roster management, player positioning, and all forms of in-game strategy. “Their teams were built around pitching and defense. That’s the one thing they did not tolerate, not being able to do the little things. Bunt the guy over, make the routine play, don’t beat yourself, let the other team beat themselves. That’s the way they played the game and that’s the way they managed the game.”

In November 1977 “big-league daddy”9 Weaver rescued Hendricks again; Ellie succeeded Cal Ripken, Sr. as bullpen coach. The winter of 1977-78 was also his last with the Crabbers. His 105 career homers in Puerto Rico rank third on the all-time list, and he played on five league champions.

Hendricks, Baltimore’s most loyal lieutenant, endured 11 manager changes as a coach. He appeared in 13 games as a player-coach during 1978, including one as a pitcher during a 24–10 blowout.10 When the rosters expanded in September 1979, he was activated for one last go behind the plate.

Although there was talk that Ellie might become a manager at some point, especially in the 1980s, he put those ambitions on the back burner. He remained a popular institution as bullpen coach. He had no retirement date in mind, but after he survived testicular cancer in 2003 and a mild stroke in April 2005, the Orioles did not allow him to exit on his own terms. He was “reassigned” after the 2005 season. Ellie’s position with the organization was still “under review” when he succumbed to a sudden fatal heart attack a day short of his 65th birthday. Only two days before, he had played Santa to 100 underprivileged children.

Elrod Hendricks was survived by Merle, their sons, Ryan and Ian (who both played in the minor leagues), and two sons and two daughters from his first marriage (Elrod, Jr. also played briefly in the minors). Yet his legacy has endured in other ways – his magic lay in how he reached out to fans and brought them inside the game.

 

Sources

This biography originally appeared on the website “Baseball in the Virgin Islands” (http://home.roadrunner.com/~vibaseball/), from which it has been adapted.

Grateful acknowledgment to Ellie Hendricks for providing his memories (personal interviews in the clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, home of his childhood favorites, July 1999 and May 2001) and to Jim Palmer (personal interview at Yankee Stadium, May 2001).

 

Notes

1 Bob Cairns, Pen Men (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993), 300.

2 “Hank Aaron Comes to Terms with Milwaukee for $40,000,” Los Angeles Times, February 2, 1959.

3 Thomas E. Van Hyning, Puerto Rico's Winter League (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 1995), 129.

4 Van Hyning, Puerto Rico's Winter League.

5 Jim Henneman, “Elrod's Endless Appeal,” Baltimore Sun, November 7, 1994, C1.

6 Lou Hatter, “Hendricks Shelved by Mystery Ailment,” The Sporting News, May 27, 1972.

7 Lou Hatter, “Hendricks Ready If Williams Runs Into Traffic,” The Sporting News, June 2, 1973.

8 Frank Robinson and Berry Stainback, Extra Innings (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988), 2-3; Thomas E. Van Hyning, The Santurce Crabbers (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 1999) 119.

9 Henneman, “Elrod's Endless Appeal,” C1.

10 Norman L.Macht, “The Night Elrod Pitched,” The National Pastime #16 (Cleveland: SABR, 1996).

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