Perhaps no other sport offers redemption to a player more often, or more quickly, than baseball. It can be a dangerous motivator for a young ballplayer. This is especially true for one who has been given his first opportunity to play every day. Or for a player who has been lauded for his skill on the baseball field. Often, his attempts at salvation are detoured, and his downward plight continues.
Such was the case with George Hendrick, a 23-year-old outfielder who was trying to make the most of his first season with the Cleveland Indians. Most young players, even those who were given the “can’t-miss” tag, have suffered through the peaks and valleys of their early careers. Indeed, the majors could be quite humbling. Hendrick had just arrived on the shores of Lake Erie via a trade with Oakland. Even though he was a bench player with the Athletics, his talent could not be doubted and Cleveland considered him the key player in the four-person swap.
The trade launched an odyssey that saw Hendrick play for six teams in a mildly controversial 18-year major-league career in which he was sometimes accused of lack of hustle and criticized for refusing to talk to the media.
Om June 19, 1973, Hendrick was in a mild 0-for-8 slump, including three strikeouts. Two of the K’s had been at the hands of Detroit’s Jim Perry, the starting pitcher the night before in the Tigers’ 5-1 victory. The Indians center fielder may not have been trying to avenge his performance, but he unleashed an offensive show on the 19th that had Cleveland Stadium buzzing.
Stepping to the plate in the bottom of the first inning, Hendrick sent an offering by the Tigers’ Woodie Fryman over the fence just inside the left-field foul pole. He duplicated his power display with home runs off Fryman in the fourth and sixth innings, both sailing high over the fence in right-center field. All three round-trippers were of the solo variety. A Charlie Spikes solo homer sent Fryman to the showers in the sixth, but the Tribe still trailed, 7-4.
Hendrick was not done. He worked his way for a walk in the eighth inning against reliever Mike Strahler, and scored on a home run by John Ellis that knotted the affair, 7-7. Then, with the outcome hanging in the balance, Hendrick delivered his biggest hit of the evening. His single with two out and two on in the bottom of the ninth scored Jack Brohamer from second base.
“George always swings the same way,” said teammate Walt Williams. “The ball just jumps off his bat. When you’re tall and you make good contact and you hit the ball in the air, there’s a good chance it will go out.”1 Tribe coach Rocky Colavito, who had banged out four home runs in a game 14 years earlier, saw the raw talent in George. “He’s got such great God-given talent,” said Colavito. “It’s just whether or not he can make it work for him.”2
What was George Hendrick’s reaction to all the fanfare? “I got lucky,” he said.3
George Andrew Hendrick was born on October 18, 1949, in Los Angeles. He was raised in the Watts section of South LA and attended Fremont High School. George did not play organized sports in high school. When he was asked why, he merely replied, “I just didn’t.”4
Hendrick’s first love may have been the hardwood, as he preferred basketball to baseball. But it was his talent playing semipro baseball that caught the eye of Whitey Herzog. “I remember I saw him on a Saturday before the very first Super Bowl,” recalled Herzog, who was the director of player development for the New York Mets at the time. “I saw George in a sandlot game in Watts. He was the only guy there of any consequence. He had great tools. If Oakland hadn’t picked him, we would have gotten him in a minute.”5
Based on the recommendation of their Southern California scout, Bob Zuk, the Athletics made Hendrick their number-one pick in the January 1968 free-agent draft. Their selection made Hendrick the first overall pick as well.
Playing for Burlington (Iowa) of the Class A Midwest League in 1968, Hendrick led the league in hitting with a .327 average and was named to the all-league team. He was one of the top prospects in the Oakland organization, ripping the cover off the ball at each level. Hendrick stood 6-feet-3 inches tall and weighed near 200 pounds. The Oakland front office was confident that he had the same potential as Rick Monday and Reggie Jackson, both of whom had similar builds.
In 1971, his fourth year in the Athletics’ farm system, Hendrick crushed 21 home runs and drove in 63 runs in only 63 games at Triple-A Iowa (Des Moines). In a brief call-up to the A’s, he made his major-league debut against the Washington Senators on June 4, 1971, and got his first major-league hit in a 21-inning affair won by the Athletics, 5-3. He returned to Iowa after appearing in two games. He was recalled to the big leagues in mid-July, and except for a brief stretch with Iowa in 1972, was in the majors to stay.
Hendrick spent most of the 1972 season as a reserve outfielder. The A’s were on a roll. They won the second of what would be five consecutive Western Division titles. An offseason trade of Monday to the Chicago Cubs for pitcher Ken Holtzman solidified a pitching staff that already had Catfish Hunter, Blue Moon Odom, and Vida Blue. Manager Dick Williams’s lineup was stocked with good young talent, including Sal Bando, Joe Rudi, Bert Campaneris, Mike Epstein, and Reggie Jackson.
The A’s cruised through the season and faced Detroit in the American League Championship Series. In the second inning of Game Five, Jackson scoring from third base on a delayed steal that tied the score, 1-1, slid feet first into Tigers catcher Bill Freehan and pulled a hamstring. Hendrick, who had pinch-hit in each of the first four games, assumed Jackson’s spot in center field.
In the fourth inning Hendrick reached base on an error by Tigers shortstop Dick McAuliffe. Bando bunted him to second, and he scored the go-ahead run on a single by Gene Tenace. It turned out to be the winning run, as Odom made the 2-1 lead stand. The Athletics were returning to the World Series for the first time in 41 years.
With Jackson sidelined for the Series, the A’s were considered heavy underdogs as they met the Cincinnati Reds. Hendrick started five of the games in center field in the closely contested series in which six of the seven games were decided by a single run. The A’s rode supreme pitching and four home runs by Tenace to their first of three straight world championships.
Hendrick credited teammate Joe Rudi for his development: “It was Joe Rudi who took me under his wing. He’s a super fantastic person and a totally unselfish team player. Everything you see him doing on a field, you know he developed through hard work. If I were starting a new team and had a chance to pick any player in baseball, the first guy I’d choose is Joe Rudi – that’s how much I think of him as a player and a person.”6
Hendrick was not without detractors. He played his outfield position with an easy, effortless gait. Some characterized his play as nonchalant or lazy, while others believed that he quickly learned how to position himself in the outfield, so consequently had less ground to cover. At times he was criticized for “lollipop” throws to the cutoff man. New York Yankees coach Elston Howard was one of Hendrick’s detractors. “He’s a real dog,” said Howard. “You could see that the way he played against us. Half-trying. What a shame.”7
When spring training dawned in 1973, Hendrick balked at the notion that he should be sent down to the minors. He had accomplished all he could, and felt that he had contributed enough to the A’s success the previous year to earn his stay. Oakland had acquired Billy North from the Cubs to play center field. On March 24 Hendrick and catcher Dave Duncan were sent to Cleveland for catcher Ray Fosse and infielder Jack Heidemann.
For Hendrick, the move across the country was a fresh beginning. Cleveland skipper Ken Aspromonte inserted him into the center-field position. The position was Hendrick’s to lose. Despite missing the last six weeks because of a broken wrist, Hendrick was still second on the club in homers (21), RBIs (61), and batting average (.268). Hendrick was dubbed “Silent George” for his uneasiness in talking to the media. He often said that when he had something to say, he would say it. “Man, I gave up caring about what the world thinks about George Hendrick a long time ago,” he said. “The people only believe what they read and what they want to believe. I’m happy the way I am. I have my friends and family, and that’s the way it’s going to stay.”8
Hendrick was a solid contributor in the Tribe’s lineup. He was one of the few power hitters and RBI men on the team. He was selected for the All-Star Game in 1974 and 1975. Still, Hendrick was criticized for not hustling and for what was perceived as a lackadaisical approach to the game. “There was a game right at the end of his career with the Indians where Gaylord [Perry] had a 2-1 lead in New York in the ninth inning,” recalled Cleveland broadcaster Joe Tait. “Bobby Murcer hit a high fly ball to center field. There were a couple of Yankees on base. George Hendrick went back for the ball – he was really nonchalanting it. The ball dropped over his head and two guys scored. Game, set, match. After the game Gaylord went over to Hendrick’s locker, stood in front of him, and said, ‘I never want this son of a bitch in center field when I pitch again.’ Then he walked away, and Hendrick never said a word. No one did.” 9
Personality conflicts affected Hendrick’s playing time. On August 8, 1974, he suffered a hamstring pull and played only intermittently for the next few weeks. An exasperated Aspromonte would not play Hendrick full-time until George told him he was 100 percent. The problem was that neither was talking to the other. “I wanted to play, but I wasn’t going to talk to the man,” said Hendrick. “I am not going to talk to him. I don’t have anything to say to him. It’s no secret I don’t care for the man, but I don’t want to get into the reasons. I don’t want to attack anybody. I just want to leave it at that.”10
Cleveland acquired Frank Robinson from California on September 12 to help in the stretch run. Robinson recalled a conversation he had with Hendrick in Boston on the last day of the season. “Hendrick came into the locker room early, as I did. He hung his suit bag in the locker next to mine, then went to check the lineup posted on the wall. He came back, slung the suit bag over his shoulder and said, ‘I’m out of here.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, George? We have a game to play.’ Hendrick replied, ‘He’s got me in the lineup, and I’m not playing with Perry pitching. I’m gone.’ I said, ‘Are you sure you want to do that?’ Hendrick answered, ‘Yeah I’m catching a plane.’”11
Robinson succeeded Aspromonte as manager of the Indians the following year. The appointment of the first black manager in the major leagues may have had a positive effect on Hendrick on the field. In 1976 he belted 25 of the team’s 85 home runs. “We, the Indians, have come a long way since Frank became manager,” said Hendrick. When he was asked if he should be a motivating voice for the young Indians team, Hendrick replied, “In my opinion, the less I expose myself, the better. I feel I have the respect of the guys on the team, and that’s the important thing. Because I have their respect, I can do my bit for motivation, but I can’t stand up and be a holler guy, if you know what I mean. That’s not me.”12
The front office felt that it was time to move Hendrick, and on December 8, 1976, he was traded to San Diego for outfielder Johnny Grubb, catcher Fred Kendall, and infielder Héctor Torres. The Padres’ director of player personnel, Bob Fontaine was pleased about acquiring a player of Hendrick’s capabilities for three bench players. “Getting Hendrick was our best possible deal,” said Fontaine. “He’s a better all-around player than [Richie] Zisk, [Gary] Matthews, or [Jeff] Burroughs. He’s a better runner, fielder, and thrower than any of the three and he has their power.”13
Hendrick led the team in hitting in 1977 with a .311 batting average, and was second in homers (23), RBIs (81), and hits (168), and tied for second in runs scored (75). Despite his insistence on not speaking to the media, the San Diego Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association voted him the team’s MVP.
(Syndicated columnist Mike Royko, in an offhand way, lauded Hendrick for his silence. He urged other professional athletes, who he said babbled the most public nonsense next to politicians and sports broadcasters, to emulate Hendrick.)
Hendrick got off to a slow start in 1978. He was moved to right field and Dave Winfield took over in center. Hendrick was platooned with Oscar Gamble. The platoon system that manager Roger Craig employed did not work, prompting Gamble to suggest that either he or Hendrick be traded. Hendrick, and his three-year, $1 million deal were shipped to St. Louis on May 26 for relief pitcher Dennis Rasmussen.
“When I played against the Cardinals my observation was that if they had someone in the lineup who could protect Ted Simmons and hit 20 home runs and drive in 80 or 90 runs, I thought they could contend. I’m not saying I’m that guy, but I’m going to try to be,” Hendrick in response to the trade.14 He lived up to his vow. In his first six years as a Cardinal, he averaged 19 homers and 85 RBIs. He had a big day on August 25, 1978, when he powered the Cardinals to an 11-10 win in Atlanta. He smacked two homers and had a career-high seven RBIs.
In 1980 Hendrick smacked 25 home runs and 33 doubles, and driving in 109 runs while batting .302. He won The Sporting News’ Silver Slugger award for most homers by a National League right fielder, and the paper named him to its NL All-Star Team. It seemed that George’s bat was doing his talking.
“I don’t think you’ll find a better hitter in the National League with men on base than Hendrick,” said St. Louis coach Red Schoendienst. “What makes George so tough is that he hits all kind of pitching so well. If an adjustment has to be made between pitches, he’ll make it almost without thinking about it.”15
Whitey Herzog replaced Ken Boyer as the Cardinals manager halfway through the 1980 season. Herzog had success in Kansas City, winning three straight division titles (1976-78), only to be eliminated by the New York Yankees in each ALCS. Under Herzog’s leadership, the Cardinals were back in the playoffs in 1982, finishing first in the National League’s Eastern Division. Hendricks’ 19 homers and 104 RBIs easily led the Redbirds, who were a team built mostly on speed. The Cardinals swept the Atlanta Braves in the League Championship Series and returned to the World Series for the first time since 1968.
Their opponent was the Milwaukee Brewers. The Series went down to Game Seven, at Busch Stadium. Trailing 3-1, St. Louis scored three runs in the sixth inning and took a lead they never relinquished. Hendricks’ single drove in the go-ahead run. The Mound City celebrated the Cardinals’ ninth world championship. The following season, after playing his whole career as an outfielder, Hendrick reinvented himself by learning the skills of a first baseman. His mentor in spring training was the Cardinals’ slick-fielding first sacker Keith Hernandez, whom he subsequently replaced when Hernandez was dealt to the New York Mets in June. Hendrick again received The Sporting News Silver Slugger Award and won a place on its NL All-Star team (18 HR, 97 RBIs, .318 average).
Whitey Herzog may have had something to do with Hendrick’s turnaround. “When I got here in the middle of 1980, George loafed down the line once,” the manager said. “We had a little talk. About six weeks later, he loafed again. We had a little longer talk. I have not had one bit of trouble with him since.”16
Still, in December 1984, Hendrick was traded to Pittsburgh for pitcher John Tudor and outfielder Brian Harper. He did not stay in the Steel City long. On August 2, 1985, he was shipped to the California Angels with pitcher John Candelaria in a five-player deal. By now in his mid-30s, he spent most of his tenure with the Angels as a part-timer. He retired after the 1988 season with a career batting average of .278, 267 home runs, 1,111 RBIs, and 343 doubles.
After his playing days, Hendrick stayed close to baseball. He made stops in St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Anaheim, working as a hitting or a first-base coach. In 2002 he managed the Lake Elsinore Storm of the Class A California League, a Padres farm club, to the league championship series. He had become friends with Joe Maddon, the Angels’ bench coach, and when Maddon was appointed manager at Tampa Bay in 2006, Hendrick went with him as first-base coach, a position he still held as of 2014.
Jim Frey, first-base coach for the Mets in 1983, told of his first encounter with Hendrick, who was playing first base for the Cardinals. “I didn’t know him, but for ten years I’d heard these stories about him – how he didn’t talk to the press, stuff like that. But I’m a friendly sort of guy, so I ask him, ‘George, how do you like first base?’ Now I’m expecting him to say something like ‘What the hell does it matter to you?’ Well out comes this voice that is soft and articulate-like. He says, ‘Well Jim, my teammates have been so helpful, they’ve made the transition easy.’ Now I’m knocking my head because I don’t know if I’m hearing right. But I was – George was just something other than what people said he was.”17
Indeed he is.
1 Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 20, 1973.
3 Cleveland Press, June 20, 1973.
4 The Sporting News, February 17, 1968.
5 National Baseball Hall of Fame, Players File.
6 The Sporting News, May 22, 1976.
7 Bruce Markusen, A Baseball Dynasty – Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s (Haworth, New Jersey: St. Johann Press, 2002), 186.
8 National Baseball Hall of Fame, Players File
9 Terry Pluto, The Curse of Rocky Colavito (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 133.
10 The Sporting News, September 28, 1974.
11 Frank Robinson and Barry Stainback, Extra Innings (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1988), 109-110.
12 The Sporting News, May 22, 1976.
13 The Sporting News, December 25, 1976.
14 The Sporting News, June 17, 1978.
15 Christian Science Monitor, April 10, 1984.
16 National Baseball Hall of Fame, Player’s File
17 Sports Illustrated, September 19, 1983.