O’s Should Retire No. 44 for Elrod Hendricks

Failure to honor “conscience of franchise” more proof organization lacks class

by Christopher Heun

When the Orioles took the field on Opening Day last week, for the first time in nearly four decades Elrod Hendricks wasn’t wearing a uniform.He died last December after 37 years as a player and coach. No one has worn the orange and black longer than Ellie.

A catcher who split time with Andy Etchebarren and others, he played ten seasons for the Orioles, including the 1969-1971 World Series teams. Probably his most famous moment came during Game 1 of the 1970 Series, when he “tagged” out Bernie Carbo in a play at the plate that made a sandwich out of umpire Ken Burkhart (See a photo of the play).

Younger fans remember Ellie as the man in uniform always ready with a bright smile, eager to sign an autograph. If you don’t have one of your own, it’s only because you never asked. On top of that, he was a tireless advocate in the community.

That’s why it’s such a shame that the team hasn’t retired his number 44 – they’re wearing a shoulder patch this season – and only two players from last year’s club, B.J. Surhoff and Melvin Mora, bothered to show up for his funeral. (All the more reason – along with Mora’s off-season role as a peacemaker between the front office and an unhappy Miguel Tejada – that the third baseman should be re-signed immediately, but that’s a topic for another day.)

The failure to pay proper tribute to Ellie, a man John Eisenberg has called “the conscience of the franchise” is further, painful proof that the “Oriole Way” is history. The team has slipped to also-ran status, a perennial fourth place finisher, but what really makes it hard to be an O’s fan is that the organization doesn’t have enough class anymore to honor some of the most loyal and fan-friendly members of its family.

Eisenberg has written columns for The Sun (column 1, column 2) about how much Ellie meant to the organization and why it should retire his number. He also described how clumsily the O’s reassigned him from his duties as bullpen coach after last season, speaking with his widow, Merle Hendricks.

“I need to speak out to set the record straight,” she said. “The fact is they broke his heart. They broke my husband’s spirit,” she said of the Orioles.

“Teams now have community relations departments because there aren’t enough Elrods who care about their communities,” Eisenberg wrote.

When the Hall of Fame voters snubbed Minnie Minoso and Buck O’Neil last winter, Buster Olney suggested Major League Baseball establish a lifetime achievement award “to honor those who didn’t necessarily hit the most home runs or win the most games, but whose contributions to the game are nonetheless indelible and have helped shape the baseball experiences of others.”

Olney, who once covered the Orioles for The Sun, included Ellie (along with former general manager Roland Hemond and clubhouse man Ernie Tyler) in a long list of baseball figures who deserve the recognition. A case could also be made for Cal Ripken Sr., whose number hasn’t been retired by the O’s, either.

Ellie’s old teammates still remember him, though.

“We lost the most beloved Oriole of all time,” Brooks Robinson told the Associated Press. “Not only was Elrod loved here in the Baltimore area but all over the country. Every ballpark that we would go into he’d be the first one on the field signing autographs and saying hello. It goes beyond the game of baseball. He was just a people person. Certainly, he was a big part of the success of the Orioles organization. He has touched more lives in this town than anyone else. From 1968 to 2005, he was the Orioles’ goodwill ambassador. He gave me so many laughs and so many wonderful memories during our years together.”

When Ellie was inducted into the Orioles Hall of Fame in 2001, manager Mike Hargrove had this to say: “It’s people like Elrod who give baseball a good name. I’ve never seen Elrod not be accommodating to people.”

Even umpires liked Ellie. Ron Luciano wrote in “The Umpire Strikes Back” that Ellie had “the nicest way of arguing of anyone in baseball,” and helped restrain Earl Weaver during his spats with the men in blue.

Follow this link for a great quick biography, including details about Ellie’s 16 Puerto Rican winter seasons and how he earned the nickname “The Babe Ruth of Mexico.”

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About mptaylor11

Roar from 34, a Baltimore Orioles Blog. Humor. History. Homerism. Since 2006.
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