Every time George Hendrick comes to bat in St. Louis' Busch Stadium, his likeness is projected onto the giant color screen in right centerfield. For a moment, his countenance seems full of menace and power. But, like the terrible head of the Wizard of Oz, it's only a mask. At a closer glance, the illusion disappears. You can detect twinkles in Hendrick's eyes, and if you stare long enough, you can see the corners of his mouth turning in a northerly direction. When the Wizard was found out, he said, "I am a humbug." And so is Hendrick.
After 13 years in the major leagues, Hendrick remains a mystery, hiding behind a face that hardly ever smiles for a camera and a policy of almost never talking to a notebook or a microphone. He may be the ballplayer's ballplayer, but he'll never belong to the public.
This much is known about Hendrick: He pals around with the Los Angeles Lakers; he hits with an M-253 Joe Morgan Model Louisville Slugger (34 inches, 31 ounces); he likes to watch soap operas; he loves automobiles; he's fond of children; he's superstitious; and he wears the bottoms of his uniform pants down low, over the stirrups. He has also been at or near the top of the National League batting leaders most of the season. As of Sunday, he was at .319, chasing Bill Madlock of the Pirates, the league leader at .321. And St. Louis was in a four-team dogfight for the NL East Division title, 1½ games behind first-place Montreal.
Hendrick's friends say that to know him is to love him, but the problem is getting to know him. He may be kind to children, animals and colleagues, but he can still turn on a reporter as he would on a hanging curveball. Because he doesn't talk, others will just have to talk for him.
Almost directly below the huge Color-board in Busch Stadium sits the George Hendrick Fan Club. The members of the fan club all belong to the Hohn family from Collinsville, Ill., which is about 15 miles east of St. Louis. Counting Robert, the father, and Toni, the mother, there are eight Hohns. They show up early to claim the first row of the bleachers and unfurl their WE LOVE YOU GEORGE banner, which has to be rolled up before the game starts.
The Hohns discovered the real George Hendrick at spring training in St. Petersburg, Fla. Robert, employed by Action Data Services, recounts meeting Hendrick: "Carol, she's the 13-year-old, is very outgoing, and she sort of singled George out last year. You can talk to the players through the fence down there, and he ended up taking her out on the field and giving her a cap. This spring Carol asked us if we could take George to dinner, and we said, 'He's not going to want to go to dinner with us.' Two days later Carol came back and said that George and Tito Landrum [now an Oriole] had accepted her invitation."
The Hohn children are delightful, but they all seem to speak at once, so it's hard to make out which one is saying what. On this particular evening in the bleachers, the participants in the discussion are Carol; Ann, 16; Amy, 10; and Bobby, 2.
"We had spaghetti and salad at dinner, and George had two helpings."
"Then we drove in his Mercedes."
"He bought some vanilla candles."
"Yeah, he said he didn't like the smell in his hotel room."
"He's really nice."
Jim Frey, the first base coach for the New York Mets, decided to strike up a conversation with Hendrick one day in June, soon after Hendrick had started to play that position. Says Frey: "I didn't know him, but for 10 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 asked 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's soft and articulate-like. He sounded like a nun. 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 is just something other than what people said he was."
Hendrick is almost as popular with opposing players as he is with his teammates. In June the Pirates and Cardinals emptied their benches and a beanball-incited skirmish began. Hendrick paired off with Madlock, and the two engaged in a hilarious imitation of a brawl. In fact, it was so funny that some of the other players stopped to watch, and the fight died of laughter.
Says Chris Chambliss of the Braves, "He is absolutely the friendliest, most outgoing person you'll ever meet."
Hendrick has been known to go upstairs after a game in Busch Stadium to where the young Cardinal fans wait for autographs and escort some of them downstairs for a tour of the clubhouse. He'll say, holding his hand out waist high, "I'll take anybody to the clubhouse who can walk under my hand." Then he'll say "C'mon" even to the kids who don't qualify.
"In 40 years in this business, I've never met a finer young man," says Angel Executive Vice-President Buzzie Bavasi, who was president of the Padres when they acquired Hendrick from the Indians at the 1976 winter meetings. "When I gave the Padres my resignation, George did something I've never had another player do. He called me and wanted to know if I needed any money."
St. Louis values Hendrick not only for what he does on the field, which is considerable, but for what he does in the clubhouse. Ozzie Smith, Hendrick's closest friend on the team, says, "He's an unselfish person, a happy person. The biggest joke is when they call him Silent George. He stirs up more fun in the clubhouse...."
As if on cue, Hendrick sneaks up behind Pitcher Joaquin Andujar, who is passing a box of special World Series baseballs around the clubhouse to be autographed. Hendrick starts taking the balls and scattering them all over the room. "George, I thought you were my amigo" says Andujar.
"Not as long as you keep pitching the way you've been pitching," says Hendrick, who quickly adds, "You're still my amigo, Joaquin."
Says Manager Whitey Herzog, with that special eloquence known only to baseball, "The guy's a helluva guy."
"His favorite soap opera is All My Children."
"We go down to see him sometimes before the game."
"He doesn't like to have his picture taken, though...."
Hendrick's aversion to the press started when he was with Cleveland, from 1973 to '76. For obvious reasons, the details remain a little sketchy. But Hendrick felt that some of the older players resented his remarks—back then he was known as an honest, articulate and colorful interviewee—so he decided that he wouldn't talk after games, only before. Some writers, though, were not aware of his new rules, and when he politely begged off, they took offense. At least one of them ripped him for not talking. So, Hendrick thought, I won't talk at all. Once burned, forever shy.
His stand has been about as consistent as his swing, which is very consistent. He has spoken for the record only a few times since: after he was traded to San Diego, after he was traded to St. Louis in 1978 and after he signed a five-year, $2.5-million contract extension in February of 1979. At the press conference announcing that signing, the subject of talking to the media came up and Hendrick said, "I don't dislike anybody in this room, although some of you may think differently. If I have something to say, I'll say it, but it's hard for me to talk to reporters. It's a matter of my freedom.... I don't know whom I can trust and whom I can't trust, and I don't want to spend the time and energy to distinguish between the two. My policy has been to let you write what you're going to write. I won't be rude. If I don't have anything to say, I'll say, 'No comment.' "
Rick Hummel of the Post-Dispatch in St. Louis is friendly with Hendrick, and Hendrick occasionally opens up to him. Says Hummel, "This spring, when George started working out at first base, he thought the fans should know just why he was doing it, so he allowed himself to be quoted. He'll do that sometimes if it's something he thinks needs explaining."
Hendrick's stance is probably one part principle and one part convenience, and his agent, Ed Keating, has given up trying to talk him out of it. But the silence has left Hendrick underappreciated and misunderstood. Through Sunday Hendrick had 17 homers and 85 RBIs to go with that .319 average.
Herzog calls Hendrick "the best rightfielder in the National League," and his teammates say he has never missed a cutoff man. But these days he's playing first base in place of the traded Keith Hernandez. Hendrick volunteered to play first in spring training because he thought he would be traded and wanted Hernandez, who has five Gold Gloves, to teach him to play first before he left. When Herzog decided he had to trade one of the two, he chose to keep Hendrick.
Hendrick was a little apprehensive about taking over at first base. After his debut, Hummel wondered if he was nervous. Hendrick, true to his word, didn't say anything. But he did open his mouth in mock horror and pat his heart. He has done a creditable job, despite his seven errors, and although he lacks the range and grace of Hernandez, he does hold one advantage. "He's tall enough," says Ozzie Smith, "so that I don't have to worry about coming down over the ball when I throw it."
Nobody has ever questioned Hendrick's baseball instincts, although they have questioned his hustle. His problem has been that he only goes as hard as he has to. In an interview he gave to Hummel after the 1979 season, Hendrick said, "I've been criticized about my style of play ever since I came up here. Some people call it lazy. Some call it lackadaisical. Some people call it graceful."
Hendrick was always a natural. He grew up in central Los Angeles, which has come to be sort of the Emerald City of baseball talent. Hendrick didn't play ball at Fremont High because of a run-in he had as a freshman with the junior varsity coach. But he did play on the Pirate Rookies, an amateur team.
Bob Zuk, who is now a Phillies West Coast scout, was the first scout to spot Hendrick, when Zuk was working for the A's in 1966. On Zuk's recommendation the A's, who had the first pick in the January 1968 draft, made Hendrick their No. 1 choice. Zuk then had two problems: 1) persuading Hendrick, who was headed for junior college, to sign, and 2) keeping A's owner Charlie Finley out of the picture because he kept calling and offending George's mother. Finally, Zuk signed Hendrick for $20,000, a $4,000 Pontiac and the promise to bring his mother up to Oakland for the '68 opener.
Hendrick excelled at every level of the minors. In 1971, after hitting 21 homers in just 63 games at Triple A Iowa, he was called up to Oakland. When Reggie Jackson pulled his hamstring before the 1972 World Series, Hendrick took his place in the outfield. But the A's couldn't wait for him to blossom, so they traded him the next year, along with Catcher Dave Duncan, to the Indians for Catcher Ray Fosse and Infielder Jack Heidemann.
At first the Indians raved about Hendrick. But then he ran into trouble with Manager Ken Aspromonte, who thought Hendrick wasn't getting enough out of his talent. Frank Robinson took over the Indians in '75, and Hendrick responded with 167 RBIs in two seasons. But on Dec. 8, 1976 the Indians traded him to San Diego for Outfielder Johnny Grubb, Catcher Fred Kendall and Shortstop Hector Torres.
"When we made the deal," says Bavasi, "Cleveland writers said we'd made a mistake, that Hendrick was a problem player, but I found out that that wasn't true." Hendrick had a terrific year in 1977, with 23 homers, 81 RBIs and a .311 average. But in '78 he got off to a slow start, and, in another bad trade, the Indians sent him to St. Louis for Pitcher Eric Rasmussen.
"We all have balls signed by George."
"And he gave all of us hats."
"Show him your hat, Bobby."
The 2-year-old takes off his hat, and under the bill, clear as day, is the autograph, "George Hendrick." Bobby smiles and says something that sounds like "Jaws Hendik."
What else is there to tell about Jaws Hendik? He lives in Diamond Bar, Calif. His 13-year-old son, Brian, is more than 6 feet tall and could be in the NBA before long, and his 8-year-old son, Damon, is an NFL prospect. Hendrick and his wife are separated. He has three cars—a Volvo, a Porsche and a Model T Ford—plus a Dodge van. Keating has some of Hendrick's money invested in racehorses. Hendrick is a basketball fanatic and is friends with almost all the Lakers, particularly Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson. He sent Magic a Cardinals cap, and Magic sent him a good-luck telegram before the second game of the Series. He has no Cardinal insignia on his batting helmet because he once had a good night when the decal was omitted after the helmet had been repainted. He dresses in a well-protected corner of the locker room. On his locker there is a plaque that says WHAT A BEAUTIFUL DAY. NOW WATCH SOME BASTARD LOUSE IT UP.
And he's a man only a few select people, like the Hohns, have gotten to know.
"He tells us stories about the other players and how they kid each other."
"Sometimes he makes little bets with Pete Rose and Steve Garvey."
"I don't know if we should be telling you all of this."
"Yeah, George might not like it."
Probably not. But then, who's to say.
Hendrick led St. Louis into the stretch with a .319 average, 17 homers and 85 RBIs.
The helmet and pants are distinctively different.
Hendrick opens up easily around teammates, fans—even opponents—but not the media.