It's an old joke, and not a particularly funny one, either.

Its punchline is narrowly focused, but any sports fan who grew up in or around Baltimore gets it. Anyone who ever took a glove to Memorial Stadium or Camden Yards or a pen and keepsake book to one of those offseason Orioles caravans will smile softly today while reading it.

The joke goes something like this: Question: Who doesn't have an Elrod Hendricks autograph? Answer: The one person who never tried.

Countless times in the late 1970s and early 1980s I stood on my front porch waiting anxiously as my sisters and parents readied for the drive down Loch Raven Boulevard toward Memorial Stadium. I'd scream at them because their tardiness would make it tough for me to get autographs.

And, sure enough, by the time we made it to our seats, the players almost always had retreated to the clubhouse until the first pitch. Yet one man in uniform would remain near the mesh screen around home plate satisfying all of the latecomers, acting as the consolation prize for missing out on a Murray or a Palmer or a Ripken.

It didn't really matter that he was at the end of his nondescript 12-year baseball career or, in later days, was a bullpen coach, the lowest tier of uniformed personnel.

Elrod "Ellie" Hendricks was an Oriole. And that was enough for all of us.

So, like every other kid I knew, I owned about 100 legible-yet-flashy Hendricks signatures. You just never tired of huddling around No. 44 waiting for the autograph, and maybe the ultimate payoff, a baseball.

By the time I became a sportswriter covering the Orioles, the hero worship of my youth had long since expired. The players I had idolized as a kid were just old men now, human beings and not baseball-playing gods.

That's when my new appreciation for Elrod arose. Yes, he was one of Baltimore's favorite sons, a gracious ambassador for the game and the organization. But I also learned he had an edge, one the kids who leaned over the Memorial Stadium railing never witnessed. One that was evident once you were in the clubhouse.

Elrod was hilarious. He would say anything at any time. It didn't matter who was within earshot. He wasn't afraid of offending anyone - and he seemingly never did. He got away with things others never would have because he was the incomparable Elrod. There wasn't a curse word in Spanish or English he didn't know or wouldn't use. He would even make up his own profane phrases and deliver them with a booming laugh that could make a blushing nun chuckle.

But he was more than just a wisecracking character. He was a dedicated community man who gave of his money and time to generations of Baltimore children. He was their baseball instructor and, for many underprivileged kids at the Orioles' annual Christmas party, he was their Santa Claus.

He also was a walking history of baseball in general and the Orioles in particular. For decades he was the club's eyes and ears, and its perfect mouthpiece.

Ask him who was the best teammate he ever had and he'd snap, "Frank Robinson" without hesitation. Ask him who was his favorite Oriole of all-time and he'd struggle, because he loved so many of those guys: Frank and Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell, Jim Palmer and Cal Ripken. And, of course, Eddie Murray. No one was closer to the enigmatic Murray than Hendricks.

Elrod could tell you stories to explain why Murray was misunderstood. He could tell you stories about an 8-year-old Rafael Palmeiro running onto the spring training field in Miami to snag baseballs for his brothers. He could tell you stories about playing for Earl Weaver and Billy Martin and the insanity that ensued.

He would also tell you how baseball and its players have changed. How there is a lesser sense of camaraderie, both in the stands and in the clubhouse.

Most of today's players, he felt, took the fans for granted. They also didn't cherish their teammates the way they should. He blamed technology, such as video games, TVs and CD players, as much as free agency for the chasm in today's clubhouses.

"You see," he once said in a professorial manner, "when there were rain delays when I played, everyone would sit in the dugout and tell stories. You'd have coaches and players telling great baseball stories. Now, these guys play their video games or listen to music on headsets and don't interact."

That's why nearly every time it rained before games in Baltimore, you could find Elrod sitting in the dugout, twirling a bat and holding court for whoever trickled by. Occasionally, I'd find myself there, listening and laughing to this .220 lifetime hitter whose kindness and personality made him into a team legend.

To a man, from owner Peter Angelos to executive vice president Mike Flanagan to manager Sam Perlozzo, everyone understands what Hendricks meant to this franchise and city.

Hopefully, the club soon will announce the retirement of Hendricks' No. 44, allowing him to join Murray and the Robinsons, Palmer, Ripken and Weaver in that honored group.

On the day of that ceremony, there surely will be plenty of men and women in the stands telling their kids about Hendricks. Not about the player so much as the man in the shin guards who gave them their first autograph.

And their 10th and 15th and 20th, too. And how they always went back for more.

Because he was an Oriole. But, mostly, because he was Elrod.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com