That Essex Community College persevered and prevailed, winning the Junior College World Series, is underlined by a recitation of the numbers. Six-hundred-forty-eight teams, excluding California, were involved, beginning with a regional format and concluding in the grand finale at Grand Junction, Colo. It was fitting that in the process George Henderson, endowed with keen teaching and strategic baseball skills, was proclaimed National Coach of the Year.
At one point, Essex won 13 in a row, which helped add up to an overall record of 34-6. It was the first time in 35 years an Eastern school took the title in what has consistently been an event dominated by challengers from Texas and Arizona.
Henderson, who once declined an opportunity to be a professional boxer, was upset when his team was losing, 7-1, in the fifth inning to Blinn, Texas, and the opposition began to knock down hitters.
"I told them that was entirely unnecessary," said Henderson. "Blinn has a reputation for those kind of things. We made it known if they wanted to play that way we would accommodate them. They backed off and we came on strong to win by 13-8."
Along with the championship, Essex was awarded the "sportsmanship award" for gentlemanly conduct on and off the field. Crowds approaching 12,000 saw them play, plus millions via ESPN. On the return home, the school's new president, Dr. Don Slowinski, headed a "hail the victors" welcome that also included athletic director Carol Eustis and Dennis Eckard, who helped coordinate studies for the athletes.
Now Henderson is striving to sustain the program, which means attracting youngsters with ability to enroll at Essex. There's no such thing as a scholarship so what's there to offer?
"I explain our tuition is reasonable, compared to other places," he answered. "The campus and buildings are beautiful. The baseball facility is absolutely the best. We have a fall schedule and begin workouts for spring in January under the dome. We're predominantly a Maryland team but have
some out-of-state players, which can be important to your success."
Henderson spent five years at the Community College of Baltimore and now has completed seven seasons at Essex, totaling in excess of 400 wins at this level of play. Two major-league clubs have asked him about scouting the area and providing opinions on young talent.
"I refrained from giving them an answer. My dream is to work for the Orioles," Henderson said. "If they gave me a chance to scout or assess players, just as a test, they'd find out all about me. I once worked parttime for Harry Dalton when he ran the Orioles. Roland Hemond, the general manager, is a man I'd gladly work for because he knows how to handle people and build a club. If you have any doubt then study what he has done with the Orioles."
From the results Henderson has achieved, it's obvious he can coach. And he believes in himself, which is important, but not to a point of being obnoxious. "Baseball is my game," he exclaimed. "I could go to Podunk U. and build a winner. I know players and I can teach. You have to remember I started coaching in South Baltimore, a team called the Monarchs, from the time I was 12 years old. My assistant coach, Pete Hamilton, has been with me 42 years."
Henderson, a young 57, doesn't look the part of an old-timer but actually preceded Walter Youse to the Leone's team, which dominated amateur baseball in this state for three decades. He's elated two Essex players, Greg Boyd of Hopewell, Va., and Juan Johnson of LaPlata, signed with the Colorado Rockies and San Francisco Giants, respectively.
An interesting sidelight to Essex's conquest is what happened in a game against Rhode Island. Catcher Mike Peters hit three straight home runs, lining shots over the left, right and centerfield fences. Essex was ahead by seven runs. Then Rhode Island scored five. Peters came up for the fourth time and Henderson gave the bunt sign.
"The place went wild, booing me," Henderson said. "But we used that bunt to get four runs and put the game out of reach. Mike got another chance in the ninth inning but struck out. I wanted to see him hit four homers in a game, too, but the priority was to win. His bunt was important. I was deeply pleased for another reason. All 24 of our players got to play in the series."
When not involved in coaching, Henderson operates the Athletic Jacket House, which sells soft goods and is his main livelihood. He knows how to dress a team in style and then prepare it to score runs while preventing rivals from doing the same. It translates to being a winner.