Elrod Hendricks was the face of the Baltimore Orioles. More often than not, that face wore a broad smile.
"He was a happy person and was loved and welcomed wherever he went," former Orioles manager Earl Weaver said.
Hendricks, who spent 37 years as a player and coach with the Orioles, died of a heart attack Wednesday night. Instead of celebrating his 65th birthday on Thursday, friends and family of the longtime bullpen coach mourned his passing.
"When you talked about the Orioles, you talked about Elrod," Baltimore manager Sam Perlozzo said. "Elrod Hendricks was one of the finest men I have ever met."
Hendricks helped open dozens of baseball diamonds in the Baltimore area, ran a baseball camp for kids of all ages and signed more autographs than virtually anyone who ever wore the orange and black.
He was, in effect, the team's unofficial ambassador. He may not have been the best player to wear an Oriole uniform, but his popularity in Baltimore was unmatched.
"We lost the most beloved Oriole of all time. Not only was Elrod loved here in the Baltimore area, but all over the country," said Brooks Robinson, a Hall of Fame third baseman with the Orioles. "Every ballpark that we would go into, he'd be the first one on the field signing autographs and saying hello."
While hundreds of players and coaches came and went, Hendricks remained a fixture in the bullpen for parts of four different decades.
"Part of being an Oriole was knowing Elrod was always there," Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer said. "You're just devastated when something like this happens. You feel like you've been robbed of someone you wanted to spend the rest of your life with."
Hendricks broke into baseball in 1959, played his first major-league game with the Orioles in 1969 and retired as a player in 1979, spending his last two seasons as a player-coach. With the exception of briefs stints with the Chicago Cubs and New York Yankees, the bulk of his career was spent with Baltimore.
Hendricks got most of the playing time at catcher on Orioles teams that went to three consecutive World Series from 1969-71.
"He was such an important part of my career, and a large part of our success in the 1960s," Palmer said.
Palmer's favorite memory of his former batterymate came in 1969. While working on a no-hitter against Oakland, Palmer walked the bases loaded in the ninth inning.
"Elrod came out to the mound and said, 'Boy, did we get ourselves in a mess.' He acted like it was his fault, too," recalled Palmer, who worked out of the jam and preserved the no-hitter.
No one in Orioles history coached more games than Hendricks, who served as bullpen coach for 28 years. He was relieved of the job after the 2005 season, in part because of the mild stroke he had in April.
He returned quickly from the stroke because he hated the idea of staying home. Overseeing the bullpen may not have been the most important job in the organization, but Hendricks took pride in making sure the relievers were at their best when they entered the game.
"I really felt like he had my back," said right-hander Todd Williams, who joined the Orioles before the 2005 season. "His words were always encouraging; he made me feel appreciated."
Hendricks didn't always say what a pitcher wanted to hear. If he had something critical to say, he said it.
"He wasn't going to lie to you," Palmer said. "He took great pride in what he did, and understood how to play the game."
Hendricks had a lifetime batting average of .220, but that had little to do with his value to the Orioles as a player. He was behind the plate in 1971 when the Orioles had four 20-game winners: Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Pat Dobson and Dave McNally.
"It wouldn't have happened without Elrod," Palmer said.
Orioles executive Mike Flanagan knew Hendricks as a teammate, fellow coach and, most of all, a friend.
"I've had a close, personal relationship with Elrod for the last 30 years. He was my first catcher in the major leagues as a rookie and he warmed me up in the bullpen for the last game at Memorial Stadium," Flanagan said. "My respect and admiration for him extends far beyond the game of baseball."
It didn't take a relationship of 30 years to appreciate Hendricks, who seemed to make a positive impression on everyone he met.
"There shall never be another Ellie," Orioles owner Peter Angelos said. "We shall always be grateful for the chance we had to know him."
Two days before his death, Hendricks dressed up as Santa Claus and distributed toys to needy children. He was perfect for the part.
"Elrod was great for us in the bullpen, but he was also a huge part of the community," Williams said. "This is devastating news, not just for the Orioles, but for the entire city of Baltimore."