Dave Henderson 1958-2015
Dave Henderson, lovingly known around Oakland as simply “Hendu,” passed away Sunday from cardiac arrest, approximately a month after having undergone a kidney transplant. He was just 57 years old.
While I don’t know much about his career prior to 1988 when he signed with Oakland, I do know that he spent time in Seattle, Boston, and San Francisco and finished his career with the Kansas City Royals.
What I can tell you is that he was one of my childhood heroes, playing center field for the A’s with his friendly demeanor towards the fans and his smile with the signature gap between his front teeth. When he was with Oakland, Henderson was one of the biggest surprises on a team that won three straight American League pennants after signing in 1988.
Having not been an everyday player in Boston in 1986, he was still, for the Red Sox, the guy that seemed to be able to always come through in the clutch, helping Boston get to the 1986 World Series by hitting a key home run in game 5 of the 1986 ALCS against the California Angels.
He barley played for the Giants in 1987, but upon becoming one of the A’s most fun and clutch free agent finds, he set career highs in batting average (.304), runs (100), hits (154), slugging percentage (.525), doubles (38) and, at the time, home runs (24) in 1988. He helped lead the Athletics to what was ultimately a losing effort in the 1988 World Series against the Dodgers. He also helped take the A’s to the World Series in 1989 and 1990. The team’s only victory was in ’89, when they swept their cross-bay rival San Francisco Giants.
An All-Star in 1991 batting second behind the great Rickey Henderson, he hit a career-high 25 home runs. Unfortunately, after completely blowing out his knee in 1993, he finished up his career as a reserve player for the Kansas City Royals the following season.
What I remember about Hendu from my childhood was that he was always happy, beaming that great big smile of his, always being friendly with the fans (something I later in life got to experience first-hand) and was seemingly always playing his heart out. His love of the game was obvious, he was constantly having fun, just happy to be around the game, period. As he told author Mike Sowell in “One Pitch Away,” a history of the 1986 postseason, “I don’t think you should have a stone face. … I just don’t take this baseball stuff too seriously.”
However, the glory years of his 14-year MLB career came with the A’s, something I remember vividly, as I was at the impressionable age of seven when he signed with Oakland and 12 when he moved on to the Royals.
He wasn’t a perfect ballplayer, the way Mike Trout or Bryce Harper are looked at today. He did, however, always seem to be in the right place at the right time to make the important play.
The A’s 1989 World Series win over the Giants brings me to my fondest memories of Hendu, although they came many years later, when I was finally able to meet the great center fielder I’d grown up idolizing.
I first met Hendu at a charity dinner in 2010 benefitting the A’s Community Fund. I walked up to find my assigned table and was turned to my left, talking with my mother. She noticed Henderson sit down next to me and quietly attempted to tell me to turn around. While I meant to quietly turn around to see one of my childhood heroes sitting next to me, what happened was closer to a gasp of “Oh my!” and then the “Oh no what do I say now?” I couldn’t help it.
Hendu put me at ease immediately, extending his hand to introduce himself (as if I didn’t already know who he was) and allowed me to stammer on about being a big fan, how he was a childhood hero of mine, etc. There was no boredom or judgement on his face suggesting I was telling him what he already knew, the way some ballplayers can be. No, there was just that grin.
Once I was finally able to speak clearly, calmly and in complete sentences, I asked what is still one of the biggest and scariest questions of my life. Could I take a quick look at his 1989 World Series ring? It wasn’t even simply that the A’s won that season, it was also the fact that they had defeated my least favorite team in baseball (that still holds true today) in order to win it. Like so many others, that 1989 World Series will always be special to me.
I’d been dreaming about seeing that ring up close for many years. So I, rather sheepishly, asked, “Dave (I tried Mr. Henderson but that didn’t fly with him the first time – it was always “Dave” or “Hendu”), may I please just take a quick look at your ring?”
I was expecting to have to explain myself; instead, the answer I received was, “Of course, but wouldn’t you like to wear it?”
I was screaming inside.
After I’d examined it and tried it on, I went to return it and he refused to let me. Hendu told me (jokingly of course) that I was now his “wife,” and I should at least keep it on throughout dinner – a request I took full advantage of. After the meal and already having parted ways, I was on cloud nine. As we were leaving and as only Hendu could, he came up from behind me, put his arm around me, and said something along the lines of, “Hey Jen, you’re my wife now. The car is this way.” The entire event was priceless. It’s a memory that will stay with me forever.
I ran into Henderson several more times over the past few years. He’d always show up at the A’s Annual Root Beer Float Day to volunteer, making floats for the fans. He always remembered me and always asked if I wanted to wear the ring one more time. He had an extraordinary personality, a true love of the game and just a certain way with people that made the fans, at least in Oakland, simply adore him.
The last time I spoke to Hendu was at the 25th anniversary of the 1989 World Series reunion party. He hadn’t changed a bit. I don’t believe it would have been possible for him to be any other way. It was his nature to be kind, funny and friendly to all who crossed his path. He always had fun on that baseball field and always played to the best of his ability.
Dave Henderson was a once-in-a-lifetime player and person, and I was fortunate enough to be able to call him a friend. Now, he’s gone. He’ll be missed by everyone, whether they knew him or just watched his infectious way of playing the game.
Rest in Peace, Hendu. We will always miss that smiling face.