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Remembering Dave Henderson with a smile

On what would have been Hendu’s 60th birthday, the A’s celebrate the championship he helped win.

The late, great Dave Henderson.
Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

On June 23, 2014 the Oakland Athletics celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the 1989 World Series Championship Team. Today they will do so again, this time honoring them during their 50th Anniversary season in Oakland, prior to their game against the team they swept to win that Championship, their cross-bay rivals the San Francisco Giants. It’s an extremely fitting day for this celebration, as today also marks what would have been the 60th birthday of one of their own, the late, great Dave Henderson, better known to most as simply Hendu.

You may (or more likely may not) have noticed that this season I’ve already written two pieces honoring the other two members of the 1989 World Series team who lost their lives too young. Tony Phillips passed away just two months shy of his 57th birthday in 2016, and Bob Welch also met an untimely death at the age of 57 in 2014. Hendu passed away from a heart attack just months before Phillips’ passing. It was also shortly after having had a kidney transplant and just a little over a year after Welch, on December 27, 2015, at the young age of — you guessed it — 57 years old. Both Henderson and Phillips were at the Coliseum in 2014 as the entire team honored Welch the last time the A’s recognized the heroes of 1989. Tonight they will all be missed, but having this celebration on what should have been Hendu’s 60th birthday gives a reminder to remember all three of the players lost from a team that was unstoppable, even by one of the biggest earthquakes to ever rock the Bay Area.

Dave Henderson is best know by some outside of the Bay Area for giving the Boston Red Sox, who were on the verge of elimination from the 1986 American League Championship Series, a chance to break their long-standing curse. One strike away from losing to the then-California Angels, Hendu hit a two-run blast that kept the Red Sox alive and eventually allowed them to go to the World Series. Of course we know what happened in that World Series against the New York Mets, but his homer is still iconic and remembered fondly in Boston nonetheless.

He spent the first five years of his career in Seattle with the Mariners before being traded in August 1986 to the Red Sox. On September 1, 1987, Henderson was traded to the (ew!) Giants, playing just 15 games with the enemy before being granted free agency and signing with the A’s (whew!).

Hendu thrived, spending six of his best and most productive seasons of his 14-year MLB career with the A’s organization. During his tenure in Oakland he hit .263/.325/.445 with 104 home runs and a 117 OPS+. The most years productive of his career were in Oakland, including the year he made his first and only All-Star Game appearance in 1991. His important postseason performances continued in Oakland as well with the A’s winning three consecutive American League Championships and (as noted!) sweeping the Giants to become World Champions in 1989.

In the 1988 postseason Henderson hit .333/.385/.500 contributing a homer and driving in five. He played as the A’s center fielder in every game that fall, from sweeping the Red Sox in the ALCS to ultimately losing to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. During the 1989 postseason Hendu was again instrumental in the A’s success, hitting two of the A’s five home runs on the day in Game 3 of the World Series. He was joined in the home run barrage by Jose Canseco, Phillips, and Carney Landsford. Overall that October, Henderson was 9-32 with three homers while driving in three runs and playing on defense in center field in all nine games.

Despite his postseason heroics for both Boston and Oakland, his All-Star Game appearance, or his MVP consideration in 1988, Hendu will be remembered for so much more than just his baseball career.

In my mind he will always be remembered for his big smile and his huge heart. I had the opportunity to spend time with Hendu on a number of occasions. I couldn’t help but ask the first time we met, sitting next to each other at a charity dinner about a decade ago, if I could simply look at his 1989 Championship ring. That year meant a lot to most of us and instead of just letting me look at it, he offered to let me wear it throughout dinner, jokingly referring to me as his new wife. It was a dream come true to wear that ring for the first, but not last time, and the smile on his face in seeing my joy is something I will never forget. We’d meet again a handful of times over the course of the next seven or eight years before his passing; he always remembered me by name and that big smile was always the same.

It was the same one he wore every time he took the field, because to him baseball was just fun. It’s hard to think that any player could have loved the game more. But Hendu never sweated the small stuff, and to him baseball was considered a part of the small stuff. He had real, much bigger issues in his life than simply baseball — in 1987, his son Chase was born with Angelman Syndrome, a complex genetic disorder identified in 1966 by Harry Angelman, an English pediatrician. Patients with this disorder are often:

“prone to epileptic seizures, those with the disorder are impaired intellectually — their typical vocabulary doesn’t extend beyond 10 words — but research suggests a person with A.S. can comprehend far more than 10 words.”

Hendu loved Chase with everything he had, and the amount of love that man had in his heart, I believe, was endless. He was always there for him, despite being a professional baseball player. That is not often the easiest thing in the world to do — committing to the team and to your family — at least not the way that Hendu did. He was of course a big supporter of the Angelman Syndrome Foundation and on Opening Day 2016 the A’s held a special fundraiser for the foundation in his honor.

Hendu loved baseball, he loved his friends, his family and was especially appreciative of his fans and beyond kind to them as well. He will be missed today, along with Tony Phillips and Bob Welch, as the 1989 World Champion Oakland A’s are celebrated as part of the season-long 50th Anniversary in Oakland festivities.

Donate

To help be a part of finding a cure for Angelman Syndrome you can visit the Angelman Syndrome Foundation’s website or you can also visit FAST (Foundation for Angelman Syndrome Therapeutics). Both sites provide numerous ways you can help and/or donate!

Helping work towards a cure would certainly make Hendu smile. Helping to find a cure for Chase, and for others like him, would surely be the most special way to remember such a special player and person.