By Andrew Harris, 11/18/21
The last time me and my uncle, Bill Hendrick, sat down to talk about the Wellsville Braves and the impact of baseball on Wellsville I was overwhelmed.
My knowledge of the history is limited despite the fact that my family played a big part in the team management. George B. Harris Sr., my great-grandfather, was the team president during the Braves famous 1956, 1959, and 1960 league championships. During those three years, Wellsville, NY and the team both enjoyed some glory days.
Uncle Bill was right in the middle of it as a hard core fan. He remembers Al Monchak, who was the manager of the Braves during the 1956 Championship season.
Harry Minor stands out as a baseball hero who became a lifelong friend. Minor was the manager(and player) of the 1958-1960 seasons where his team won two of the three league championships. Hendrick recalls that sometimes the team manager would also play ball:
“Sure, it was common in that league for the manager of the team to also play on the team. They mostly played the role of substitute if someone was injured or sick on the team. Harry Minor could play any position they needed him and do it very well!”
Harry was a big guy, about 6’2 and 210 pounds. He and his family lived in Long Beach, California and would migrate to Wellsville for baseball season, occupying the team home on Harder Place in Wellsville. Minor, his wife, and four kids were fixtures around town and at the games, and he and Hendrick became great friends. After the 1960 championship, Harry left town and became a scout for the major leagues, going on to a fabled career with the NY Mets.
After a few years working for the Braves and other teams, Minor found a lifelong home with the Mets organization. As a talent scout, many of the names he has helped sign include Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Lenny Dykstra, Mookie Wilson, Wally Backman, Kevin Mitchell and Kevin Elster. Harry Minor also had a hand in developing the careers of Hall of Fame caliber players like Roy White and Pete Rose. In 2013 Minor was inducted into the NY Mets Hall of Fame and he passed away in 2017 in Long Beach, CA.
Uncle Bill and Harry Minor kept in touch over the decades, they got to know each others families and Harry was always ready to keep Bill Hendrick up to speed on the latest in professional baseball. Read Harry’s Wikipedia page.
Don Zimmer, a legendary major league manager, got is start in the Pony League playing for the Hornell Dodgers. Hornell and Wellsville played many games at Tullar Field and Uncle Bill remembers Zimmer as a high profile member of the opposing team.
“I know I did a lot hollering at him from the sidelines because the Braves and the Dodgers had quite a rivalry. Zimmer later became famous for being pushed down to the ground by Pedro Martinez during a big fight between Zimmer’s Yankees and the Red Sox.”
The Wellsville Braves put out some big league pitchers as Hendrick recalls, including “knuckleballer,’ Phil Niekro. This Hall of Fame pitcher threw about ten games in Wellsville before this interaction with then team manager Harry Minor, from the Society for American Baseball Research:
“The Braves waited until the next spring to have Niekro report. He was assigned to the Braves’ Class-D team in Wellsville, New York, where he got into 10 games, but his work was not impressive. One day, Phil went to the ballpark early and saw a big car parked on Main Street. “I recognized the driver from spring training in Waycross. He was a big-money guy. I thought to myself, ‘Uh-oh, somebody’s getting released today.’”
In the clubhouse, manager Harry Minor called Phil into his office. “The Braves are sending us two new players,” Minor said. “We’re going to release you.” Niekro recalled, “The first thing I thought about was that I was going to end up like my dad, in a coal mine. Or in a steel mill. I had my chance, and I screwed it up. So, I just sat there and finally said, ‘I’m not going! Harry, I need to play, I just need to play!’”
Of all the players, managers, scouts and other baseball greats Bill Hendrick became lifelong friends with, Elrod Hendrick stands out. The same last name sure didn’t hurt, but Bill and Elrod are not related. The famous Baltimore Orioles and NY Yankee catcher was behind the plate for the famous Wellsville Braves 1960 championship season.
The friendship started in a unique way, while Bill Hendrick was working in the Loblaws grocery story one day. Elrod had gotten hurt in a recent game and had a doctors appointment across town. The injury was his foot, so he walked into Loblaw’s, saw Bill and told him what was going on.
“He came in, limping and complaining about having to get to the doctor about his injured foot. I was stuck working so I tossed him my car keys and told him he could borrow my car for the appointment.”
Elrod Hendrick’s career had plenty of highlights, but as Don Zimmer is remembered for a brawl, Elrod’s legacy is punctuated by one event. During the 1970 World Series, as a runner was approaching home plate, Elrod was positioned to catch and tag the runner. What happened next is documented on Elrod’s Wikipedia page:
“He was involved in the most controversial play of the 1970 World Series when the Cincinnati Reds were batting against the Orioles with one out and the score tied at three in the sixth inning of Game 1. With runners Tommy Helms at first base and Bernie Carbo at third, pinch hitter Ty Cline hit a Baltimore chop off Jim Palmer who, while running towards home plate, immediately signaled to Hendricks that Carbo was trying to score from third. Hendricks fielded the ball barehanded, spun around to his left and lunged at an oncoming Carbo in an attempt to tag him out, but collided with umpire Ken Burkhart who, while positioning himself to judge whether the batted ball was fair, accidentally blocked the runner’s path to the plate. Carbo slid around Burkhart on the outside but missed touching home plate. With his back to the play and after being knocked down, Burkhart ruled Carbo out even though Hendricks made the tag with his mitt while holding the ball in his bare hand. Having not been properly tagged out, Carbo unknowingly stepped on the plate as he was arguing, but the play was dead once Burkhart made his call. One inning earlier in the fifth, Hendricks had tied the match with a solo home run.”
Elrod Hendrick retired as a player and spend several years as a bullpen coach for the Orioles. Uncle Bill traveled a few times to visit Elrod and always got an invite to hop out of the stands and hang out on the field with his old buddy. Of all the memories Bill has about his friendship with Elrod, one day in Toronto stands out. As he retells the story decades later, Uncle Bill still shakes his head in disbelief:
“Back in the late 70’s Elrod invited us to come up to Toronto for a Yankees game. We were just getting settled into the hotel and Elrod nudges me with his elbow and says, ‘Hey lets go grab a cold beer in the bar.’ I said sure and we grabbed a drink and sat down at a table full of other players. When I looked across the table I just about fell out of my chair: There sat Yogi Berra, smoking his famous cigar and Yankee manager Billy Martin. We had the greatest time just talking baseball like any group of guys in a bar. I’ll never forget that day with Elrod!!!”
Elrod passed away in 2005 in Maryland but left behind a great legacy that all started with baseball in Wellsville NY.
Keep your eye on the ball as we will have part three of this series focusing on the community members and efforts that made Wellsville a legendary baseball town.