Gil Hodges — my hero
It’s nice to have a bridge named after you, especially one so eye-popping if you catch it at the right times. But better for a ball player is to be voted into the Hall of Fame. I, like many Dodger fans, have thought it a head scratcher as to why Hodges hadn’t got there. Now he has been voted in and will this spring be enshrined where he should be. We’ll get to why in a bit, but first the memories.
I revered Gil Hodges differently than I did my several other heroes who played for Brooklyn’s Dodgers in the ‘50’s and early ‘60’s. He was like the Zen first baseman. He cast a calm presence over the field. When there was a scuffle that presence showed itself. When Hodges joined the scrum, it stopped. It seemed like it stopped just because he said it should. For that era of baseball, he was a big guy, 6’1”, 200 lbs. Ted Kluszewski was bigger, but not better. Hodges’ right hand didn’t seem to fit in the glove. The heel of his hand always showed as he wielded that oft-cited gold glove. When he was in a slump there was no bat-breaking, no bat-throwing. It was, so to speak, his cross to bear. When he made out or struck out at crucial moments in crucial games, he left the field with an air that didn’t say, “I failed,” but said “I’ve failed my teammates.” I guess when you’ve been in the thick of fighting in the Pacific Theatre and decorated for valor, there’s not much you’re afraid of. He was a Marine and like most Marines he was always a Marine. If there was a role model for a kid on the field, Hodges was it.
Hodges was deceptively strong. When he connected, the fielder had best be sharp. This was before the days of immediate stats that tell the speed a ball leaves the bat, how high and far it goes. When Hodges connected, it was usually a shot no matter its trajectory. When it left the yard, it left quickly. He was also nice. Hodges seemed to be as nice off the field as he was on it. He was an easy autograph. He’d kid around with kids clustered by the railing during batting practice. He was the “strong, silent type” but an approachable version of it.
When I was writing the first volume of my humorous memoir trilogy, “The War of the Itchy Balls and Other Tales From Brooklyn,” (Amazon.com) I had one of those “I can’t believe that happened moments.” Through a person I knew, I met Peter Bavasi who grew up in the Dodgers’ dugout because his dad Buzzi ran the Dodgers. Peter was friends with the Hodges family and asked me if I’d like to talk to his wife and maybe get an endorsement for my book. Suddenly I felt as I did when I was a kid chasing guys for autographs. He gave me her phone number. After a few days and a lot of deep breaths, I called it. And after an interminable number of rings, my heart racing, I was suddenly talking to Joan Hodges. OMG!
It was a lovely chat, like I was talking to my grandmother. She was all twitter because of preparations for the Shea Stadium celebration of Gil’s 100th birthday. She was worried sick that her health, which was failing, would fail her. A proud woman, she accepted that she’d have to be in a wheelchair, but her son was the MC and this was for her husband of decades and father of her four children. She must have had some Marine in her too. She told me she still lived in the house she and Gil lived in when he was a player. She was as much a part of Brooklyn as he was.
But none of this got Hodges into the HOF. The following did.
He played the game for 18 years. His career was shortened by his joining the Marines in WW ll. After a two plus years stint, he returned to the game he loved. Hodges was an All-Star eight times, won the Golden Glove three consecutive times, and was the National League leader in double plays four times. He had the most putouts, assists and highest fielding percentage three times each.
Hodges hit for the cycle (a single, double, triple, and home run in one game) and ranks with the legendary Lou Gehrig hitting four home runs in a nine-inning game. Hodges hit his four homers off four different pitchers in that game, the first off the great left-hander Warren Spahn.
And there’s more. In 1951 he was the first Dodger ever to hit 40 home runs in a season. Remember, in those days the ball was heavier, it wasn’t juiced, and neither were the players. He hit the homer to tie the series in that historic “shot heard round the world” pennant series with the Giants. In the ’53 series he hit .364. In 1957 he set the National League’s record for grand slams, and in the ’59 series against the White Sox, he hit .392.
More still. He was 2nd in the National League’s history with 1,281 assists and 1,614 double plays. He made history in the dugout too. As manager of the awful expansion team NY Mets, Hodges managed the team into the World Series against the Orioles. An overwhelming choice to get murdered, the Mets lost the first game and then won the series by winning four in a row. Lots of unhappy people in Las Vegas that year.
There is however another measure to understanding the relationship of Gil Hodges to the Brooklyn Dodgers. In Ebbets Field, no one was safe from the fan’s opinions. “Wait ‘til next year!” created a fan base that was knowledgeable and frustrated. Everyone got booed, even Jackie Robinson. The only player never booed by the hometown crowd was Gil Hodges. He went through some awful slumps. In one World Series he went “0” for the series. One blistering hot day, the story is told, a priest forewent his homily and asked his flock to do as the Lord would want and to say a prayer for Gil Hodges. That was the man who came up as a catcher, was moved to first base by Leo Durocher, and became almost universally regarded as the best defensive first baseman of his era.
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