This post was written by Rob (Tie Dyed) two years ago this week. I still get get goosebumps when I read it. By the way, after you enjoy reading this post, check out this interview by MMO’s Jim Mancari who spoke with Mrs. Hodges a few weeks ago.
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Without a doubt the most beloved player in the history of the Mets is Tom Seaver. However, when Seaver was asked who he thought the honor should go to, without hesitation he referred to his former manager. He called Gil Hodges, “The most important person to ever wear a Mets uniform.” Seaver would go on to boast that Hodges was “The most influential person in my career. He set the standard for players on the field and even for the front office.”
When we think back to the miracle year of 1969, the names of Seaver, Agee, Swoboda and Clendenon come to mind. The manager of that club, Gil Hodges, almost is an afterthought. And for a man with the dignity and grace of Hodges, that suited him just fine. Look back at the many videos and photos of that Championship. One would be hard pressed to find any pictures of Hodges celebrating. That was not his style. He preferred to stay in the background and let others revel in success.
Throughout his career as both player and manager, Hodges remained the quintessential professional. Quiet. He simply went about business, did his job. And always succeeded.
Born on April 4, 1924 in Princeton, Indiana, Hodges was a star athlete at Petersburg H.S. where he earned 7 varsity letters in baseball, football, basketball and track. In 1941, he declined a contract from the Detroit Tigers, opting instead to go to St. Joseph’s College. Hodges dream was to one day become a collegiate coach. Ultimately, however, he was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1943 but appeared in only 1 game. He entered the United States Marines during WW II and served as an anti-aircraft gunner. He fought at the battles Okinawa and Tinian and was ultimately awarded a Bronze Star for bravery and courage.
After serving his country, he returned to the Dodgers in 1947 as their catcher, but was quickly moved to 1B to make room for Brooklyn’s young prospect, Roy Campanella. The change in position worked out well. Over his 18 year career, Hodges achieved a remarkable 992 fielding percentage, an amazing accomplishment for first basemen.
Hodges was frequently overshadowed by his Brooklyn teammates. Playing alongside Hall of Famers Campanella, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider and Pee Wee Reese, Hodges was the quiet leader of the team. He never had that one huge “career year:” Instead, he was the model of consistency. His career numbers were not great. But they were very very good. In 2071 games, Gil amassed 1921 hits, 370 HR’s (the most by a right handed hitter in NL history at the time of his retirement), 1274 RBI’s, 1105 Runs, a career 273 BA, 359 OBP and 487 Slugging Percentage. He was a 3-time Gold Glove winner and an 8 time All-Star. For the decade of the 1950′s, only teammate Duke Snider compiled more HR’s and RBI’s in the National League.
The highlight of his career came on August 31, 1950, when he hit 4 HR’s in a single game. Each round tripper came against a different pitcher, the first one being hit against Warren Spahn. Brooklyn reliever Clem Labine said of Hodges, “Gil was the only player I can remember whom the fans never, and I mean never, booed.”
At the twilight of his career, hobbled by bad knees and diminishing talent, Hodges was given the chance to return to the city he loved. In 1962, he came back to New York to play with the new expansion team, the Mets. He would hit the first HR in Mets history.
In 1963, Hodges took over as manager of the hapless Washington Senators, arguably the least successful team in baseball history. However, for 4 straight seasons, Hodges increased the win total every year.
While managing the Senators in 1965, aging pitcher Ryne Duren was battling personal demons. Sinking into a deep depression because his skills were fading and losing a battle with alcoholism, one night a drunken Duren walked to a bridge and threatened to jump. It was his manager, Gil Hodges, whose calm demeanor and soothing words, brought Duren back from the brink.
Once again, Hodges was given the opportunity to return to the city he cherished. In 1968, he took over as skipper of the Mets. That year the Mets topped the 70 win mark for the first time. And the following year, 1969…well, we all know what happened.
Dodger teammate Carl Erskine once said of Hodges, “Everybody respected him, teammates and opponents alike.” That respect carried over to his time as manager. On July 30,1969, the Mets were playing in Houston. Left fielder Cleon Jones was New York’s hitting star. He was on his way to hitting 340 that season, which still stands as the 2nd highest in Mets history. Cleon, however, did not hustle on a ball hit to the outfield. What did Hodges do? He did not wait until after the inning to talk to Cleon. He did not wave him off the field. Instead, Hodges called ‘time,’ emerged from the dugout, took a long slow deliberate trek all the way out to LF and personally escorted his young star back to the dugout. Can you imagine something like that happening today? Ralph Kiner referred to that one incident as ‘The turning point of the 1969 season.’ That’s the kind of man, of spirit, Gil Hodges was. Vin Scully, who broadcast part of Hodges’ career in both Brooklyn and Los Angeles, called Gil, “One of the classiest men to ever put on a uniform.”
It was April 2, 1972. The Mets had an off day from Spring Training. Hodges and some of his coaches decided to enjoy the weather and play a round of golf. Unexpectedly and to the shock of baseball fans from New York to Los Angeles, Gil Hodges died suddenly of a heart attack just 2 days shy of his 48th birthday. He was laid to rest at Holy Cross Cemetery in Brooklyn, just a short stroll from where Ebbets Field once stood.