The Miracle of the 1969 Mets actually began in 1968. That was when Gil Hodges arrived as manager and, according to people who were there, when the Mets arrived as a serious franchise.
"He walked in and his physical presence changed what was going on immediately," Tom Seaver said. "Then, when he spoke, it changed even more. When you looked at the size of his hands, it changed even more."
Those hands were familiar to New Yorkers who cherished Hodges as a star first baseman with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s and as a nostalgic addition to the original Mets in 1962.
Gilbert Raymond Hodges was from Indiana, but he was all New York. He married a woman from Brooklyn (Joan Hodges still lives there) and raised his family there.
Hodges, soft-spoken and a former Marine, was both a calming and challenging presence. He instilled discipline and demanded effort. The Mets weren't going to be lovable losers anymore.
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He was hired away from the Washington Senators, whom the Mets compensated with a cash payment and pitching prospect Bill Denehy. Hodges oversaw modest improvement in the 1968 Mets and did a lot of observing. He also withstood a mild heart attack on Sept. 24, 1968, and was cleared by doctors to work in 1969.
"I had a real affection for Gil immediately," said Seaver, a fellow former Marine.
Bud Harrelson remembers Hodges' encouragement: He told his slight shortstop he was "the strongest 148-pound player I've ever seen."
Hodges squeezed all he could from a limited roster, juggling the lineup to make sure that lefthanded batters played against righthanded pitchers and vice versa. He platooned players at four positions every day.
At a 40th reunion for the world champions last month, Cleon Jones, the leftfielder who famously was taken out by Hodges during a game, said, "Without Gil Hodges we wouldn't be sitting here today talking about the 1969 Mets."
Mets alumni believe he was on track to become a Hall of Fame manager but ran out of time. Hodges had another heart attack on April 2, 1972 - a fatal one just two days before his 48th birthday.