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Remembering the trade that brought Gil Hodges to the Mets

Mets manager Gil Hodges grips a baseball

 Mets manager Gil Hodges grips a baseball as he returns for spring training opening, Feb. 20, 1969 in St. Petersburg.  Credit: AP

The best trade in Mets history did not bring them a player, but it provided the architect of the 1969 world championship.

On Nov. 27, 1967, the Mets acquired Washington Senators manager Gil Hodges for $100,000 and righthander Bill Denehy, whose other claim to fame is being pictured with Tom Seaver on Topps’ “1967 Mets Rookie Stars” card.

That card, in good condition, is valued well over $100,000. Hodges’ value to the ’69 Mets? Priceless.

Denehy, who had a brief, injury-riddled career, has spent the last half-century being the subject of his very own trivia question. He once posed it at a sports bar and stumped the emcee. “Nobody at the bar knew it, either,’’ Denehy said. “They all applauded me. I won a dinner for myself and my friends.’’

Denehy has managed to have a rewarding life, overcoming a long battle with addiction and coping with the loss of his eyesight.

HERE’S THE DEAL

In the fall of 1967, Hodges had completed 4 1⁄2 seasons of managing the Washington Senators.

The Mets were looking to replace manager Wes Westrum, who resigned before the team could fire him, and Mets vice president Johnny Murphy suggested Hodges, a wildly popular Original Met and former Brooklyn Dodger whom the Mets had sent to Washington in 1963 after that American League expansion team sought a replacement for fired manager Mickey Vernon.

The Senators’ general manager was George Selkirk, Murphy’s former Yankees roommate. Selkirk, who had sent Jimmy Piersall to the Mets for Hodges in 1963, was not terribly receptive when Murphy, with the blessing of Mets president Bing Devine, reached out to reacquire Hodges.

His initial reaction, according to a report from that time: “Over my dead body.’’

NEW YORK STATE OF MIND

Though Hodges wasn’t a big winner with the Senators — his record was 321-444 — he had brought incremental progress and respectability to a franchise established in 1961 that has operated since 1972 as the Texas Rangers. Washington finished tied for sixth under Hodges in 1967.

The Senators knew what they had in Hodges.

“He was light years ahead of people, could see the whole field,’’ former Senators slugger Frank Howard, 82, who managed the Mets in 1983, said from Aldie, Virginia. “He saw things that a lot of others don’t see, one of the most fundamentally sound.

“Pee Wee Reese said he was the most talented player on the Dodgers. And he was an ex-Marine, clean-shaven, hair combed, shoes shined. He had that organization on the rise. He didn’t have the depth to do a lot of moves but he had us getting better all the time.’’

Murphy’s son, John, said that is exactly why his father wanted Hodges. “I was privy to a number of conversations, what was going on,’’ Murphy, 79, said from Sonoma, California. “What he was trying to do, the intricacies of trying to replace Casey [Stengel] with somebody who could actually lead this tribe of kids.’’

Murphy became the Mets’ GM when Bing Devine returned to the Cardinals’ front office.

“Everybody was keen about Gil Hodges,’’ said Michael Grant, the son of then-Mets chairman M. Donald Grant. “He fit the image of what you wanted to have.’’

“Mrs. Joan Payson absolutely loved my father,’’ Gil Hodges Jr., 69, speaking from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, said of the Mets’ first owner.

Selkirk eventually yielded to the Mets because he feared there would be no compensation if Hodges decided not to re-sign when his contract ran out the following year.

Hodges had no qualms about coming back to the Mets. He may have even helped steer the deal. His family still lived in Brooklyn and he had business interests, including a bowling alley. “I think Gil wanted to come home,’’ said Matt Winick, 79, a Baldwin resident who worked in the Mets’ public relations department at the time.

PUZZLING PIECES

The Senators wanted $100,000 — a huge amount at that time — and a pitcher for Hodges. The Mets offered Denehy (who was 1-7 in 1967), minor-leaguer Al Schmelz or .  .  . Tug McGraw.

“People get surprised when you mention Tug McGraw,’’ Denehy, 73, said from his apartment in Orlando, Florida. “He was at that time a minor-league starting pitcher. He wasn’t pitching that great. I was down in Jacksonville with him and he wasn’t doing great down there. The moment he came to the Mets and started working with Hodges and was put in the bullpen, he developed and became sensational.’’

The Senators picked Denehy, he believes, because he had pitched well against their minor-league affiliate.

In the spring of ’68, Denehy posed with Hodges for a photograph when the teams met for an exhibition game. A reporter asked Denehy which team got the better of the deal.

“I said if I make the team and win 10 games and the Mets stay in last place, the Senators got the better of the deal,’’ Denehy said. “If I’m sent to the minor leagues and Gil helps the Mets move up in the standings, I’d say the Mets got the better of the deal.’’

History tells us that the Mets were clear winners.

CROSSING PATHS AGAIN

Hodges was signed to a three-year contract for a reported $60,000 a year. In spring training, the rookie Seaver had the most prescient comment about the Mets’ new manager, telling Newsday’s Steve Jacobson that “suddenly it all seems real.’’

A year after going 61-101, the Mets went 73-89 under Hodges in 1968. Denehy appeared in only three games for the Senators. Denehy said he had rotator cuff issues in his right shoulder and received three cortisone injections before the trade and many more after the deal. “I had 57 shots of cortisone in 26 months,’’ he said.

Denehy said doctors later told him the abundance of cortisone likely caused the deterioration of his eyesight, beginning in 2005. He now is legally blind.

“In all probability, the cortisone got into the main artery that feeds blood to the optic nerve,’’ he said, “so in all probability, that caused the blindness.’’

In 1971, Denehy returned to the Mets when he became available in the Rule V draft. His manager was Hodges.

“It wasn’t like he threw his arms around me and said, ‘Welcome back to the team,’  ” Denehy recalled. “I don’t know if that was his normal aloofness or what. I wasn’t treated unfairly, but at the same time, I would not consider myself one of his boys.’’

Denehy said Hodges told him at the end of spring training that he made the team. He then was traded to the Tigers, for whom he appeared in 31 games in what would be the end of his big-league career.

EPILOGUE

Denehy was a minor-league pitching coach for the Red Sox in the early 1980s, then became the head coach at Hartford for two seasons. That ended in his firing, reportedly after he made remarks about an opposing team’s coach after a bench-clearing brawl.

Denehy also did some broadcasting and became a motivational speaker on a subject very close to him.

“I have 27 consecutive years without any alcohol or drugs,’’ he said. “My shoulder got so painful, the only way I could stem the pain was through alcohol and eventually marijuana and painkillers.

“Finally, in 1992, I was down here in Florida working with the Sunshine Network as an analyst for some of their baseball games. I checked into a rehab. I ended up going out to the Betty Ford Center [in Rancho Mirage, California] and became a speaker. I did that for several years before the blindness was bad enough where I couldn’t travel by myself.’’

Denehy had one year and 57 days of service time in the big leagues, short of the then-four-year requirement for a pension. In 1980, the service time was reduced to only 43 days.

“They didn’t grandfather anybody prior to 1980,’’ Denehy said. ”I talked to [then-union leader] Marvin Miller and he said they couldn’t make the deal, there wasn’t enough money to cover the pensions, but he said in subsequent agreements as baseball starts making more money, I’m sure they’ll take care of you. Here we are in 2019.’’

Denehy said he receives a ‘’charitable contribution’’ of $3,750 a year from MLB. He otherwise lives on Social Security and some small investments. He has help from a caregiver for shopping and doctors’ appointments.

A previous helper, he said, bilked him out of funds. His daughter, who lives in California, now monitors his finances. He said he does not have the funds to move closer to his daughter.

Denehy does not look back with regret. “In recovery, we say a prayer of acceptance,’’ he said. “So I’m going to have to be able to accept it.’’

Denehy watched the ’69 Series on television. “I was happy for them,’’ he said. “I’m happy for the guys who made history. I have no negative thoughts about the team.’’

THE CAST OF CHARACTERS

JOHNNY MURPHY, not only engineered the Miracle Mets, but also played on seven World Championship teams in the 1930s and ‘40s as a pitcher for the Yankees. Sadly, Murphy did not get to enjoy the Mets’ success for long. He died at 61 of heart attack on Jan. 14, 1970. Murphy was inducted into the Mets’ Hall of Fame in 1984.

GIL HODGES died of a heart attack on April, 2, 1972, shortly after playing a round of golf with Mets coaches Joe Pignatano, Rube Walker and Eddie Yost.. His absence from the Hall of Fame is a source of consternation for generations of Brooklyn Dodgers and Mets fans. Hodges will come up for consideration again in 2020, when the Golden Age Committee may consider his contributions as both player and manager.

BILL DENEHY appeared in three games for the 1968 Senators and 31 for the 1971 Tigers, finishing with a 1-10 MLB record. He spent the 1970 season back in the Mets’ farm system. Denehy coached the University of Hartford baseball team from 1985-67 and lost his sight in 2005. The 73-year-old resides in Orlando, Florida.

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