Gil Hodges was such a powerful presence that he often did not have to say a word to his players on the 1969 Mets. They always knew exactly what their manager wanted from them. They admired him for it and for everything else about his life in baseball.
They still do. They respect the fact that he led them to one of the most remarkable World Series championships in history and they admire the presence he was in the lineup and in the field for the era-defining Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s.
“I’ve forgotten the stats now, but I’ve always been a big backer of getting Gil into the Hall of Fame. He deserves it in so many ways, not only as a player but as a manager,” said Jerry Koosman, who pointedly avoided eye contact with Hodges late in the clinching Game 5 in the 1969 World Series for fear that the manager would replace him with a reliever. (It worked. Koosman finished the complete game.)
The sad part, for people who knew Hodges best, is that when it comes to his candidacy for Cooperstown, his presence has been overcome by his absence. He died of a heart attack on April 2, 1972, after a round of golf with his Mets coaches.
“Passing away at a very young age and not being able to be out at the ballparks, to be with the press and to be seen everywhere,” Gil Hodges Jr. said on the phone from his home in Florida, “well, the adage ‘out of sight, out of mind’ comes into play.”
There is new hope, though. Hodges is one of many players receiving renewed support after the Today’s Game Era Committee last month elected Harold Baines, a long shot whose original candidacy had drawn only about one-tenth of the voting percentage that Hodges did when each was on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot.
Plus, and possibly more important, the flip of the calendar to 2019 launched a 50th anniversary tribute to the 1969 Mets, a club that instantly transformed from a perennial loser to a stunning champion. Reflection on that achievement, marked by a reunion weekend June 28-30 at Citi Field during a Mets-Braves series, will highlight Hodges and possibly put a new shine on his body of work before the Hall’s Golden Days Committee votes in 2020.
“He should have been voted in when he was first eligible. It’s really a travesty, a joke, that he is not in the Hall of Fame. It ticks me off and I know it ticks Tom Seaver off, big time,” said Rod Gaspar, a backup outfielder in 1969 who, under Hodges’ one-rule-for-all-players policy, was treated equally with Seaver, the ace pitcher.
Art Shamskycame to the club in 1968 and heard its then-new manager say during spring training, “You will not be the same old Mets.”
Said Shamsky, “I grew up in St. Louis and I got a chance to see the Dodgers come in. Gil was part of that terrific Brooklyn team that was overshadowed by the Yankees. But I knew how great that team was, with all its stars, and Gil was as big a star as anybody on that team. He was one of the best players in the National League of that era.
“You look at his stats compared to, say, Tony Perez, Ron Santo, Orlando Cepeda. They’re all comparable. He might have more in one area, they might have more in another area. Between the playing ability and managing the ’69 Mets, there is no doubt he should be in the Hall of Fame.”
Some of Hodges’ totals come up short against other Hall of Famers, including Baines. The latter had 384 home runs and 1,628 RBIs through 22 seasons. Hodges had 370 homers and 1,274 RBIs in 18 seasons.
But a case can be made that Hodges was particularly impactful, having been an eight-time All-Star and seven-time World Series participant (with a .267 average despite the infamous 0-for-21 in 1952 that evoked Brooklyn parishioners’ prayers). He hit at least 30 home runs six times and had seven consecutive seasons of at least 100 RBIs. For much of his career, there was no such thing as a Gold Glove award, but when it was established in 1957, he won it for the first three years at first base.
“And that was for all of baseball. They didn’t go league by league back then,” Hodges Jr. said.
While the Hall does not have a hybrid player/manager category, Rule B in its eligibility criteria says, “Those whose careers entailed involvement in multiple categories will be considered for their overall contribution to the game of Baseball.” By that token, his Mets players believe he should be a shoo-in.
“Everyone came of age under the leadership of Gil Hodges. He was a great leader. He was the right manager in the right place at the right time,” said Ed Kranepool. “He had that strong Marine background. He didn’t take anything from anybody. He put you in a position to win.”
Said Koosman, “He had the ability to read players and know what they could and couldn’t do, both physically and mentally, especially under pressure. And he never let any of us get into a situation we couldn’t handle.
“He had weigh-ins once a week so nobody would get out of shape. One time he came up to me and said, ‘You know, Kooz, I don’t think you’re in the best shape you can be in.’ He didn’t say anything more. That night, I knew he was watching me and I ran 10 extra wind sprints. He had a way of saying things like that.”
Warm and fuzzy, Hodges was not. Shamsky, whose book “Beyond the Miracle” will be released in March, admits he tried to stay away from the guy, adding that any time a player walked past the manager’s office without being called in was considered a lucky day.
There also was the matter of platooning: Hodges alternated righty and lefty batters in rightfield and at first, second and third bases.
“We hated it,” Shamsky said. “But it worked. Gil was fair. If he had lived, the Mets would have won a lot more championships.”
Hodges Jr. said it would be only fair if the sport would confer its highest honor on his dad. It would mean the world to Joan Hodges, 91, Gil’s widow.
“The qualifications for entrance into the Hall of Fame are not just statistics. There are other qualifications, such as character, such as a player’s morality,” Hodges Jr. said. “In those areas, I would put my father up against anyone. I meet people every day who talk about him like they had dinner with him last week.”
Tommy Lasorda, 92, the Hall of Fame manager who was a teammate of Hodges with the 1954-55 Dodgers, would like to see Hodges’ name on a plaque in Cooperstown.
“It’s a sorry thing him not being in the Hall of Fame,” Lasorda said Thursday. “I’m really, really upset about it. I think that guy’s got be in the Hall of Fame. Look at his numbers compared to other numbers. Terrible shame.’’
Will Hodges ever be a presence in Cooperstown?
Hard to say. Would he have made a big deal out of that question? Even harder.
“I think he would have appreciated it,” Hodges Jr. said. “But I think what would surpass it for him would be the legacy that he left on this planet.”
With Steven Marcus
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